Palestinian's suicide bombing in seaside Israel shakes truce

Teenage bomber, 3 others die in blast in Netanya

Abbas denounces attack

July 13, 2005|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NETANYA, Israel - A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up yesterday on a busy crosswalk near a shopping mall in this seaside city, killing himself and three others and shattering a period of relative calm the country has enjoyed since a truce five months ago.

But Israeli officials sounded determined not to let the bombing disrupt next month's evacuation of 8,500 settlers from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank, a plan - known as disengagement - that Palestinians and Israelis hope will help them restart the stalled peace process.

"The disengagement will take place. What's going to stop is the fire," said Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

In an unusually strong condemnation of the attack, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas called the bombing "a crime against the Palestinian people."

"Those traitors are working against the Palestinian interest. There is no rational man who can do those things on the eve of the Israeli withdrawal," Abbas said. "They did a stupid thing that they should be punished for."

The Israeli media were reporting last night that the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the bombing. Israeli police and Palestinian security identified the bomber as Ahmed Abu Khalil, 18, a member of Islamic Jihad from the West Bank village of Atil, 8 miles east of Netanya.

"We reiterate our commitment to calm, but we have to retaliate for Israeli violations," Khalil said in a farewell video, according to Israeli media reports.

The bomber detonated a belt loaded with 22 pounds of explosives and ball bearings a little before 7 p.m., while walking across the street near the crowded Hasharon Mall, police said.

Witnesses said the streets were crowded with shoppers, many of them teenagers out of school for the summer. Others had flocked downtown to watch a parade scheduled in the heart of this city of 193,000 people on the Mediterranean coast.

The blast shattered the mall's windows and car windshields, tore apart a road sign and scattered pieces of flesh and debris across the intersection.

Dozens of people were injured, about six of them seriously, police said.

Nissin Giladi, 75, of Netanya, said he saw the bomber blow himself up while standing next to six people crossing the street along with him.

"There was young woman with books. A woman lost her leg. The terrorist flew over the cars along with pieces of flesh," he said.

The crosswalk was littered with charred pieces of clothing and parts of victims' bodies. A scorched book lay open on the pavement alongside a pair of beach sandals.

It was the first bombing since Feb. 25, when a suicide bomber, also a member of Islamic Jihad, killed five people outside a Tel Aviv nightclub.

In another attack, shortly before the Netanya bombing, a Palestinian man attempted to drive a car laden with explosives into a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, but the explosives detonated prematurely and the bomber was captured, police said. It was not clear whether the two bombings were related.

Islamic Jihad's leaders have said they would respect the truce - as other militant groups have promised since February - though they would reserve the right to retaliate against what they consider Israeli violations, such as arresting Islamic Jihad members. In recent months, they have been responsible for a number of attacks, including the recent shooting death of a West Bank settler.

Israeli officials said yesterday that they remain committed to the truce, although that would not last unless Abbas and the Palestinian Authority do more to disarm and disband Palestinian militant groups.

Gissin dismissed the truce as "not worth the paper it's written on" because Palestinians have failed to meet their side of the agreement.

"If we see the Palestinians fail to do their part, we will have to go back to measures we have refrained from taking like military action and targeted assassinations. We will have to go back to these effective measures," Gissin said.

Yesterday's bombing came amid the tumult created by Sharon's plan to uproot settlers from 21 settlements in Gaza and four others in the northern West Bank. Polls indicate that the majority of the Israeli public supports the move, although a strong and vocal minority of Jewish settlers and their supporters have vowed to derail the plan through civil disobedience.

Members of the Yesha Council, representing settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, seized on the Netanya bombing as an example of the chaos that would erupt from Palestinians if Israel pushes ahead with the evacuation.

"The disengagement is exploding in our faces. In response to the attacks we call upon the Prime Minister to stop implementing the plan immediately before the wave of attacks reaches new heights," their statement said.

Netanya Mayor Miriam Fireberg, who was nearby when the blast occurred, stood across the street from the blast site last night, explaining that Netanya would always be vulnerable to attacks because the West Bank is just 8 miles away. Although Israel's West Bank barrier - a series of fences and concrete walls - separates the Palestinian territory from Israel, she said it was not foolproof.

"It's obvious that a single attacker will get through the fence. They don't stop them, not in London, not in New York. They won't succeed in stopping them here either," she said.

But Fireberg said she was determined to return life to normal in her popular beachfront community. While she was forced to cancel the parade scheduled for last night, she insisted that volleyball and swimming competitions take place as planned about a mile from where the bomber blew himself up.

The bomber, she said, "succeeded in making us a little sad but he didn't succeed to stop our happiness."

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