EILAT, Israel – A Palestinian homicide bomber attacked a bakery in this southern Israeli resort town on Monday, killing three bystanders, police said. It was the first homicide bombing in Israel in nine months and the first ever to hit Eilat, Israel's southernmost city.
A spokesman for Hamas, the radical Islamic group that controls the Palestinian parliament and Cabinet, praised the bombing as a "natural response" to Israeli policies — a position likely to complicate the group's efforts to end a crippling aid boycott imposed by the international community.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said after the bombing that Israel will press forward with its fight against Palestinian militants, but he stopped short of promising retaliation.
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"We shall draw the conclusions and learn the lessons, and instruct our security people to continue their ongoing and never-ending struggle against terrorists and those who send them," he said.
Two Palestinian militant groups, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, claimed joint responsibility for the attack. An Islamic Jihad Web site said the attack was meant to help bring an end to weeks of Palestinian infighting that has 60 people in the Gaza Strip since December.
"The operation has a clear message to the Palestinian rivals. It is necessary to end the infighting and point the guns toward the occupation that has hurt the Palestinian people," the site said.
The group identified the bomber as Mohammed Saksak, 21, of Gaza City, after earlier saying he came from the West Bank.
Witnesses said the bomber stood out because he was wearing a long winter coat on a warm, sunny day when he struck the small bakery in a residential neighborhood.
"It was very hot, very hot. He had a coat on and it didn't look right to me. I thought to myself, 'What's that idiot dressed like that for?' A couple of seconds later I heard a massive explosion," Benny Mazgini, 45, told Israel Radio.
Shattered glass was visible on the sidewalk outside, alongside bread trays scattered by the blast.
"It was awful — there was smoke, pieces of flesh all over the place," Mazgini said.
The attack was the second homicide bombing in Israel since Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections last January.
Homicide bombings are sharply down from their height four years ago, when hundreds of Israelis were killed in dozens of attacks. A renewal of such violence could derail current efforts by the U.S., Israel and Abbas to renew long-stalled peace talks.
Israel is separated from Gaza by a massive separation barrier, and militants have rarely been able to infiltrate. A bomber sneaked into Israel in a storage crate in March 2004, and last June, Palestinian militants tunneled into Israel and captured an Israeli soldier.
Hamas came under heavy criticism for making statements in support of a homicide bombing in a Tel Aviv restaurant shortly after it took power.
Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, called the attack a "natural response" to Israeli military policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as its ongoing boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian government. "So long as there is occupation, resistance is legitimate," he said.
He also said attacks on Israel were preferable to the recent bout of Palestinian infighting in Gaza between his group and the more moderate Fatah Party of President Mahmoud Abbas. "The right thing is for Fatah weapons to be directed toward the occupation not toward Hamas," Barhoum said.
The White House, in a statement issued Monday, said it condemned "those Palestinian terrorist groups, including Hamas, that condone these barbaric actions."
"The burden of responsibility for preventing terrorist attacks rests with the Palestinian Authority government. Failure to act against terror will inevitably effect relations between that government and the international community," the statement read.
After Monday's blast, police cordoned off the area, and emergency workers went on high alert.
The attack was the first homicide bombing to hit Eilat, which is distant from Israel's major population centers and has been largely insulated from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also was the first homicide bombing in Israel since last April, when a bomber struck a Tel Aviv restaurant, killing 12 people.
"It's without a doubt a terrible incident that the town of Eilat is not accustomed to," said Yitzhak Halevy, Eilat's mayor. "The thought that infiltrators could enter Eilat alive and disrupt the running of the town is very worrying."
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, one of the groups claiming responsibility for Monday's attack, is linked to Fatah. However, Fatah spokesman Ahmad Abdul Rahman condemned the violence, saying, "We are against any operation that targets civilians, Israelis or Palestinians."
Eilat is located on the Red Sea near the Jordanian and Egyptian border, and Al Qaeda operatives have been active in both neighboring countries. However, there was no indication the group was involved in Monday's attack.
There was no immediate word on how the bomber reached Eilat, located at Israel's southern tip a four-hour drive from the central cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Islamic Jihad said Saksak entered Israel from Jordan after seven months of preparation.
Abu Hamzeh, an Islamic Jihad spokesman, said Saksak did not enter Jordan legally, but rather was smuggled there a few days ago. Militants waiting for Saksak in Eilat gave him the explosives there, Hamzeh told The Associated Press.
"We held back on operations for a while and gave the stage to Fatah and Hamas to conduct unity government discussions. We saw that it has not achieved anything, so we have reverted to martyrdom operations," Hamzeh said.
Islamic Jihad spokesmen declined to say how the bomber left Gaza, though Hamzeh insisted it was not through Gaza's often-closed Rafah crossing into Egypt — Gazans' only gateway to the outside world. If it's found Saksak did leave through Rafah, however, a delicate, U.S.-brokered arrangement involving Palestinian security forces and European monitors could face additional trouble.
"Our working assumption is that he didn't make it on his own, that he may have had accomplices," Eilat police chief Bruno Stein told Israel Radio. He declined to say whether the attacker crossed an international border.
The Israel-Egypt border, which runs near Eilat, is regularly crossed by smugglers entering Israel, according to police. The smugglers for the most part bring drugs and prostitutes into Israel.
The only attack to hit Eilat since the renewed outbreak of Israel-Palestinian violence in 2000 came in August, 2005, when Islamist militants linked to Al Qaeda fired a rocket from Jordan at the city, causing no casualties.
The last deadly attack in the city was in May 1992, when Palestinian militants swam to an Eilat beach and killed an Israeli security guard.
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