Another suicide bombing in Israel, another Muslim sacrificing his life to kill and maim innocent civilians. Last week's headlines were sickeningly familiar, but this time there were some new twists to the bloody tale. The two bombers who targeted a waterfront Tel Aviv bar, popular with foreign tourists and just 20 m from the U.S. embassy, were Britons the first foreign suicide bombers to successfully carry out such an attack during the 31-month intifadeh.
At around 1 a.m., Asif Mohammed Hanif, a 21-year-old student from west London, allegedly blew himself up with a nail-filled bomb at Mike's Place, killing two musicians and a French-born waitress, and injuring dozens more. His suspected accomplice, 27-year-old Omar Khan Sharif, who was born and raised in the Midlands city of Derby, went on the run after shucking off his bomb-belt when it failed to detonate. In the massive manhunt that followed, Israeli security forces traced the taxi drivers who drove the duo in the Gaza Strip and from the Erez border checkpoint to Tel Aviv. Investigators believe the men initially traveled through Egypt, probably crossing into the Gaza Strip at Rafah about a week before the attack and using Erez as an entry point because, until now, foreigners needed only to show a passport there, as opposed to the lengthy interrogations they undergo at airports for flights landing in Tel Aviv. Both men were carrying valid British passports; Sharif's was found in his discarded coat and Hanif's in the bombed area after the attack. Back in Britain, antiterrorist police arrested five people in the Midlands and one in London in connection with the Tel Aviv bombing.
In Israel, investigators claimed the two bombers spent a few days in Rafah, where they joined peace activists of the International Solidarity Movement (I.S.M.), who were acting as human shields for Palestinians and demonstrating against the Israeli demolition of houses in the refugee camp. But I.S.M. coordinator Tom Wallace, who is stationed near Bethlehem, denies any connection with the men. He concedes that, together with many members of the public, they may have attended a memorial service in Rafah for Rachel Corrie, the American activist killed in March by an Israeli bulldozer. The Israeli reaction was to announce Friday that foreign peace activists in Gaza and the West Bank would be deported.
Could the bombers have tried to use the peace activists as cover to move around and pick up explosives, or perhaps to strengthen their resolve for their upcoming mission? Israeli sources tell TIME that the explosives used in the attack and found on Sharif's discarded bomb-belt were not the usual homemade variety favored by Palestinian groups in the West Bank and Gaza, but more sophisticated material that would have to be smuggled in from outside Israel.
There were also questions over the claim by the Islamic militant group Hamas that it was responsible for the bombing, in conjunction with al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement. Although Israeli sources told Time they thought that Hamas was probably involved in the attack, they believed Hizballah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese fundamentalist group, was likely to be the prime culprit. Unusually, Hamas officials refused to further discuss the attack. Says Magnus Ranstorp, terrorism expert at Scotland's St. Andrews University, "This is certainly a Hizballah modus operandi." Ranstorp cites four cases of Hizballah using foreigners or forged foreign passports to carry out missions in Israel in recent years. One was Jihad Shuman, a British-Lebanese, who traveled on his British passport as Gerard Shuman before being arrested in East Jerusalem while preparing a major bombing campaign. Another was Hussein Mikdad, an accountant for Hizballah, who carried a British passport in the name of Andrew Newman. The document was discovered to have been forged after Mikdad was found legless and blind when his bomb went off in his lap in a Jerusalem hotel.