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Suicide bomber kills 3 in Tel Aviv

In a grotesque attack that Israelis had been anticipating for days, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at a crowded cafe Friday during celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Purim, killing three women and wounding 46 other people.

An anonymous telephone caller to Israeli public television claimed responsibility for the explosion in the name of the militant Islamic group Hamas. It was the first such attack in Israel since Hamas and another group, Islamic Jihad, launched a series of suicide bombings a year ago that killed 60 people.

Waiters and wounded customers at the chic cafe, on a tree-lined residential street here, said a man in his 20s entered the restaurant carrying one or two duffel bags and then sat down at an outdoor table. Minutes later, the restaurant exploded in a flash.

"It looked like a battleground," said Gad Yaacobi, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. "Bodies, blood everywhere, a horrible sight."

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat publicly condemned the bombing as terrorism and telephoned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to offer condolences. But Netanyahu blamed Arafat's Palestinian Authority for having given "a green light" to extremists to carry out violence against Israel.

It was not immediately clear if the bombing would deal a crippling blow to the fragile Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Netanyahu, elected last May on a promise to get tough on terrorism, is under pressure from far-right members of his coalition government to cease peace efforts with the Palestinians.

"This government is not prepared to continue with a process in which there is a series of attacks," Netanyahu said, adding that he would weigh his options over the next few days.

The government slapped a closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, preventing most Palestinians from entering Israel. And security chiefs from both sides held an acrimonious meeting in which Israel demanded that the Palestinians rearrest scores of Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders recently freed from jail and that further violence be prevented.

The cafe explosion followed two days of clashes between rock-throwing Palestinian youths and Israeli soldiers over Israel's decision to break ground on a new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem. "The terror of bulldozers led to the terror of explosives," said Ahmed Tibi, an adviser to Arafat.

Police said about 6{ pounds of explosives were used in the bomb, which was studded with nails and steel ball bearings to maximize damage.

Purim is a fanciful holiday when children dress in costumes to celebrate the deliverance of the Jews of ancient Persia from a plot to slaughter them. The actual holiday is Sunday in Tel Aviv and Monday in the walled city of Jerusalem, but school celebrations and many public festivities were held Friday.

Israeli security officials and Palestinian political leaders had warned Netanyahu that beginning construction on the 6,500-unit project would likely ignite violence among Palestinians who want East Jerusalem to one day be the capital of a Palestinian state.

At Ichilov Hospital, Netanyahu angrily dismissed questions linking the construction to the attack.

"This line of thought is inherently wrong. To blame Israel for crimes perpetuated against Israel is a terrible line. To say that, in fact, gives legitimacy to terrorism. There can be no justification for the murder of women and children," Netanyahu said.

Still, many Israelis had expected a terrorist response to the groundbreaking and have avoided buses and other crowded public places in recent days.

The charred body of the bomber lay at the scene for several hours after the attack, partly covered by a blanket. Israeli radio and television identified him as a 28-year-old resident of the West Bank village of Zurif, near Hebron, but did not give his name. The army imposed a curfew on Zurif, prohibiting entry and exit.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.