Bomber kills 5 at Israel mall

Islamic Jihad claims responsibility for suicide attack in Netanya


NETANYA, Israel -- A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up outside a shopping mall yesterday, killing at least five people and wounding more than 40.

The bombing, which occurred shortly before noon as shoppers lined up at the entrance for security checks, was the second such attack since Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip over the summer raised hopes for diplomatic progress. It added uncertainty as the Palestinians and Israelis head into separate election seasons.

Officials said the bomber detonated the explosives after a security guard and police became suspicious and pulled him aside for questioning. The blast tore loose concrete and blew out windows.

"I heard the blast and saw a large, black cloud of smoke and heard loud shouts," said Shahar Yaakovi, a 51-year-old apartment renovator who was across the street in his parents' home.

It was the second time in five months that a suicide bomber had struck the mall in coastal Netanya, 15 miles north of Tel Aviv. In July, a suicide attack outside the shopping center killed five Israelis.

Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for yesterday's attack, which it said was carried out by a 21-year-old from a West Bank village north of Tulkarm, the point of origin for several recent bombers.

Israeli leaders promised a harsh response, including a renewal of targeted killings of militant leaders. Israeli news reports said the military was preparing for possible action in Palestinian-held areas of the West Bank.

Yesterday's bombing followed a rise in violence over the weekend. On Sunday, Israeli forces fired artillery into open fields in Gaza that military officials said served as launch pads for Kassam rockets fired into southern Israel, and an Israeli airstrike targeted a building allegedly used to manufacture the crude projectiles. Islamic Jihad had vowed reprisals for various Israeli actions, including arrest operations in the West Bank and the killings of some of its leaders.

Israel said the Netanya bombing was a sign of the Palestinian Authority's failure to act against armed militias, despite its success last winter in getting most of the militant groups to agree to cease attacks against Israelis until the end of the year.

Islamic Jihad, which has not adhered to the period of calm declared by Hamas and the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, has claimed responsibility for all five suicide bombings in Israel this year.

"The Palestinian Authority refuses to take the steps necessary to prevent terror against Israel, including the rounding up and incarcerating of known terrorists, collection of illegal weapons and dismantling and putting out of business terror organizations," said David Baker, an official in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "We saw the results today in Netanya. They should have no illusion; there can be no substitute for these measures."

It remained unclear what impact the attack, or any Israeli reprisals, would have on election campaigns under way on both sides - a Palestinian parliamentary vote Jan. 25 and Israeli national elections to take place in late March.

Palestinian officials condemned the bombing, saying it could jeopardize the fragile, 10-month cease-fire and undermine the parliamentary vote. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called it a "terrorist operation" and vowed to bring to justice any others found to have been involved.

"It harms Palestinian interests. It's an attempt to sabotage the efforts to revive the peace process and undermines attempts to have free and fair elections," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. "Maintaining the cessation of violence between the two sides serves both interests."

For the first time, Hamas is running for seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. Many Palestinian moderates see the election as a watershed and, perhaps, the best chance to persuade the hard-line Islamic group to disarm on its own. Meanwhile, the dominant Fatah movement, led by Abbas, has been beset by occasionally violent infighting over voter lists and which candidates to run.

Ken Ellingwood and Vita Bekker write for the Los Angeles Times.

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