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'Passover massacre' at Israeli hotel kills 19

The banquet room of a Netanya hotel was devastated by the blast.
The banquet room of a Netanya hotel was devastated by the blast.  

NETANYA, Israel (CNN) -- A suicide bomber killed at least 19 people and injured 172 at a popular seaside hotel Wednesday, the start of the Jewish religious holiday of Passover. At least 48 of the injured were described as "severely wounded."

The bombing occurred in a crowded dining room at the Park Hotel, a coastal resort, during the traditional meal marking the start of Passover.

Ra'anan Gissin, a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, called the attack a "Passover massacre" and said the government would use all "necessary measures" to stop further terror attacks. (Full story)

Israeli television broadcast video showing a building with its walls blown out and stunned people being escorted from the scene by emergency workers. Victims were carried away on gurneys and police barricaded the scene of the blast.

"Suddenly it was hell," one of the guests, Nechama Donenhirsch, 52, told The Associated Press. "There was the smell of smoke and dust in my mouth and a ringing in my ears."

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The Palestinian group Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist group labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, claimed responsibility for the attack. Hamas has a military wing that has carried out attacks on Israeli civilians and military targets during the 18-month-old Al Aqsa intifada.

"This is a trial (attempt) to send a letter, to send a message, to all the world that we are trying to fight for our own freedom against a terrorist government in Israel led by Sharon," Hamas spokesman Usama Hamdan told CNN after the attack.

Israelis, he said, "have to expect those attacks from everywhere, from every Palestinian group." (Full story)

But Netanya Mayor Miriam Fireberg said, "This is a murderer who killed ... children, who killed women, all people. It is not a resistance."

The bombing came amid intense international efforts to lay the groundwork for a cease-fire. U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni was in Israel Wednesday pushing for the implementation of a plan calling for a cease-fire and resumption of negotiations. Saudi Arabia officially unveiled a peace proposal at the Arab League summit in Beirut, Lebanon. (More on Arab League summit)

But Gissin warned the Israeli government would not continue to tolerate the wave of suicide attacks which have escalated since December. He said Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat must bring militants under control before peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis could resume.

"There ain't going to be any negotiations under fire," Gissin said. "The continuing use of terrorism is going to destroy Palestinian society, not just hurt us."

The Palestinian Authority condemned the Passover attack, saying it was designed to undermine both the Zinni mission and the Arab League summit.

Bomber evaded heightened security

The continuing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis was the primary topic during the first day of the Arab summit in Beirut.

A medic carries a child injured in the Netanya bombing to a hospital Wednesday.  

From his home in Gaza City, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, said Wednesday's bombing was "a message to the Arab summit to confirm that the Palestinian people continue to struggle for the land and to defend themselves no matter what measures the enemy takes."

Speaking in Atlanta, Georgia, on Wednesday, President Bush immediately condemned the attack.

"This callous, cold-blooded killing must stop. I call upon ... Arafat and the Palestinian Authority to do everything in their power to stop the terrorist killing, because there are people in the Middle East who would rather kill than have peace," Bush said during a speech at Georgia Tech.

When the bomb exploded, the hotel was full of Israelis who had gathered to mark Passover, a seven-day commemoration of the exodus of the ancient Israelites from Egypt. Jews gather each evening after sunset for the Seder, a ritual meal. (Passover facts)

The force of the blast gutted the interior of the hotel, blowing out walls and windows and leaving a twisted maze of debris inside. Dazed survivors wandered out of the rubble, as dozens of ambulances raced to the scene to help the wounded.

The bomber was from the West Bank town of Tulkarem, Palestinian sources said.

Israeli police had been on high alert because of the Passover holiday. Israeli police spokesman Gil Kleiman said the bomber slipped past an armed guard at an entrance to the hotel.

Kleiman said police were searching nearby hotels for accomplices who might have helped the bomber.

"Nothing can prevent -- 100 percent -- a suicide bomber who's intent on blowing himself up and killing people," he said.

Netanya scene of earlier terror bombing

Netanya was the scene of a March 9 suicide bombing that killed two people, including a baby girl, and wounded at least 35 others. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a military wing of Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the March 9 attack and another the same day in Jerusalem.

Despite a call issued by Palestinian leaders last week for an end to terror attacks inside Israel, suicide bombings by Palestinian groups have continued.

"Every one of these bombings sets us back," U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said after Wednesday's bombing. However, he said, Zinni would stay in the region because "terror cannot be allowed to prevail, to win."

Earlier Wednesday, Israeli forces killed two armed Palestinians in Gaza after being attacked in two separate incidents during an overnight operation, the Israel Defense Forces said. The IDF said troops were responding to an alert in the area of Kibbutz Kissufim.

Two Israeli soldiers were injured in one of the attacks, in which Palestinians threw a hand grenade and opened fire, the IDF said.




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