Police at heightened level of readiness in wake of TA bombing

Mofaz orders IDF to continue intensive operations against Islamic Jihad.

tel aviv blast police 29 (photo credit: Channel 10)
tel aviv blast police 29
(photo credit: Channel 10)
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz held an emergency security meeting late Thursday with top defense officials in order to analyze Israel's security situation in light of the suicide bombing midday in Tel Aviv. Mofaz ordered IDF forces to continue intensive operations against Islamic Jihad, which took credit for the terror attack. Police were operating on Friday at readiness level C, the second-highest level, after a decision made Thursday night to raise the readiness level. Police said the heightened operational readiness was due to the threat of further Palestinian attacks ahead of Palestinian legislative elections on January 28. At the late-night meeting Thursday, Mofaz ordered the army to tighten the blockade around Nablus and intensify operations against the Islamic Jihad in Northern Samaria. The defense minister ordered that IDF forces beef up their presence in areas where the security fence is yet to be completed. "The Tel Aviv attack is a direct result of Iranian funds and orders handed down from the Islamic Jihad headquarters in Damascus" Mofaz said. According to a security official, details of the attack were sent to US and European officials to prove that terror is not Israel's personal problem. In what security officials said was an attempt to generate anarchy within the Palestinian Authority in the run-up to next week's planned elections, the suicide bomber blew himself up at a shwarma stand, injuring 30 bystanders. One of the wounded was said to be in serious condition and five others sustained moderate injuries. Islamic Jihad identified the terrorist as 22-year-old Sami Abdel Hafiz Antar from Nablus. Islamic Jihad has been behind the past six suicide bombings in Israel over the past year, and is the only faction to boycott next Wednesday's Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections. "If it was up to the Palestinian terror groups they would try and attack us every hour of every day," Police Insp.-Gen. Moshe Karadi told The Jerusalem Post from the scene of the attack. The defense establishment, Karadi added, expected that Palestinian terror groups would try and carry out attacks against Israel in the run-up to PA the elections. "They want to try and create anarchy," he said. Immediately following the bombing, Karadi ordered police across the country to beef up forces with an emphasis on areas along the seam line with the West Bank to prevent additional terrorists from crossing into central Israel. The attack occurred at close to 4 PM after Hafiz Antar entered the Rosh Ha'ir Shwarma stand on Rehov Salema 2 in the southern Tel Aviv neighborhood of Neveh Sha'anan offering clients there to buy razor blades. "He came in, tried to sell razor blades and then went to the back of the shop where he blew himself up," the shop's owner Arieh Sharon said. In January 2003, 23 people were killed and some 120 were wounded in a double suicide bombing around the corner from Thursday's attack. Police said the explosion went off in the restaurant's bathroom, possibly prematurely as the bomber tried to prepare the explosive device. In addition, police said, the combination of a relatively small explosive device and the fact that the bomber chose a closed-in shop as his target, limited the damage and the number of wounded. Tel Aviv District Commander Cmdr. David Zur told reporters the shop - located not far from the old central bus station - was most probably chosen for the attack since it was located in "a densely populated area with heavy pedestrian traffic." Karadi also noted that the area constituted an "Achilles heel," due to the relatively high presence of foreigner workers that makes the early identification of a bomber more difficult than in other places. Karadi added that police did not have specific terror warnings of an imminent attack in Tel Aviv. "This area has suffered from terror attacks in the past but there were not specific warnings," the police chief said. "We were lucky that the bomber didn't blow up within a large crowd because then there could have been a far greater disaster." Yehiel Ohana, who works in a nearby nuts store, said the bomber, who was wearing a black coat and black stocking cap, aroused his suspicions because of his unsteady gait. "The guy was standing at the corner of the street, looking like he was waiting for someone," Ohana said. "He swayed strangely. Then he went into the shwarma stand, and two to three seconds later, we heard the explosion. Everything shuddered. We entered the shwarma stand, and we saw him lying on the floor, and then we understood he was a suicide bomber." After the blast, blood, shattered glass and debris covered the ground near shops. The windows of a parked car near the blast were blown out, and helmeted security forces cordoned off the area. A crowd gathered outside the restaurant. An elderly man wearing a felt hat wept. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack and said that that its real purpose was to try and sabotage the upcoming PA elections. "This is sabotage and aimed at sabotaging the elections, not only the elections, but also the security of Palestinians," Abbas told reporters at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "The culprits must be punished." Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did not convene a special meeting of security officials following the attack, as has been done frequently in the past following suicide attacks. Rather, he spoke by phone with Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra, Chief of General Staff Dan Halutz, and other senior security officials to get a briefing on the situation. Defene Minister Shaul Mofaz, however convened a security consultation with senior military officials to discuss possible Israeli reactions. One source in Olmert's office said that the scope of the attack did not necessitate a full scale meeting, and that no military response beyond what is taking place on a day-to-day basis should be expected. Not convening a high-level security meeting flew in the face of some political sources who predicted that Olmert would "hit back hard" to show the Israeli public that he - like Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - could be tough against Palestinian terrorism. Contrary to some expectations that if Olmert did not take immediate harsh military action in response to the attack, he would "talk tough," Olmert did not release a statement in the aftermath of the attack - the first to take place since he started filling in for Sharon on January 5. The cabinet has received briefings in recent weeks warning of an expected upturn in terror attacks in both the run-up to, and aftermath of, the January 25 Palestinian Legislative elections. In addition, security officials briefed the cabinet two weeks ago that terrorist organizations linked to Iran and Hizbullah might step up attacks in an attempt to provoke a harsh Israeli response that would divert the world's attention from the Iranian nuclear issue. Security officials said they were not surprised that the Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack, and identified the bomber as Sami Antar,20, of the Balata refugee camp near Nablus. In 2005, the Islamic Jihad was behind most of the suicide bomb attacks in Israel, including the bombings in Tel Aviv, Hadera and Netanya, the officials said. "They are the only group that totally ignored the so called tahdiya [calm period] and continued plotting and launching attacks against Israeli," an official added. The investigation will now focus on the route taken by the bomber to enter Israel, who assisted him and drove him into Israel. The officials did not rule out the possibility that Antar entered Israel via Jerusalem, just as the bombers who were involved in previous attacks did. "Until the construction of the security barrier in the Jerusalem area is completed, the area will continue to be used by terrorists as a key entry point into Israel," an official said. Tulkarm and the surrounding environs are considered to be the hotbed of Islamic Jihad activity and serves as the organization's main headquarters in the West Bank. From there, cell members recruit others from nearby villages and cities such as Nablus and Jenin. The daily arrests by security forces to nab fugitives, often provides the security establishment with details of cells planning attacks, reveals the identities of those involved, and often the sites where the bombs are being made. In November, Iyad Hussein Abu Al-Roub,31, the top Islamic Jihad commander in Jenin, responsible for the Hadera suicide bomb attack, and was in the midst of planning further attacks in Israel, surrendered to security forces. Information gleaned from Al-Roub revealed that cell members were in the planning stages to launch a number of attacks in Israel.