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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Had the terrorist plot gone according to plan, Saturday would have been a black day in the country's history.
Hidden in the trunk of a stolen Subaru, parked near columns holding up part of Haifa's Lev Hamifratz mall, were 100 kg. of explosives.
The explosives were packed into a number of bombs and mixed with ball bearings to make the blast even more deadly. The terrorists had hoped to detonate all 100 kg. simultaneously.
Nearby, blissfully unaware shoppers and moviegoers were exiting parked vehicles and entering the shopping center, located just north of the Checkpoint intersection.
A chilling scenario was sketched out by a police source on Sunday, who said the attackers could have been aiming to use their car bomb to set other parked vehicles on fire and trigger a chain reaction of exploding fuel tanks.
"Had the car bomb exploded, the majority of the cars in the parking lot would have gone up in flames. The gasoline in them could have exploded. This would have been a major terrorist attack," the source said.
The terrorists exploited the fact that the mall's outdoor parking lot does not require vehicles to undergo security checks, a procedure which has now been called into question, as the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and police investigators try to track down the terror cell behind the attack.
Since Saturday night, the police have kept a firm lid on the investigation, obtaining a court order preventing publication of any details.
"There is no doubt that a good deal of planning went into this," Northern Police chief Cmdr. Shimon Koren told Israel Radio on Sunday.
Koren acknowledged that the element of luck was decisive in averting tragedy.
He also praised the "determination and the bravery" of the police sappers who swiftly neutralized the remaining bombs in the vehicle.
"I promise the people of Israel that the police and the Shin Bet will reach the perpetrators," Koren vowed.
In Haifa, police remain on high alert, with numerous checkpoints and an increased police presence in crowded areas to continue in the coming days.
The recent spate of terrorist attacks, including Saturday night's averted attack in Haifa and last week's slaying of two traffic policemen in the Jordan Valley, seems an indication Hamas is concerned about paying too heavy a price for rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, and is trying now to stage attacks from the West Bank instead, government sources said on Sunday.
"If Hamas now believes that it is not convenient for them to shoot rockets from the Gaza Strip, they might activate cells in the West Bank," the source said.
The source's comments dovetailed with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's message to the cabinet on Sunday, that Hamas was trying to bolster its positions, infrastructure and ability to carry out attacks from the West Bank.
"Initial findings indicate that we are talking about a very serious terrorist infrastructure, which operated with great sophistication to [try to] perpetrate a large-scale attack with multiple casualties," the prime minister said of Saturday night's incident in Haifa. "We should not delude ourselves. Terrorist organizations' attempts to perpetrate attacks within Israel's borders and in the heart of the country are an ongoing affair, in which one of the main jumping off points is in Judea and Samaria."
Olmert warned that terrorists would try to carry out attacks in advance of Pessah, which begins in just over two weeks.
"The coming days, leading up to Pessah, are by their very nature days in which terrorist organizations will try more than ever to disrupt life in Israel," he said at the start of the cabinet meeting.
A "huge disaster was averted in Haifa," and that "only through the awareness of citizens and the quick actions of the Israel Police did a miracle occur and this terrorist attack end without casualties," he said.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said before the cabinet meeting that the terrorist organizations were continuing to try to carry out attacks, and the security forces were continuing to act to thwart them. "I am happy that in this case a combination of alertness by security officials and a technical mishap prevented something much worse," he said.
During the cabinet discussion, Construction and Housing Minister Ze'ev Boim called for the speedy completion of the West Bank security barrier, an issue that has largely fallen off the country's radar screen as the number of terrorism fatalities has decreased dramatically over the last few years.