Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israelis and Palestinians braced for an Israeli response Thursday to a suicide bombing in central Jerusalem, which killed between 15 and 18 people, six of them young children.
Scores more were wounded when a Palestinian terrorist girded with a medium-sized bomb blew himself up in the middle of the Sbarro pizza restaurant during the busy lunch hour.
The restaurant, part of an American chain headquartered in Melville, NY, is located on the corner of King George and Jaffa Road, probably the single busiest intersection in Jerusalem for pedestrian traffic.
It was completely gutted by the explosion. A team of Jewish religious volunteers clambered over piles of rubble and tables inside the building, collecting body parts and scraping remnants of flesh and blood from the wreckage.
Outside, city workers cleaned up glass and a street sweeper machine sprayed the remaining blood from the road.
The city center was closed to traffic for hours and most stores appeared to have shut down in the wake of the blast. Few Israelis ventured onto any of the surrounding streets.
A second blast two hours after the first sent police, ambulances, and news crews scurrying to the city's central bus station. But the suspected explosion turned out to be a bus tire blowout.
The suicide attack is the most deadly in Israel since a bombing in early June killed 21 youngsters at a Tel Aviv disco and wounded more than 100 more.
After that attack, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and key ministers - including the dovish Labor leader, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres - were believed to have decided on a massive retaliatory strike against the sources of terrorism in the Palestinian Authority-ruled areas.
However, sustained international pressure compelled PA Chairman Yasser Arafat to call for a ceasefire and Israel held off on responding. Israeli and PA leaders subsequently agreed to a U.S.-brokered ceasefire, but more than two months later, it has yet to take hold.
Sharon and senior colleagues were meeting on Thursday evening to decide on what course of action to take.
Political analysts said the choice was between continuing on Israel's widely criticized current policy of killing identified terrorists linked to previous or planned attacks, or to shift gears and implement the security plan the leaders made after the Tel Aviv disco bombing.
'We are in a war'
Israelis close to the bombing site were clearly expecting a strong response from their government.
One man who works in a bookstore near Sbarro and heard a giant explosion said the government had no choice but to react now.
Aryeh Rand, a native of New York who has lived in Israel for the last three years, was a frequent customer of the restaurant. He declined to say what action he thought the government should take, but said he expected Sharon to implement the plan decided on after the disco bombing.
Rand said he hoped that the fact an American restaurant was targeted would wake Americans up to the dangers Israel is facing.
Ze'eva, a 45-year-old Jerusalem resident, was heading for a meeting half a block away from the restaurant when the explosion occurred.
She said she believed that the government was doing what it could. "I'm not afraid. This is my country, my home."
Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, who remained at the scene of the attack for hours, said that the people of Jerusalem were "very upset."
"We are in a war, and in a war there are regrettably cases where you cannot prevent losses," he said. "We will act together with the government of Israel to reach every one of those who is responsible for terror, to hit them and kill them."
Public Security Minister Uzi Landau said Israel must continue with its ongoing policy of combating terrorism. It was not a matter of retaliation, he added.
Landau defended Israel's much-criticized policy of targeting specific terrorists. It was, he said, one of the reasons many other bombing attempts had not succeeded.
Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack, naming the dead bomber as Hussein Omar Abu Naaseh, 23, and pledging that "more [bombers] are on their way."
Islamic Jihad and the larger fundamentalist group, Hamas, have vowed revenge against Israel's policy of "targeted killings."
Senior Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi said he believed that the bombing was "the retaliation of the Palestinian people for the terrorist Zionists attacks."
PA Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said in a media interview after the attack Sharon was to blame for the attack.
"We have denounced any attacks against civilians," Abed Rabbo said. "This is the difference between us and the Israeli government. They declare their responsibility for assassination while we denounce them and we try to stop them."
But Israel points to the fact the PA has repeatedly refused to arrest terrorists, despite undertaking to do so in a number of previous agreements.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said President Bush deplored the attack.
"Once again it shows the need to break the cycle of violence and the need for the parties to come together and begin implementing the Mitchell report," McClellan said, in reference to a U.S.-led plan to implement a ceasefire and return the parties to the negotiating table.