RISHON LETZION, Israel – A suicide bombing at a pool hall killed 15 people and injured at least 60 in the city of Rishon Letzion Tuesday night.
It was the first such attack in more than three weeks, and the first since the Israeli army began pulling out of the West Bank's main cities.
Haim Cohen, a police commander, said the attacker walked straight into the Sheffield pool hall in this city of 100,000, 10 miles south of Tel Aviv. "He entered all of a sudden into the hall and then he exploded," Cohen said.
Suicide bombings had been happening every few days until Israel consolidated its West Bank offensive. But there have been none since April 12, when a bomber blew herself up at a bus stop in Jerusalem, killing six people while Secretary of State Colin Powell was in the region trying to end the violence.
Al Manar TV in Lebanon said it received a claim of responsibility for the bombing from the Islamic militant group Hamas. A Hamas spokesman, Mahmoud Zahar, told The Associated Press he could not confirm it, but said: "If it is a martyrdom operation, it means that Israel has lost its war against the Palestinians and the Palestinian resistance has proved that it is capable of reaching the enemy everywhere."
On Wednesday morning, police reduced the death toll to 14 plus the bomber, after saying earlier that 16 people were killed.
Since Israeli-Palestinian violence erupted in September 2000, there have been nearly 60 suicide bombings. An attack on March 27 that killed 28 people set off Israel's large-scale military operation two days later, aimed at uprooting what Israel called a "terrorist infrastructure."
In a strong statement with a rare choice of words, Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority called suicide bombings "terrorist crimes." It said it would "take firm and strict measures against those who are involved in this operation and will not be light-handed in punishing those who have caused great harm to our cause."
Public opinion polls have shown that many Palestinians believe suicide bombings are a legitimate weapon.
David Baker, an official at Sharon's office, blamed the Palestinian Authority. Speaking to The Associated Press, he said "it is clear that the Palestinian Authority has not given up its terror actions and has not given up its murderous path."
The latest bombing came as President Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were meeting in the White House. It also came amid efforts to strike a deal which would end Israel's military siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and allow the completion of the withdrawal from the West Bank.
Sharon cut short his U.S. visit to head home, while Bush offered him condolences and registered "his disgust with this wanton waste of life," a Bush adviser said.
Sharon said the attack was "proof of the true intentions of the person leading the Palestinian Authority" — placing the blame squarely on Arafat's shoulders.
"The battle is not done," Sharon declared at a televised news conference before leaving Washington.
Israeli Education Minister Limor Livnat, traveling with Sharon, told Israel Army Radio that Israel might expel Arafat because of the attack.
"It could be that in the end there will be no choice and we will have to expel Arafat," she said, adding that she had no indication Sharon had made such a decision.
Outside the pool hall, young women and men cried as they looked up at the bombed-out building. Emergency workers tried to help many to ambulances as police investigators scoured the area for evidence.
Part of the ceiling on the top floor collapsed. A sign read "Sheffield Club, snooker, cafeteria." A shop called Baby World occupied the ground floor.
Israel's Channel 2 TV said no security guard was posted outside the hall, despite new rules ordering places of entertainment to provide security.
Meir Nitzan, the mayor of Rishon Letzion, said more than 60 people had been taken to hospitals, some in critical condition.
Yeruham Mandola, a spokesman with the Israeli ambulance service Magen David Adom, said part of the three-story building had caved in. "Some of the wounded are trapped in the building," he said.
An Israeli woman identified on Israel Radio as Hanit Azulai said she headed home when she heard "a huge explosion."
"I turned the corner and I saw the whole building go up before my eyes."
Amit Elor, an off-duty soldier, was just outside when the blast occurred, "All of a sudden we heard this loud blast with noises. I went in to help. It's simply shocking what is going on here."
A U.N. spokesman said Secretary-General Kofi Annan was appalled by the suicide bomb attack in Rish Letzion.
"Such attacks are morally repugnant and only set back the prospects for a peaceful settlement," spokesman Fred Eckhard said.
It was not clear how the bombing would affect Israel's plans to withdraw from Bethlehem, the only Palestinian city where it still has a large military presence.
Israeli, Palestinian and international negotiators had discussed exiling 13 suspected militants in the church to Italy, but the deal was delayed Tuesday when officials in Rome said they hadn't received an official request.
A U.S. diplomat acknowledged the Italians had largely been kept in the dark.
All day, negotiators went back-and-forth over the deal, which would deport the 13 and transfer 26 others to Gaza, possibly under U.S. and British auspices.
One of the top wanted men inside the church, Abdullah Daoud, said he and the other 12 agreed to exile in Italy. Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said the agreement was sealed and he had ordered troops to prepare to withdraw from Bethlehem.
Bush has been pushing for Israel to withdraw from all the Palestinian-run areas it has occupied since March 29.
Sharon wants to sideline Palestinian leader Arafat but the Bush administration believes Sharon should accept Arafat as the leader of the Palestinians.
Arafat came under sharp criticism at home for agreeing to the deportations — considered by many Palestinians to be the bitterest of punishments.
A leader of Arafat's Fatah movement in the West Bank, Hussein al-Sheik, said approving exile set a dangerous precedent. The leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, called one of his followers inside the church, Aziz Abayat, and pressured him to reject the deal. "Sheik Yassin told us that ... anyone who accepts exile does not represent the movement's position," Abayat said.
The standoff in Bethlehem began April 2, when more than 200 people fleeing Israeli forces ran into the Church of the Nativity. About 75 have since emerged from the basilica.
Those remaining inside include the 39 gunmen, as well as civilians, clerics, policemen and 10 foreign supporters who slipped past Israeli guards last week.
Fox News' David Lee Miller and the AP contributed to this report.