JERUSALEM – Israeli troops pulled to the edges of a Palestinian town in the Gaza Strip (search) on Tuesday, despite five homicide attacks (search) that killed 12 Israelis in 48 hours and endangered a U.S.-backed Mideast peace initiative.
The pullback from Beit Hanoun (search) in northern Gaza suggested Israel is holding off on large-scale retaliation for now, amid international concern that new strikes would further weaken the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas (search).
Abbas is seen as instrumental in implementing the "road map" to peace plan, a three-stage prescription for ending violence and setting up a Palestinian state by 2005. However, Abbas has said he will not launch a crackdown on militias -- a crucial step in the first phase -- until Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has accepted the plan.
Sharon has refused to do so, saying he wants to discuss his objections with President Bush. A Bush-Sharon meeting had been scheduled for Tuesday, but Sharon postponed his Washington trip indefinitely because of the bombings.
Bush remained confident the peace plan can be implemented. "But it is clear that the process is not going to be smooth so long as terrorists kill," he said Monday.
The Israeli-Palestinian deadlock has left the field to the militants who are trying to torpedo the peace efforts and weaken Abbas. In the past, the Islamic militant groups, including Hamas (search) and Islamic Jihad (search), have stepped up attacks whenever there was increased hope of progress toward peace.
In the latest bombing, a Palestinian woman, 19-year-old Hiba Daraghmeh, blew herself up at a back entrance of a shopping mall in the northern Israeli town of Afula on Monday. Daraghmeh detonated the explosives as she approached security guards checking shoppers.
"There was a big explosion and my friend and I were blown over backward," said Etti Pitilon, 19, a border policewoman. "I saw bodies, but I don't want to think about it," she added, crying.
The blast killed three Israelis, including a guard, and wounded 47.
Daraghmeh was a 19-year-old English literature student from the West Bank village of Tubas and was a devout Muslim, covering her face with a veil in addition to the headscarf customary among observant Palestinian women.
Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a militia linked to the ruling Fatah party, claimed joint responsibility. Daraghmeh apparently was recruited by Al Aqsa, while Islamic Jihad, which gets money from Iran, provided the funding, militia members said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Israeli troops detained Daraghmeh's parents, relatives said, and Israel Radio said the two were taken to Israel's forensics institute to identify their daughter's body. The family emptied its home of belongings, expecting that it would be demolished -- in line with the military's practice for the past year.
Al Aqsa's involvement proved particularly embarrassing for Abbas, who is a senior Fatah official. The militia, founded by Fatah supporters at the outbreak of fighting, consists of bands of gunmen operating without central directive. Some militiamen have said they would resist Abbas' call to lay down arms.
Abbas has said he wants to disarm militias through dialogue, not force -- an approach Sharon has brushed aside, saying he wants to see arrests and weapons sweeps.
Abbas, who took office April 30, issued a strong condemnation of the Afula bombing, saying it "contradicts our moral values and tradition and only feeds into the hatred of the two peoples." However, Israeli's military operations "contribute to the surge of violence," Abbas added.
The latest string of attacks began Saturday evening, just before a Sharon-Abbas meeting, the first Israeli-Palestinian summit since the outbreak of fighting.
Hamas bombers struck in the West Bank city of Hebron on Saturday, twice in Jerusalem on Sunday, and in the Gaza Strip on Monday morning, killing a total of nine Israelis and wounding 23.
Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas spokesman, said attacks would continue. "As long as the occupation remains on our land, and as long as the occupation soldiers are breathing our air we will continue our resistance," he said.
On Tuesday morning, Israeli troops withdrew to the outskirts of Beit Hanoun, a town of 35,000 Palestinians several hundred meters from the Gaza-Israel frontier. The military had seized Beit Hanoun five days earlier, in response to rocket fire from there toward an Israeli border town.
Residents said the military left a trail of destruction, demolishing 15 houses, uprooting thousands of trees and damaging the water and sewage systems. The military declined comment.
In his meeting with Abbas, Sharon had raised the possibility of withdrawing troops from several Palestinian towns, including Beit Hanoun, as a test case. Palestinian security forces would take control there and restore order. Abbas turned down the offer, saying Sharon would first have to accept the road map.
Israel continued to blame Arafat for the violence. Trying to deepen Arafat's isolation, Israel has decided to boycott foreign envoys who meet with the Palestinian leader. Arafat has been confined to his compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah for more than a year by Israel.
Responding to the Israeli allegations, Arafat told The Associated Press that he opposes violence. "You know that we are from the beginning against these activities, and we are condemning it from the beginning," he said Monday.