JERUSALEM -- A Palestinian suicide bomber reportedly intent on attacking a crowded Hanukkah gathering detonated his explosives when Israeli troops stopped him at a West Bank checkpoint yesterday. An army lieutenant and two Palestinians were killed, along with the bomber.
The powerful explosion at an impromptu roadblock near the town of Tulkarm injured nine people, six of them soldiers and three Palestinian bystanders, Israeli authorities said. One of the wounded soldiers was in grave condition, the military said.
Israeli and Palestinian officials condemned the attack, with Israel calling it proof that the country risks lethal consequences if it eases tight military restrictions on Palestinians' movement in the West Bank.
The Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad was responsible for the bombing, according to Arabic-language media reports and an official of the group in the Gaza Strip. But West Bank leaders of Islamic Jihad, who are targeted for arrest and assassination by Israeli forces, were uncharacteristically silent about the attack.
Islamic Jihad has been responsible for most of the suicide bombings this year, having spurned an informal cease-fire that rival groups such as Hamas have largely respected for months.
"These suicide bombers were on their way to perpetrate an attack against Israelis while they were celebrating Hanukkah," said David Baker, an official in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office. "This is another vivid example of the total disinterest shown by the Palestinian Authority in taking any discernible measures to prevent terrorism against Israelis."
The Israeli military identified the two Palestinians who were killed as the driver of the bomber's taxi and a passenger. The men's possible role in the bombing was being investigated, an army statement said.
Another Palestinian passenger, who said he unwittingly rode with the bomber, told the Reuters news agency that Israeli troops at a checkpoint set up near Tulkarm ordered the young man out of the car and told him to open his bulky overcoat.
"He got out slowly, fastened his jacket, and blew himself up," said the witness, Nafez Shahin.
Israeli security forces had received intelligence warnings that a bomber was en route to an attack, most likely in the Tel Aviv area and, if possible, at a crowded holiday gathering. Israelis are having pageants and parties this week for Hanukkah.
"A major disaster was averted," Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim said. He blamed Islamic Jihad's leadership in Syria for orchestrating the attack.
After the bombing, Israeli troops sealed off Tulkarm and conducted house-to-house searches.
Incidents such as this one illustrate the dilemmas faced by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who met this week with representatives of several militant groups, trying unsuccessfully to win an agreement to extend the truce.
Israel as a rule blames Abbas' government whenever militant groups mount an attack, and the Palestinian leader's standing among his own people tends to plummet when Israel retaliates. Usually, the beneficiary of the popular resentment is Hamas, which is expected to make a strong showing in parliamentary elections next month.
Israeli forces continued to enforce a "no go" zone in the northern Gaza Strip, set up a day earlier in response to rocket fire by Palestinian militants. Israeli troops have been firing artillery rounds into the mainly uninhabited area at Gaza's northernmost tip, and have dropped leaflets ordering residents to stay out of the area.
Palestinians called the creation of the buffer zone tantamount to a reoccupation of the seaside territory, from which Israel withdrew troops and Jewish settlers over the summer.
In Gaza, a British human rights activist and her parents were still missing, a day after their abduction in Rafah.
Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.