JERUSALEM – A Palestinian homicide attacker blew himself up Monday while grappling with an Israeli security guard at a shopping mall in a Tel Aviv suburb, killing the guard and another civilian and wounding 12 other people, including two infants.
The bombing — the 81st by Palestinian militants in two years — marked a first test for Israel's new defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, who was sworn in Monday. Mofaz, known for his hawkish views, advocates the expulsion of Yasser Arafat and tough military action against the Palestinians.
There was no immediate indication of any Israeli retaliation, but it has struck back militarily for previous homicide bombings.
Against the backdrop of violence, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government fended off three no-confidence votes. Sharon rejected calls for early elections and was searching for partners to stabilize his coalition. Sharon lost his majority last week when the moderate Labor Party quit.
In the Monday evening bombing, the assailant, identified as Nabil Sawalha, 20, from the Balata refugee camp next to the West Bank city of Nablus, blew himself up in a shopping mall in Kfar Saba, a town northeast of Tel Aviv just across from the West Bank Palestinian town of Qalqiliya.
Palestinian militants linked to Arafat's Fatah movement in Nablus claimed responsibility for the attack, contradicting an earlier report ascribing the blast to Islamic Jihad.
Police said one of the Israeli dead was a security guard who struggled with the bomber, stopping him from entering a crowded appliance store and thereby averting more casualties. The bomber blew himself up as he wrestled with the guard, police said.
"The alertness of the security force here prevented the terrorist from entering the shop, which would have caused a great disaster," national police chief Shlomo Aharonishki told Israel TV.
The other victim's body was so badly mutilated that officials were unable to immediately determine the gender or identity.
Lorin Michael, 17, was helping care for two children in an apartment across the street when she heard the blast. As their mother scooped up the tots and hustled them inside, Michael rushed onto the balcony.
"I saw dust and smoke and pieces of bodies," Michael said. "Everything was black."
A a row of refrigerators and white washing machines lay tipped over inside the store. Bits of the shredded roof of a shopfront walkway overhang littered the sidewalk.
David Baker, an official in Sharon's office, said the attack was "proof that Palestinian terror knows no limits, specializes in cruelty and specifically targets the innocent."
In Washington, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher reminded Americans of travel notices advising caution in the Middle East in the wake of the latest bombing.
"We obviously condemn these kinds of activities in the strongest possible terms," Boucher said.
Earlier Monday, two Palestinians were killed, one of them a militant from the Hamas movement on Israel's wanted list, when their car exploded and burst into flames in the middle of a Nablus street.
Palestinians blamed the blast on Israel, which has carried out dozens of killings of suspected militants. It appeared the Suzuki car was booby-trapped and the bomb was detonated by remote control, said Moeen Sakaran, chief of Palestinian intelligence in Nablus. The Israeli military declined to comment.
Hamad Sadder, a member of the Hamas military wing who was being sought by Israel, was killed, Palestinians said. They said his nephew who carried out a homicide attack last week in a West Bank settlement that killed three Israeli soldiers.
In Israel's parliament, Sharon's weakened government withstood three no-confidence votes brought by opposition parties seeking to force new elections.
Sharon said he opposed early elections, but he also insisted he would not change government policies to accommodate a far-right party whose support he needs to restore his majority.
"Taking the nation to immediate elections would be irresponsible," Sharon told legislators from his right-wing Likud party. "I hope everyone acts responsibly and doesn't try to make it difficult for a stable government to function."
That indicated he would not accept a demand by Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister. Sharon has offered Netanyahu the post of foreign minister in the hope it would firm up his government. But Netanyahu said he would accept only on condition that Sharon agreed to elections in the coming months.
However, Sharon did not announce any decision about Netanyahu.
After the moderate Labor Party quit the coalition last week, Sharon has the support of only 55 of the 120 legislators.
Sharon may have a temporary safety net from a far-right grouping whose seven lawmakers seem ready to prop up the government long enough to pass the 2003 state budget in coming weeks, but after that may favor forcing early elections.
Sharon has said elections should be held as scheduled in October 2003.