The Palestinian suicide attack that killed nine and injured more than 50 Monday at a Tel Aviv shwarma shop (the deadliest attack in more than a year) was widely seen as hardening the resolve of much of the world against the Hamas government and could ultimately lead to its collapse as leader of the Palestinian people.
"Hamas is rapidly destroying itself," said Steven Spiegel, a political science professor at the University of California. "Even though it did not commit the attack, it did not prevent it or condemn it but rather applauded this tragic action. And all of that works against Hamas. It makes it impossible for European governments and others to lighten up their harsh stance [against Hamas] when we have attacks like this."
He added that world "sympathy is now with Israel, and any hope that Hamas has a chance to succeed is rapidly dissipating."
The attack came less than three weeks after Hamas set up its new government.
Former Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said the attack was the "outcome of pressure imposed by the international community on Israel and [Palestinian President] Abu Mazen to enable Hamas to participate in the [January] election that enabled it to come to power."
Hamas in a statement Monday blamed Israel for the suicide attack, saying the "Israeli occupation was the reason for tension and continuing circle of confrontation."
Shalom said that in light of such statements and the bombing, Abu Mazen, the nickname for Mahmoud Abbas, must now act to dissolve the Hamas-led Palestinian parliament and government.
"Pressure must be imposed on Abu Mazen to take responsibility," Shalom said. "He can do it. This is the time. He should not hesitate anymore."
But Fordham University Professor Doron Ben-Atar said he sees no evidence that Abbas would take such a bold step.
"That’s a fantasy," he said. "Abu Mazen has not shown any spine in his career. Why now? He talks a nice talk, but he has yet to show he has done anything to stop terrorism. Words are cheap."
Shalom noted that when he visited Tunisia five months ago, he met twice with Abbas and "begged him not to allow [Hamas] to participate in the election. He didn’t do anything to stop them. And I told him, ‘They will replace you sooner or later.’"
Shalom suggested that if Abbas, who condemned Monday’s suicide attack and said it was not in the Palestinians’ national interest, does not act now, Hamas will replace him.
But Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ handpicked prime minister, was quoted last weekend as warning that the consequences of bringing down his government would be "grave." He suggested that Hamas would prevent the formation of any other government.
His comments came as he sent three of his ministers on a fund-raising trip to Arab and Islamic states (Iran and Qatar both promised $50 million) after the European Union suspended its $600 million aid package. At the same time, the United States suspended most of its $400 million donation, Japan said it would halt any further aid, and Israel stopped transferring about $50 million a month in taxes it collects for the Palestinians. Those actions came after the Hamas government came to power and refused to accede to demands of the international community that it recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements. In launching its fund-raising drive, Hamas’ exiled political leader, Khaled Meshal, reportedly said that his government needs $170 million a month, of which $115 million would go to paying the salaries of civil servants. And he noted that the government is strapped also with $1.7 billion in debts.
Arab League officials were quoted last week as saying that no money had been given to the Palestinian Authority since the Hamas government took office. Palestinian Finance Minister Omar Abdel Razek reportedly said his government expects to receive unspecified loans and grants next week to pay salaries, but he declined to say from whom.
The Palestinian government employs 140,000 people (including 70,000 security personnel) who support 1.5 million people, half of the Palestinian population. None have been paid their March salaries, noted Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York.
In protest, about 50 masked Palestinian police officers sealed off a main road in the Gaza city of Khan Younis last Saturday. They fired shots into the air and took over a building of the Palestinian Legislative Council. The demonstration ended peacefully, but Mekel said it is evidence of "anarchy" in the Palestinian territories.
Regarding the terrorist attack, which both Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade claimed responsibility for, Mekel pointed out that Hamas both finances and provides weapons to Islamic Jihad.
"Iran recently gave the Palestinians $2 million through Hamas to finance terrorist attacks," he said, adding that Hamas is just as culpable as the other terror groups in this attack.
"When [Yasir] Arafat was the Palestinian leader, Hamas took credit for the attacks," Mekel said. "Now that Hamas is the government, the Al-Aksa Brigade and Islamic Jihad take credit. They continue to play their deadly games."
Monday’s suicide bomber, described as a 16-year-old who lived near the West Bank city of Jenin, carried out his attack just two hours before the convening of the 17th Knesset and the swearing in of its 120 members by Shimon Peres, 83, the legislature’s oldest representative. Colette Avital, a Knesset member from the Labor Party who was sworn in as a deputy speaker, said a few members of the Knesset had suggested postponing the event in light of the attack. But it was quickly decided to proceed as planned because a delay is "exactly what they would have liked us to do," Avital said, referring to the terrorists.
Reuven Hazan, a senior lecturer in political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the swearing-in and the reception that followed sent a message to Hamas that "as bad as it is to have our Passover holiday marred, it will not impact on our democratic system and way of life."
"We will continue life in Israel as if there is no terrorism," Hazan said. "That has always been our way of dealing with it. Beyond the military response to the terrorists, what angers them most is that Israelis continue with their lives. The goal of terrorism is to terrorize and inflict fear, and on that front they are failing miserably."
Monday’s attack was the second in three months at the same eatery, Martyr’s Falafel and Shwarma Restaurant, located near the old central bus station. There have been seven bombings in that area, six of them in the last 39 months. In the last attack in January, a suicide bomber killed only himself and injured more than 30.
But this time, the bomber, identified as Sami Hammad, 21, was carrying a larger, 11-pound bomb laden with scrap metal detonated as he was being instructed by a security guard to open the bag he was carrying.
The January explosion "was child’s play compared to this," said Yakov Yisraeli, who witnessed the explosion from a nearby disc store. "There’s nothing to prevent anyone from dropping off a bomber right across the street there."
The blast blew out the windshield glass of parked cars nearby and left ceiling insulation inside the Middle Eastern sandwich bar dangling awkwardly by wires. Small splotches of blood were sprayed onto the trunk of one of the cars. The eatery was located on the ground floor of a dilapidated Bauhaus building at the entrance to Neve Sha’anan, a pedestrian mall in the heart of a south Tel Aviv working class neighborhood that also hosts illegal foreign workers. The canvas of an awning was ripped off by the blast. Windows of buildings nearby were blown out. Mordechai Atar, the owner of a produce grocery across the street, said he was busy fastening cardboard cartons at the time of the blast and was thrown about a foot into the air.
One witness said sidewalk tables were full of patrons.
Stewart Ain is a staff writer; Joshua Mitnick is an Israel correspondent.