AFULA, Israel – A Palestinian woman blew herself up during a security check outside a mall on Monday, killing three Israelis in the fifth homicide bombing (search) in 48 hours -- a violent challenge to a U.S.-backed Mideast peace initiative and the new Palestinian prime minister.
On Tuesday, Israeli troops withdrew from the Palestinian town of Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza, five days after seizing it, residents said. Troops had seized Beit Hanoun on Thursday in wake of rocket fire from the town into nearby Israeli border communities. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.
Monday's blast in the northern working-class town of Afula near the West Bank was claimed by a militia linked to the mainstream group Fatah, proving particularly embarrassing to the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who has denounced violence and promised to rein in the militants.
"We strongly condemn the killing of innocent civilians, be they Palestinian or Israeli, which contradicts our moral values and tradition and only feeds into the hatred of the two peoples," Abbas said Monday.
But Abbas added that Israel's military operations in the West Bank and Gaza "contribute to the surge of violence."
He repeated his demand that Israel accept the "road map" peace plan, complaining that the wave of attacks has eased pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to sign on to the three-year blueprint to stop 31 months of violence and create a Palestinian state.
Israel blamed Yasser Arafat for one of the steepest spikes in violence in nearly three years of fighting, saying he encourages terror, even if he is not directly involved in planning attacks. Arafat angrily denied the accusations, claiming Palestinian security agents have foiled several attacks.
Sharon resisted renewed pressure from his Cabinet to expel Arafat, apparently because of U.S. opposition to a step that could derail the "road map" plan and send the situation spinning further out of control.
After the Iraq war, with Bush promising to turn his attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there had been hope of a breakthrough in ending 32 months of fighting. However, Palestinian militants have often stepped up attacks at critical times in peacemaking, to prevent progress. Sharon, in turn, has given veto powers to the militants by insisting that violence must stop before negotiations can begin.
Bush said he was determined to push ahead with the peace plan, a prescription for ending violence and setting up a Palestinian state by 2005. "We're still on the road to peace," the president said. "It's just going to be a bumpy road. But I'm not going to get off the road until we achieve the vision."
The blast in Afula went off at 5:14 p.m. at a back entrance to the Shaarei Amakim mall, where shoppers were waiting in line for a security check.
The attacker, identified as Hiba Daraghmeh, 19, from the West Bank village of Tubas, detonated the explosives as she stepped up to security guards, witnesses said.
"There was a big explosion and my friend and I were blown over backwards," said Etti Pitilon, 19, a border policewoman. "I saw bodies, but I don't want to think about it," she added, crying.
Two guards, a man and a woman, were among the three people killed. Forty-seven people were wounded, several of them seriously.
The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a militia linked to Fatah, and the Islamic Jihad group both claimed responsibility for the bombing. The two militias have carried out joint attacks in the past.
The bomber was an English literature student, described as very devout by her father, Azem. She usually wore a veil over her entire face except her eyes, a particularly conservative covering rarely seen even among religious Palestinian women. She left home Monday afternoon, saying she was going to class, her father said.
The latest string of attacks began Saturday evening, just before a Sharon-Abbas meeting, the first Israeli-Palestinian summit since the outbreak of fighting.
Hamas bombers struck in the West Bank city of Hebron on Saturday, twice in Jerusalem on Sunday, and in the Gaza Strip on Monday morning, killing a total of nine Israelis and wounding 23. Three of the bombers were from Hebron.
The attacks come at a time when Abbas and Sharon are in a deadlock over who should make the first move on the new peace plan.
Abbas told Sharon during the summit that the Palestinian security forces could only move against the militias once Israel has accepted the new peace plan. Sharon said he first wants to discuss his objections with Bush. He was to have done so this week, but canceled his Washington trip because of the bombings.
At the United Nations, the top U.N. envoy for the Mideast urged Israel and the Palestinians on Monday to start implementing the new "road map" to end their conflict -- but both sides refused.
Terje Roed-Larsen, U.N. special coordinator for the Mideast peace process, told the Security Council both Israel and the Palestinians are now at fault. And he said Israeli security measures have effectively barred hundreds of U.N. staffers from doing their work in the Gaza Strip.
Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas spokesman, said attacks would continue. "As long as the occupation remains on our land, and as long as the occupation soldiers are breathing our air we will continue our resistance," he said.
Trying to deepen Arafat's isolation, Israel decided Sunday to boycott foreign envoys who meet with the Palestinian leader. Arafat has been confined to his compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah for more than a year by Israel.
But the European Union dismissed an Israeli decision to cold-shoulder envoys who meet with Arafat, saying the Palestinian leader is a key player in peacemaking.
"The real issue is the road map" for peace, said Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, whose country holds the bloc's presidency. "We will make the contacts we feel necessary. ... This will include President Arafat."
Bush is pressing Arab nations to block funding and other support for militant Palestinian groups.
Radical Palestinian groups were closing down operations in Syria, officials in the groups said Monday, following intensified U.S. pressure on the Damascus government to curb Palestinian militants.
Journalists who went to the Damascus offices of three of the main organizations -- Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command -- found them closed Monday.