Bomber Kills Three in Israeli Mall Blast

Published July 15, 2005

| Associated Press

A teenage Palestinian bomber killed three Israelis and wounded at least 30 others in front of a crowded shopping mall in this seaside city, the first such attack in nearly five months and a blow to a truce that has revived peace hopes.

The mangled body of the young bomber lay in the street two hours after the blast, covered with a white plastic sheet. Bloodied clothes were strewn on the asphalt, and the body of a woman was sprawled nearby.

Among the wounded was a 6-year-old girl who was badly burned, Israel TV reported. Two women were killed instantly, and a third died several hours later of her wounds, according to Israel Radio.

Israel blamed the militant Islamic Jihad (search), which has continued its attacks against Israelis despite a truce declared in February, and police linked the explosion to a failed car bomb attack a few minutes earlier in the West Bank.

Israeli police and Palestinian security identified the bomber as Ahmed Abu Khalil, an 18-year-old member of Islamic Jihad from the West Bank village of Atil (search), about eight miles east of Netanya (search).

Police said the two dead Israelis were women. Doron Shafir, one of the first paramedics at the scene, said he saw a woman whose clothes were on fire. "Another, her handbag was burning. We stepped on it to put it out. She was just sitting there. She did not know what was happening to her," he said.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did not comment after the bombing. David Baker, an official in Sharon's office, said the Palestinian Authority was not doing enough to rein in militants.

It was unlikely the truce would collapse, however. Both sides have an interest in not walking away from their agreement. Sharon needs to maintain calm to carry out his Gaza withdrawal this summer, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' political survival depends on maintaining the cease-fire, seen as key to easing harsh Israeli restrictions in the Palestinian areas.

Sharon has made clear there would be no further unilateral withdrawals after the summer pullout -- responding to hard-line critics who say the pullback is the start of an Israeli retreat from all of the West Bank.

"I want to make it clear that there will be no other disengagement and that the disengagement plan does not have a second stage," Sharon said earlier Tuesday during a meeting with Israeli President Moshe Katsav, according to the prime minister's office.

Abbas used unusually strong language in denouncing the bombing.

"We condemn this terrorist attack. It's a crime against the Palestinian people," he said. "Those traitors are working against the Palestinian interest. There is no rational man who can do those things on the eve of the Israeli withdrawal from 22 settlements," referring to Israel's planned pullout from Gaza and part of the West Bank.

Though violence has dropped considerably since the February truce, incidents have continued, killing 32 people on the Palestinian side and 14 on the Israeli side. Israelis have been killed in West Bank ambushes, and Palestinians died in shootouts with Israeli soldiers. Also, militants regularly pelt Jewish settlements in Gaza with rockets and mortars.

The last terror bombing, in Tel Aviv on Feb. 25, two weeks after the truce was declared, was carried out by Islamic Jihad. The group said in a statement after Tuesday's attack that it remains committed to the cease-fire but reserves the right to retaliate for Israeli violations, such as the arrests of Islamic Jihad members.

Palestinian security officials said the bomber came from the same Islamic Jihad cell that was responsible for the February bombing but that the Islamic Jihad leadership was not involved.

In response to the bombing, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz canceled a meeting set for later Tuesday to discuss the Gaza withdrawal with a Palestinian Cabinet minister and a U.S. envoy. Instead, Mofaz convened army commanders.

International Mideast envoy James Wolfensohn said the bombing was aimed at Palestinians as well as Israelis. It "diminishes the prospects of the agreements that will ensure the freedom, dignity and hope that they [Palestinians] deserve," he said.

Minutes before the Netanya blast, an Islamic Jihad militant tried to drive a car bomb into a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, police said. The bomber was captured after the explosives detonated prematurely, police said, adding that the two attacks were linked.

Channel 10 TV showed footage of the small white van, flames leaping from its roof, across from a kindergarten in the settlement, Shavei Shomron.

Netanya has been a target for bombers in the past. On May 18, 2001, a bomber blew himself up at the mall, killing five Israelis. In the deadliest Palestinian bombing in the past four years of fighting, an Islamic militant blew himself up in a Netanya hotel during a Passover seder in 2002, killing 29 people.

Israeli security officials say a partially completed barrier along the West Bank has stopped many attempted bombings. Netanya is at Israel's narrowest point, where the West Bank is just nine miles from the Mediterranean Sea.

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