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Israeli Retaliation Looms
After Hotel Bombing Kills 16
By Mark Heinrich
3-22-2

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A suicide bombing that killed 16 Israelis starting a traditional Passover holiday feast in a seaside hotel has raised the specter of heavy Israeli military retaliation in the Palestinian territories.
 
Wednesday's blast, which wounded 140, seemed to have crippled U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni's chances of brokering a cease-fire soon and undermined a Saudi plan for a broad Arab peace accord with Israel unveiled at an Arab summit in Beirut.
 
The Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack. The Israeli government blamed Palestinian President Yasser Arafat for not cracking down on militants.
 
Arafat's Palestinian Authority condemned the bombing, in the Mediterranean resort town of Netanya, and vowed to hunt down those behind the attack.
 
But Israel's tough words raised the prospect of fierce retaliation after analysts on both sides predicted an escalating cycle of tit-for-tat bloodshed in the face of Zinni's failure so far to bridge differences over cease-fire terms.
 
The United States and the European Union bemoaned the latest in a series of Palestinian suicide bombings punctuating the 18-month-old uprising against Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
 
"I am horrified at the level of violence reached. Civilians on both sides are by now the main victims of a conflict situation which they never chose to be part of," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said in a statement.
 
"I appeal to the parties to find, at this gravest of times, the courage to pursue last-ditch efforts to reach a cease-fire."
 
In Atlanta, Georgia, President Bush said "callous cold-blooded...terrorist killing" in the Middle East must be stopped. "I condemn it in the strongest of terms."
 
DEATH TOLL MOUNTS
 
At least 1,106 Palestinians and 373 Israelis have died in almost 18 months of tit-for-tat violence.
 
Wednesday's was one of the bloodiest suicide assaults of the Palestinian uprising. In the worst such attack, a Palestinian blew himself up outside a Tel Aviv disco last June, killing 21 people, many of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
 
Zinni's cease-fire efforts had already been deadlocked before the bombing. The sides disagree over terms for implementing a truce that would pave the way for confidence-building measures and eventually peace talks.
 
The United States says Arafat should do more to prevent such attacks, but has also criticized Sharon for launching a major military offensive this month which included raids on refugee camps and brief reoccupations of some Palestinian cities.
 
Relations between Arafat and Sharon, who are old foes, also deteriorated this week as the Israeli prime minister refused to lift a more than three-month-old travel ban to allow the Palestinian leader to attend the Beirut summit.
 
The summit itself plunged into disarray when the Palestinian delegation walked out, saying Lebanon had refused to let Arafat address the meeting by satellite from his West Bank base.
 
Lebanese President Emile Lahoud sought to rescue the summit from collapse, and a Palestinian minister said later his team would rejoin the talks on Thursday, when Arafat's speech would be broadcast. The row threatened to diminish the impact of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's plan for "normal ties" with Israel in return for an Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab land and creation of a Palestinian state. His initiative proposes "normal relations and security for Israel in exchange for full withdrawal from all occupied territories."
 
BOMB DEVASTATION
 
The suicide bomb devastated the dining room of the luxury Park Hotel in Netanya, leaving wires dangling and chunks of concrete and metal bars across broken chairs and tables.
 
Corpses were lined up in white bodybags on the pavement. Rescue workers clambered through the wreckage and stretchered away dazed survivors.
 
Israeli media said the bomber walked in with the explosives in a bag as guests prepared for a feast at the start of the Passover, which marks the biblical exodus from Egypt.


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