PETAH TIQWA, Israel - A Palestinian suicide bomber killed two Israelis as well as himself at an ice cream parlor last night - part of a new wave of attacks coming after the end of a sweeping Israeli offensive into Palestinian cities.
The man strolled into the Bravissimo cafe early in the evening, sat down, then blew himself up amid a crowd of children and their mothers, killing a 60-year-old woman and her 18-month-old granddaughter and wounding dozens more.
The blast knocked out store windows in a new upscale shopping center in this Tel Aviv suburb, littering a pedestrian promenade with glass and carnage. The dead child's blood-smeared baby carriage lay on its side in a pile of plastic chairs.
Moments before the explosion, the sidewalk had been filled with people eating slices of pizza and dishes of Italian ice cream and chatting with friends.
Karine Alroee, 21, had walked through the crowd and into a medical office above the shops just before the blast.
Afterward, she raced outside and saw the same people lying on the ground, some in a state of panic, others in shock and many screaming in pain.
"The owner of the parlor had just been waiting on a customer and serving coffee," Alroee said. "Then he was covered in blood and crying.
"It can't go on like this. I don't know what to do, but you should be able to bring your child to get ice cream without being afraid."
Yesterday's attack was the fifth suicide bombing in two weeks in Israel, and the third to claim Israeli lives.
Back to Bethlehem
In the past several days, the army has returned to several Palestinian cities, hunting for suspected terrorists.
Early yesterday, soldiers re-entered Bethlehem, imposing a curfew on the city and arresting several suspected militants.
Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant wing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, claimed responsibility for yesterday's attack, saying it was in retaliation for Israel's assassination of one of its leaders, Mahmoud Titi, last week near the northern West Bank city of Nablus.
Palestinians identified the bomber as Jihad Titi, Mahmoud's 18-year-old cousin, but the identification couldn't be confirmed.
In a widening split with the militia group, the Palestinian Authority condemned the bombing, saying it "considers this operation as harmful to our legal resistance and to the image of the Palestinian people before international opinion."
Israeli officials, as they do after every attack, blamed Arafat directly and said he has yet to take action to stop or arrest militants, even ones associated with his faction.
They vowed to continue army assaults in Palestinian areas.
Since ending its six-week sweep through the West Bank to root out what it calls the "terrorist infrastructure" of Palestinian society, the Israeli army has conducted rolling incursions into Palestinian cities, villages and refugee camps almost daily.
Yesterday's move into Bethlehem, however, could last several days.
Church is surrounded
Soldiers took up positions in Manger Square and surrounded the Church of the Nativity to prevent a repeat of a recent 39-day standoff.
Army officials said the church siege diverted their primary mission of arresting militants and destroying links to terror. Two weeks after the army pulled out, a 16-year-old suicide bomber from a Bethlehem village killed two people in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Leziyyon, they noted.
"Maybe this time we should stay until we finish it forever," said Lt. Col. Doron Mor-Yosef, commander of the Nahal Battalion, which took over Manger Square yesterday. The army encountered no resistance in its reoccupation.
Some soldiers interviewed in Bethlehem yesterday said they do not believe that force alone can stop the terror attacks, reflecting a growing debate in the Israeli media about the effectiveness of the army's operations in the absence of substantive political talks.
But all of the soldiers said the assaults are necessary.
"People here believe in what they do, and that makes it easier," a 20-year-old soldier said. "It's not like we're going to Afghanistan and fighting terror. We are staying here, actually guarding our own family, our own home. ... All this city is full of terrorists."
Lt. Amos Goldman, 22, said the incursions work.
"You can see the result in Israeli cities," he said hours before the latest blast in Petah Tiqwa. "There are less suicide bombers, less attacks. It hasn't stopped, but it got less, and you can count it by the numbers or the feeling in the street."
`Door of hope'
Petah Tiqwa was founded in 1878 by religious Jews seeking to create an agricultural community. Built on a swamp, it became Israel's first modern farming village. Its name comes from the Bible and means "door of hope."
Petah Tiqwa has since grown into a small modern city with the kind of sprawl typical of U.S. suburbs.
The shopping center attacked yesterday is on a wide street of stores and modern apartments that resembles Route 40 in Maryland.