GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – A Palestinian militant detonated a powerful truck bomb with four tons of explosives at the main pedestrian crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip on Thursday, causing extensive damage that dealt a serious blow to Gazans' hopes of opening up their sealed-off territory.
Though the young man succeeded in killing only himself, the magnitude of the explosion — which shook buildings miles away in both Israel and Gaza — raised fears that Palestinian militants are adopting some of the same tactics as Al Qaeda, Hezbollah and other extremist groups in the region.
The attack also reinforced skepticism about Egyptian-led efforts to bring a truce to the violence-wracked area and hurt international efforts to ease the Israeli-led blockade of Gaza, imposed after Hamas militants violently seized control of the coastal territory almost a year ago.
Later, at the Karni cargo crossing some 5 miles away, a protest against the blockade turned violent, with Palestinians accusing Israeli troops of opening fire into the crowd of thousands, killing a 22-year-old man and wounding 16 other people.
In chaotic scenes, swarms of people darted along a narrow road near the crossing, fleeing tear gas and live bullets as Israeli tanks rumbled into Gaza from the Israeli side of the crossing. The military said soldiers opened fire after spotting gunmen in the crowd, including one carrying an anti-tank missile, and that the gunmen returned fire.
"Zionists, death is coming," loudspeakers blared. "You will fall, your corrupt state will fall," the crowd chanted — reflecting the intensity of Gazans' bottled up frustration a year into Hamas' turbulent rule, which has seen 80 percent of Gaza's adult population descend into poverty, according to the U.N.
Two little boys ran into a field flanked by the tanks while adults in the crowd loudly admonished them to come back. Protesters climbed up electricity poles to hoist the Hamas flag. Ambulances rushed in to evacuate the wounded, and plumes of black smoke climbed into the sky after protesters set tires afire.
The violence at Gaza's border crossings came as Egyptian mediation efforts to forge an Israeli-Hamas ceasefire ran into trouble, with several Hamas leaders claiming the truce talks had failed.
However, Israeli military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because no formal announcement had been made, confirmed that Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defense official, will travel to Egypt on Sunday for more talks — a sign the truce is still on the table.
Hamas officials blamed Israel for not accepting a proposed six-month truce. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the group had yet to make an official statement.
One Hamas leader participating in the talks, Khalil al-Haya, said the negotiations were still going on and that various Palestinian militant groups planned to meet "to review the outcome of the talks."
Abu Ahmad, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad, one of two groups claiming joint responsibility for the bombing at the Erez crossing, said the attack was meant to "send a message" to Israel that if it didn't accept a truce, "Gaza is not going to be a place where you will enjoy stability."
In terms of the amount of explosives used, Thursday's attack was the biggest since Israel pulled its settlers and troops out of Gaza nearly three years ago, Israeli military spokeswoman Maj. Avital Leibovich said. The military kept reporters and photographers away from the scene of the bombing.
The attack comes in the wake of two audio tapes from Osama Bin Laden in which the fugitive Al Qaeda leader portrayed himself as the only true defender of the Palestinians.
Hamas has tried to distance itself somewhat from Bin Laden's remarks — aware that too close an association is not likely to help the Palestinian national cause and that global jihadists have a stake in pulling apart any ceasefire deal with Israel.
Truck bombs are not commonly used by Islamic Jihad and the other group participating in Thursday's attack, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. Extremist groups linked to Al Qaeda, however, have often used them — against U.S. forces in Iraq, for instance, or against U.N. buildings in Algeria or hotels in Jordan and Egypt.
Boaz Ganor, a leading terrorism expert in Israel, said Thursday's attack shows the "infiltration" of the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah and their Iranian sponsors into the Gaza Strip.
"The scale and the modus operandi of the attack of this morning shows the clear fingerprints of Hezbollah," he said.
The bombing ripped an 80-yard hole in the wall surrounding the Erez passenger crossing in northern Gaza. But the truck blew up before the driver could reach an Israeli military base on the other side of the wall, militants said.
The blast blew a hole in the pedestrian passageway leading out of the terminal into Gaza, but the passageway was empty because it was early. The Israeli military said no soldiers were injured, and security officials said no civilians were on the Israeli side of the passage at the time of the blast.
The explosion was heard by Gazans and Israelis miles away, and shattered windows in Netiv Haasara, an Israeli community across the border.
Spokesmen for militant groups identified the bomber as 23-year-old Ibrahim Nasser of the Islamic Jihad group. The group released a video of Nasser, a young bearded man in uniform, smiling as he brandished a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
Abu Thaer, Gaza spokesman for the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, said three other fighters on the mission were following in a jeep and planned to enter the crossing after the explosion and spray the area with bullet fire. But their jeep ran into a mound of sand and overturned amid heavy fog, and the men fled unharmed, he said.
Israel's military regularly clashes with Gaza gunmen who fire rockets at Israeli towns and attack troops along the border. The crossings, which militants see as hated symbols of Israeli authority, are frequent targets.
Since Islamic Hamas militants wrested control of Gaza last June, Israel and Egypt have kept the territory's crossings closed to everything but humanitarian aid in an attempt to weaken the group. The sanctions have been tightened in response to the rocket fire.
Israeli government spokesman David Baker accused Palestinian militants of "cynically attacking crossing points used for Palestinian humanitarian needs."
The Erez crossing will be closed until the damage can be repaired, said Israeli military spokesman Peter Lerner — a development that has trapped international aid workers, journalists and Palestinians in need of medical care outside Gaza for several days while repairs take place.
Lerner said "the main victims of this attack are the Palestinians themselves."
John Ging, the Gaza director of the U.N. organization in charge of Palestinian refugees, said he hoped the attack would not hurt efforts to ease the punishing blockade of Gaza, which he said has forced 1.1 million of Gaza's 1.4 million people to rely on daily food handouts from the United Nations just to survive.
"If you hand the agenda over to the extremists, then they are very happy about it. If it only takes one rocket to derail everything, then that's massive power," Ging said.