JERUSALEM – Islamic Jihad will step up attacks in Israel as a show of support for Iraq, the militant group said Monday, a day after dispatching a suicide bomber who wounded 49 Israelis outside a packed cafe.
Sunday's blast in the coastal town of Netanya appears to have thrust both Israelis and Palestinians closer to the war in Iraq, with both sides making the connection to that conflict after largely watching it from the sidelines.
Islamic Jihad said the Netanya bombing was "Palestine's gift to the heroic people of Iraq," and that there would be more attacks.
"The Islamic Jihad movement is interested in intensifying its attacks in this phase to make it clear to Arabs, Muslims and the whole world that what is going on here in Palestine is the same as what is happening in Iraq," the group's leader in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Nafez Azzam, said in a telephone interview Monday.
However, the leader of a second Palestinian militia, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, said Monday he has ordered a halt to all attacks on Israelis for the duration of the Iraq war.
The militia fears harsher Israeli reprisal to such attacks at a time when the world's attention is focused on Iraq, the leader, identified only by his nom de guerre, Abu Majed, said in a telephone interview from the West Bank city of Nablus.
It was not clear whether the order would be carried out; local Al Aqsa leaders in the West Bank towns of Jenin and Tulkarem said they would continue attacking Israeli settlers and soldiers in the West Bank.
Israeli officials, meanwhile, said they are bracing for a new wave of bombings. "The (Palestinian) motivation to harm Israel and to help the Iraqi struggle is well known to us," said Israel's police minister, Tzahi Hanegbi.
Sunday's blast was one of dozens carried out by Islamic Jihad and the larger Hamas group in the past 30 months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, but the first since the start of the U.S.-led offensive against Iraq on March 20.
Israeli and Palestinian commentators drew parallels between Sunday's explosion and the first suicide bombing of the Iraq war a day earlier, when an Iraqi officer driving a taxi blew himself up near U.S. troops, killing four.
Military analyst Roni Shaked wrote in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot that the Iraqis seemed to be copying the tactics of Palestinian militants. "It is only a question of time before the culture of suicide in Basra and Baghdad -- exactly as in Gaza and Nablus -- becomes an inseparable part of the war," Shaked wrote.
Islamic Jihad said it has dispatched several dozen Palestinian volunteers from Arab countries to Baghdad to carry out suicide missions against American and British soldiers. "It's not a large number of fighters, just symbolic," Azzam said.
Palestinian legislator Ziad Abu Amr said stricter measures by the allied forces to prevent suicide bombings -- including raid and checkpoints -- could be counterproductive. "From our experience in Palestine, it alienated the population and produced more suicide bombers," he said.
Sunday's blast came as the Palestinian prime minister-designate, Mahmoud Abbas, held talks in Gaza with several factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Abbas, who has the support of the United States and Israel, is the most senior Palestinian official to oppose attacks on Israelis, and his success as prime minister will largely be measured by his ability to rein in the militants.
Since his appointment earlier this month, Abbas has not spoken publicly, and it remains unclear whether he is willing to confront the powerful militant groups. Hamas and Islamic Jihad officials insisted after the meetings that Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, did not ask them to stop attacks.
Abbas declined comment, but extended his stay in Gaza for two days, raising the possibility of more meetings with the militants. The talks with Palestinian groups were part of his effort to form a new Cabinet by April.
The United States and Britain have said that once Abbas' Cabinet is approved by the Palestinian legislature and he is sworn in as prime minister, they will introduce an internationally sponsored three-year "road map" to Palestinian statehood.
Israel has expressed major reservations about the plan, which would require Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to freeze Jewish settlement expansion once a cease-fire is in place. Sharon's coalition could crumble in the event of a settlement freeze.
In a speech Sunday to a pro-Israel group in Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell renewed a call for a halt to Israeli settlement activity. Without mentioning the Palestinians specifically, Powell also declared there must be "an end of violence as a political tool" against Israel.
However, the standing of Palestinian militant groups appears to have been boosted by the Iraq war. Emotions are running high, with many Palestinians linking their conflict with Israel to Iraq's fight against the allied troops.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians have taken to the streets in recent days to show support for Iraq.
Sunday's attack came on a clear day on the Mediterranean coast. The bomber, dressed casually, walked toward Cafe London and detonated nail-studded explosives strapped to his body. The army said 10 soldiers were among the wounded.
The assailant was later identified as Rami Ghanem, 20, from a West Bank village close to Israel. Eight residents of the village, including Ghanem's 16-year-old brother, were arrested by Israeli troops.