Blast Hits Near Jewish Shrine in West Bank

A car bomb exploded early Thursday near a Jewish shrine in the West Bank (search) as hundreds of Israeli worshippers prayed there, causing no injuries but damaging nearby Palestinian homes and underscoring the vulnerability of the Mideast truce declared last month.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search), meanwhile, urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (search) to intervene personally to ensure that both Israelis and Palestinian factions adhere to an agreement reached last month, including a pledge of nonviolence.

Abbas, who met with Mubarak at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik, also said he expects the Palestinian militant groups Islamic Jihad (search) and Hamas (search) to take part in a meeting of Palestinian factions planned for mid-March in Cairo.

It was not clear whether the explosives went off prematurely or whether the Joseph's Tomb (search) shrine was even the target. The blast went off several hundred yards from the shrine, on the outskirts of the Palestinian city of Nablus.

The explosion blew out apartment and car windows and scorched storefronts. There was no claim of responsibility.

Joseph's Tomb has been one of the flashpoints of fighting in the past four years of violence. At the start of the Palestinian uprising, Israeli troops withdrew from the enclave, which was largely destroyed by Palestinian militants. Since then, the Israeli military has barred Jewish worshippers, except for special visits under army protection.

In Israel, Vice Premier Shimon Peres said Thursday that Abbas' goverment is making progress toward imposing order — despite the Nablus bomb, last week's Tel Aviv nightclub bombing and other attempts by Palestinian militants to torpedo the peace movement.

Peres met Wednesday night in Tel Aviv with Palestinian Cabinet minister Mohammed Dahlan for talks on economic issues, the first high-level meeting between the sides since the nightclub bombing which killed five Israelis on Friday. That attack was claimed by the militant Islamic Jihad.

"There is a change, a deep change and some of the things the Palestinians have done are worthy of praise," Peres told Israel Army Radio, giving as one example the deployment of Palestinian police in the Gaza Strip to prevent the firing of locally made Qassam rockets at Israeli targets.

"There is relative calm. Certainly there are people trying to destroy peace efforts, that doesn't surprise me," he said.

Israeli security officials say Palestinian security forces have arrested several Islamic Jihad activist since the Tel Aviv bombing. Overnight, Israeli troops arrested four more members of the group.

Peres said he discussed with Dahlan the possibility of Israel handing over 1,000 acres of greenhouses in Gaza settlements to the Palestinians after its planned withdrawal in the summer.

Yonatan Bassi, the senior Israeli official overseeing the withdrawal, said Wednesday that peppers and tomatoes grown in the greenhouses could help feed the 1.3 million Palestinians packed into the narrow coastal strip. Luxury items such as flowers and strawberries would be exported, mainly to the European Union.

A study published last year by the United Nations and the U.S. Agency for International Development said seven out of 10 Palestinians were living on insufficient food, and the United Nations put unemployment in Gaza at more than 22 percent.

A USAID official in Tel Aviv said 3,000 Palestinians were currently working in settlement greenhouses and that turning them over to Palestinian ownership could create a further 7,000 jobs.

Abbas was in Egypt after his first visit as Palestinian leader to Europe, where he received strong backing from the international community to proceed with reforms within the Palestinian Authority and to work to rein in militant groups. Abbas also received a pledge of economic assistance put at $1.2 billion.

Egyptian presidential spokesman Suleiman Awad said Abbas, at the meetings, "asked Mubarak to intervene personally to continue the implementation of Sharm el-Sheik understanding," referring to an accord reached at the resort a month ago.

Asked about a bombing in Tel Aviv last week that killed five Israelis, Abbas said, "Undoubtedly, the Tel Aviv operation, for us, was annoying and we have denounced it."

Islamic Jihad leaders claimed responsibility for the Twl Aviv bombing, but blamed the attack on a local rogue cell working on orders from the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah (search) and not from Islamic Jihad leaders in the Palestinian areas. The Bush administration blamed Palestinian groups based in Syria.

A Jihad spokesman in the Palestinian territories, Khaled al-Batsh, told the Egyptian daily al-Ahram on Thursday that his group would participate in the March 15 talks but said signing a truce depends on Israel's responses to Palestinian demands. Palestinian militant groups' demands have included the release of Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons.