RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian police arrested two suspected militants Saturday in connection with a suicide bombing that killed four Israelis at a Tel Aviv (search) nightclub, acting on orders from Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to track down those responsible for what he called an act of sabotage.
Palestinian security officials pointed to the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, which has been trying to disrupt an informal Mideast truce, as the apparent mastermind of the attack. Abbas hinted at Hezbollah (search) involvement, holding a "third party" responsible for the bombing.
But Hezbollah, which is funded by Iran, denied Saturday it was behind the suicide bombing. The Lebanese group has hundreds of West Bank gunmen from various Palestinian militant groups on its payroll.
In a statement in Beirut (search), Hezbollah said it "categorically denies accusations that alluded to a supposed role it played in the Tel Aviv operation, considering them completely devoid of truth."
The three main militant groups — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades — also denied involvement, and none hung the customary posters of congratulations at the bomber's home.
Israel and the United States said Abbas has to act quickly and forcefully despite his long-standing reluctance to confront militants if he wants to rescue a fragile Mideast truce, declared at a Feb. 8 Mideast summit.
Abbas met with Cabinet ministers and security chiefs Saturday to discuss a possible response. Abbas condemned the attack as "sabotage," and said he was exchanging information with Israel, the United States and Europe. He said he hoped the attack would not derail efforts to resume peace talks.
The bomber was identified as Abdullah Badran, 21, a university student from the village of Deir al-Ghusun near the West Bank town of Tulkarem. His parents said he was a devout Muslim with no history of militant activity.
The Palestinian interior minister, Nasser Yousef, said Palestinian security forces arrested two militants in connection with the attack. Local security officials in Tulkarem said the two men have ties to Islamic Jihad, and more arrests were expected.
Palestinian security officials said they were investigating whether Badran was recruited by local militants from Al Aqsa, which has ties to Abbas' ruling Fatah movement, at the behest of Hezbollah.
Two regional Al Aqsa leaders, one in Ramallah and one in the Balata refugee camp, said Hezbollah operative Kais Obeid called them from Lebanon after the Tel Aviv attack and told them he had recruited the bomber and his local accomplices. Obeid asked Al Aqsa leaders to claim responsibility for the bombing — presumably to deflect attention from Hezbollah — but the two local militants said they turned down the request for fear of being targeted in a crackdown.
Obeid said he had paid for the bombing, but he would not disclose a sum or details about the Tulkarem cell, the two Al Aqsa militants said on condition of anonymity.
Earlier Saturday, Israeli forces arrested two of the bomber's brothers and four neighbors in his home village, including the local mosque preacher. It was not clear whether all were suspects, or whether the brothers were taken to provide DNA samples for a positive identification of the bomber.
Friday's blast, which reportedly involved about 66 pounds of explosives, occurred at about 11:30 p.m. among Israelis waiting outside the seaside nightclub Stage.
"Suddenly there was this huge explosion and we just ran," said a hospitalized Merav Ayush, 20, who was on her way to the club when the explosion occurred. "I saw a boy and a girl sitting on the ground. At the entrance to the club there were about 15 people just lying on the floor."
Police said the guards outside the club spotted the bomber and did not let him in. The explosion dispersed thousands of metal shards that were packed into the bomb, cutting down people standing nearby.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz was to meet with army chiefs after the end of the Jewish Sabbath at sundown Saturday, but it appeared there would be no immediate Israeli retaliation and that Abbas would be given some time to act.
Israeli Cabinet minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Abbas must move quickly.
"This time, words are not enough. He has to combat terrorism," Ben-Eliezer, a former defense minister, told Israel Army Radio.
Abbas pledged to track down those responsible for the attack, accusing them of trying to derail the peace process.
"There is a third party that wants to sabotage this process," he said in a veiled reference to Hezbollah. "This act harms our interests, our path and our goals, and we will not hesitate for a minute to track them down, bring them to justice and punish them."
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice condemned the attack "in the strongest possible terms" and said it was essential that Palestinian leaders take "immediate, credible steps" to find those responsible.
"We now must see actions that send a clear message that terror will not be tolerated," she said.
The European Union urged Palestinian authorities to cooperate unconditionally with Israel to restore security. Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, called on "Israel and the Palestinian Authority not to plunge into the game of the terrorists" and jeopardize the progress made.
The EU, along with Russia, the United States and the United Nations, have sponsored the so-called "road map" peace plan intended to settle the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
It was the first suicide bombing since the cease-fire declaration, as well as the first such attack since the Nov. 11 death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The last suicide bombing occurred Nov. 1, when three people were killed in a Tel Aviv market.