JERUSALEM – Rattled by three major terror attacks in just eight hours Thursday, battled-hardened Israel faced the prospect of expanding its fight with Arab militants to include Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.
A shooting spree by Palestinian gunmen in northern Israel was grimly familiar. But a homicide bombing at an Israeli-owned hotel on Kenya's balmy Indian Ocean coast, and a concurrent missile attack that narrowly missed a chartered Israeli tourist plane departing nearby Mombasa, pointed to the possibility of an Al Qaeda assault, something bin Laden has long promised.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tapped the Mossad intelligence agency to investigate the east Africa attacks, with the government speculating that Al Qaeda was responsible. The group has threatened to hit Israel for years, but has not been linked to any previous attack.
"Israel faces terror all over the world, it's not just one front," said Eprahim Sneh, who recently stepped down as transportation minister.
In two years of Mideast fighting, Palestinian militants have carried out hundreds of bombings and shootings. Across the northern border, the Lebanese group Hezbollah periodically fires missiles over the frontier.
And Israel is gearing up for a potential barrage of Iraqi Scud missiles, as happened during the 1991 Gulf War, if the United States launches a military strike against the Arab nation. There are fears that this time the warheads might be chemical or biological.
The Mossad has a long record of tracking terror suspects — the agency hunted down and killed nearly all the Palestinians believed responsible for kidnapping and killing 11 Israelis during the 1972 Munich Olympics. But it has also bungled missions in recent years.
"Our hand will reach them," Israel's defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, said of the attackers.
In an audiotape recording released this month, a man believed to be bin Laden condemns Israel for "bombing houses that shelter old people, women and children with U.S.-made aircraft in Palestine.
"Our kinfolk in Palestine have been slain and severely tortured for nearly a century," he adds.
Israel's elaborate security procedures, developed in response to decades of attacks, have not eliminated the country's vulnerability either at home or abroad.
At Kenya's Paradise Hotel, where 12 people were killed by a trio of homicide bombers in a four-wheel drive vehicle, the Israeli owners employ some 40 security guards, hotel officials said.
Most public places in Israel, from shopping centers to restaurants to bus terminals, have security guards checking for guns and bombs. But a pair of Palestinians gunmen entered a polling station in the northern town of Beit Shean and sprayed it with automatic weapons fire, killing five Israelis before they were themselves gunned down.
For many Israelis, the most worrisome development was the pair of missiles fired at the Arkia Airlines plane shortly after it lifted off from Mombasa's airport with 271 people aboard.
Israel has been fearful of such an attack for some time, and before Sneh quit recently as transportation minister, he had initiated a program to defend Israeli civilian planes against missiles.
The plan would equip Israeli civilian with flares similar to those used on warplanes to confuse and mislead heat-seeking missiles fired from the ground.
"Technically there is such an ability, but it is not installed on most commercial aircraft, only on select ones," Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz, head of the Air Force, said Thursday when asked about Israel's ability to defend against missiles.
But such measures, like other Israeli steps to prevent attacks over the past decades, would appear to offer limited protection at best.
Rafi Marek, the pilot on the Arkia plane that was nearly hit, said he was not aware he was under attack even after the missiles streaked by, and according to several passengers the plane shook.
"We didn't attach much importance to it. I thought that it was the hit of a little bird," Marek told a news conference after the plane, with 271 passengers and crew members, arrived safely in Israel.
Protecting large, lumbering civilian airplanes from missiles is a complicated task, said Andrew Brookes, a former British military pilot and an aerospace analyst with the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.
"It's not just a matter of installing flares on a plane," he said. "You need to have security people sanitizing the perimeter of the airport. The plane can't come in on a sedate approach. It has to make the kind of hard, tight landing that tears off the brakes. This is not the kind of thing people want to do when they're going on vacation."
Boaz Ganor, head of Israel's International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, said the appearance of missiles, while not entirely new, pointed to a new approach in the "evolution of terrorism."
In the 1960s and early 1970s, terror groups hijacked planes, which led to the introduction of metal detectors and sky marshals. The 1980s and 90s saw terrorists sneak bombs onto planes, but that has become more difficult with sophisticated detection equipment, Ganor said.
"Now I think you'll see these groups use missiles to try to shoot down planes from the ground," he said.