TEL AVIV, Israel – A 16-year-old Palestinian laden with explosives blew himself up Monday in a crowded outdoor market in Tel Aviv (search), killing three Israelis, wounding 32 and scattering body parts and blood-spattered vegetables on the ground. The bomber's mother said the militants who dispatched him were "immoral."
The attack tested Israel's promise to show restraint during the absence of the ailing Yasser Arafat (search). Palestinian leaders — including Arafat — immediately condemned the attack, the first since a Sept. 22 bombing in Jerusalem (search).
From a military hospital near Paris, the 75-year-old Arafat "appealed to all Palestinian factions to commit to avoid harming all Israeli civilians and he appealed to [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon to take similar initiatives to avoid harming Palestinian civilians," Arafat's spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh said.
The blast occurred shortly before noon when the attacker detonated an 11-pound bomb in the Carmel market, ripping apart a dairy store, damaging a vegetable stall and sending screaming shoppers running.
"The explosion was huge, there was fire and smoke ... it knocked me over," said David Hayu, who owns a nearby butcher shop. "No one knew what to do. People were looking for their sons, their daughters, their husbands and wives."
The blast ripped off the dairy store's sign, covering it with blood and leaving loose wire dangling out of the wall. Lettuce and parsley splattered with blood were strewn on the pavement, along with spices and packages of children's socks.
Paramedics wheeled away bodies in black plastic bags. Rescue workers scoured the pavement and dug through piles of cheese and spices in search of body parts.
The attack was the 117th homicide bombing since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in 2000 and was the first since Arafat left for France, where he has been treated since Friday for an unknown disease. In all, 494 Israelis have been killed in such attacks.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a PLO faction, claimed responsibility, identifying the assailant as Eli Amer Alfar, from the Askar refugee camp near the West Bank city of Nablus.
Alfar was among the youngest Palestinian bombers — only one other was as young as 16 — and his parents lashed out at the militants who recruited him.
"It's immoral to send someone so young," said Samir Abdullah, 45, Alfar's mother. "They should have sent an adult who understands the meaning of his deeds."
Abdel Rahim, 53, Alfar's father, said his son woke him up Monday and asked for two shekels — 50 cents.
"Two shekels, that's what boys ask for — it's not money for men," he said. "He kissed me on the cheek and hand and left, and I went back to sleep."
The other 16-year-old blew himself up at an army checkpoint on Nov. 3, wounding a soldier.
Frustrated by Israeli security measures that have greatly reduced their effectiveness, militant groups have turned to using woman and teenagers to transport explosives and carry out attacks, hoping they would raise less suspicion at the dozens of Israeli checkpoints designed to capture bombers and other militants.
Also, Israelis say the contentious barrier they are building along the West Bank, which is one-third completed, has significantly reduced the bombings by making it harder to infiltrate from the West Bank into Israel.
However, use of children and teenagers has evoked criticism among Palestinians of the militant groups — harsh words that were rarely heard in the first three years of the current conflict, when Palestinians presented a united front, celebrating and passing out candies when relatives blew themselves up in Israel.
Monday's blast came at a time of growing concern about instability during Arafat's absence. Militants appeared to be signaling they are in charge, not Arafat's stand-ins, who have been trying to convey a sense of normalcy in Palestinian politics.
After the bombing, Sharon said Israel "will not stop its war against terrorism" and reiterated his commitment to disengage from the Palestinians.
"I'm not changing my policy until there are changes in the Palestinian administration and until it stops its incitement and its terror," Sharon said.
But there were few signs Israel was gearing up for a major retaliation, with none of the hurried meetings of top security officials or the heated rhetoric that usually precedes such a raid. Instead Israel called on the Palestinians to fight the violence.
"We want to see a Palestinian leadership, no matter who is in control over there, we want to see them fighting terror," said David Saranga, a foreign ministry spokesman.
Soon after the attack, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a 12-year-old Palestinian boy in Askar who was throwing stones at an Israeli patrol, doctors said. The army said it was unaware of the incident.
In Nablus, Israeli troops shot dead three activists who were wanted by the Israeli security forces, Palestinian medical officials said. An army spokeswoman said that during an attempt to arrest five suspects of the Fatah-linked Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, the wanted men drew pistols and the soldiers opened fire, killing three men and wounding one.