Suicide bombing shakes Israel


HADERA, Israel -- A Palestinian suicide bomber detonated explosives yesterday at an outdoor market in this central Israeli town, killing at least five people and wounding more than two dozen, Israeli police said.

The Palestinian faction Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility and called the bombing retaliation for the killing Sunday of Luay Saadi, an Islamic Jihad leader who was shot in Tulkarm, a West Bank town about 10 miles southeast of here.

Israeli officials, however, expressed doubt that a retaliatory attack could have been mounted so swiftly. Typically, suicide bombings involve a complex interplay of explosives procurers, recruiters, handlers and guides, requiring weeks of planning.

The Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the bombing, saying in a statement that it "harms the Palestinian interests and could widen the cycle of violence, chaos, extremism and bloodshed." A few hours before the explosion, he had scolded militant groups for repeatedly violating a truce.

But Israel said the Palestinian leadership bore responsibility because it has refused to use its security forces to break up the factions.

"In those places where the Palestinian Authority fails to deal with terrorists, we will have to do it, and we can't wait," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon.

The attack, six weeks after Sharon's government completed the withdrawal of Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers from Gaza, was the latest blow to hopes that the pullout would presage a return to the negotiating table.

The weeks since Israel ended its occupation of the narrow coastal strip have been characterized by slowly escalating violence, coupled with rancorous disputes between the two sides over control of Gaza's borders.

The bomber struck while the central market in Hadera was bustling a day after being closed for the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah.

After the attack, the bloodied body of a man in his 50s lay on the ground among scattered fruit and mangled metal shards. Rescue workers covered other bodies with blankets, walking through pools of blood and shattered glass.

The attack came hours after Iran's state-run media reported comments from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map" and saying a new wave of Palestinian attacks would destroy the Jewish state.

Recalling Iran's history of support for Islamic Jihad, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev criticized Ahmadinejad's statement and one from Mahmoud Zahar, a leader of the Hamas militant group in Gaza who threatened fresh violence against Israel.

"Today, Israelis heard two extremists speak openly about destroying the Jewish state. One was the new president of Iran, and the other was the leader of Hamas, Mahmoud Zahar. And it appears the problem with these extremists is that they followed through on their violent declarations with violent actions," Regev said.

Israeli press accounts identified the bomber as Hassan Abu Zeid, who was in his 20s, and Israel radio said he had been released from an Israeli prison about a month ago. The Israeli security forces declined to comment on the reports. Abu Zeid was said to be from the West Bank town of Qabatiyeh.

Islamic Jihad is a small faction but has carried out many bombings and shootings against Israel, including all three suicide bombings that have killed Israeli civilians this year.

Israel's raid into Tulkarm on Sunday night, when it killed Saadi, was the most recent targeting Islamic Jihad members in the area, a stronghold for the group. In the two earlier suicide attacks, the bombers came from adjacent villages just outside Tulkarm.

Israel said Saadi had orchestrated the two previous suicide bombings, a blast in February that killed five Israelis at a nightclub in Tel Aviv and an explosion in July that killed five outside a shopping mall in Netanya.

Islamic Jihad has been launching rockets from northern Gaza into southern Israel after the death of Saadi. In turn, Israel has carried out airstrikes directed at the launching sites. Yesterday, a Palestinian rocket landed in an empty soccer field in southern Israel, the military said.

Abbas, in a speech before parliament, lashed out at the militants, saying they had no right to violate a February cease-fire. "No one has the right to respond here and there, unilaterally," he said.

Last night in Gaza, dozens of masked Islamic Jihad militants held a news conference at which they celebrated the attack in Hadera as a "great victory as a message to our beloved Palestinian people, and Islamic and Arab nations."

Yesterday also marked the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Islamic Jihad chief Fathi Shekaki in Malta - a killing widely attributed to Israel.

Islamic Jihad has been trying to distinguish itself from Hamas, its main political rival, which since the cease-fire agreement has refrained from suicide attacks in Israel. Leading Islamic Jihad members say their group keeps carrying out attacks because it wants to sharpen its image as less willing to compromise than Hamas, which is increasingly transforming itself into a political party.

Laura King and Vita Bekker write for the Los Angeles Times.

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