At least three people, all women, were killed and 70 more wounded when an Islamic Jihad suicide bomber blew himself up outside a crowded Netanya mall Tuesday evening. The blast shattered a relative lull in such attacks since the last Islamic Jihad bombing in February.
[Editor: The number of casualties later rose to five when two more of the victims died of their wounds.]
An hour earlier, another Palestinian - possibly an unwilling bomber, since reports said he was a suspected collaborator who had been abducted and chained to the wheel of his vehicle - drove a pickup loaded with cooking gas canisters into the West Bank settlement of Shavei Shomron. The charge detonated and he sustained serious burns.
The Prime Minister's Office vowed a 'heavy handed response' to the two terrorist attacks but would not specify when, or in what form, that response would take.
Israel's security barrier, which snakes primarily along the Green Line from the Jordan Valley to the city of Rosh Ha'ayin in Israel's center, was built specifically to prevent such attacks, and has hitherto been highly effective in the Netanya area.
The suicide bomber, 18-year-old Ahmed Sami Abu Halil from the village of Atil near Tulkarm, belonged to Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group that refused to sign on to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's tahdiya (period of calm). Security sources believed the same Tulkarm-based cell was responsible for both of Tuesday's attacks and for the February bombing of the Stage nightclub in Tel Aviv.
The Netanya blast occurred on the crosswalk just outside the packed Sharon Shopping Mall at rush hour. The force of the blast popped hubcaps off nearby cars and sent razor-sharp shards of glass flying dozens of meters.
Two of the wounded were in critical condition, six sustained serious wounds and seven suffered moderate wounds, medics said. The wounded were evacuated to area hospitals Hillel Yaffe and Laniado.
Body parts and debris mingled in little piles as squads of ZAKA volunteers in plastic suits began cleaning the site.
Single shoes and sandals littered the street. A single foot, toes pointed skyward, lay in the middle of the crosswalk where it landed.
Netanya Mayor Miriam Fierberg was driving by the mall when the explosion hit this coastal city. 'I saw the smoke and parts of bodies flying in the air,' she recounted on Israel Radio.
Still, she insisted that those who dispatched the bombers had failed to 'damage the happiness of the city of Netanya,' which was also hosting several events of the Maccabiah 'Jewish Olympics.'
Israel Police Central District Commander Benny Kanik said that 'logic dictates that there is a connection' between the two attacks in Netanya and Shavei Shomron. He doubted, however, that this attack was intended to interfere with the Maccabiah events in and around Netanya.
Abbas, who last week held talks with Islamic Jihad, condemned the bombing as 'idiotic,' vowing to punish those responsible.
'This was a crime against the Palestinian people, and those who were behind it must be traitors working against our people's interest and must be punished,' Abbas told reporters.
In February another teenage Islamic Jihad-affiliated suicide bomber set out from Tulkarm, killing five revelers and wounding dozens outside Tel Aviv's Stage nightclub.
The Netanya shopping mall was already the scene of a terror bombing that killed five and wounded 74 in May 2001. In that bombing as well, the suicide bomber was prevented from entering the mall and detonated near the outside security check.
Netanya, the target of many deadly terror attacks in the past, is located minutes away from the West Bank city of Tulkarm.
Abbas also said the bombing was especially foolish, with Israel poised to pull out of 25 settlements in Gaza and the West Bank later this summer.
Prime Minister Sharon's Spokesman Asi Shariv stated that 'in no way will this bombing derail the disengagement.'
In Netanya, though, that promise provided little solace. Hundreds rushed to glimpse a scene that has become all too familiar to Netanyans. Some of them cried and held one another. But most had become accustomed to such grisly scenes.
Bat-El Sheech, from Netanya, is also no stranger to terror attacks. Sheech, who works at the Balagan clothing shop just 50 meters from the bomb site, described Tuesday's attack as 'typical Israel, because instead of running away from the bombing, everybody started running toward the bombing. This is Netanya - we're used to it.'
Carol Nissim, 58, had arrived in Israel Tuesday morning hoping for a respite from such gruesome scenes and police sirens after having braved the four July 7th bombings in London. But fortune dictated otherwise. She stood in the mall's restaurant area as the sound of the blast reverberated through the packed structure.
It was 'so loud we thought it had happened in the mall,' she said.
She described the scene as 'complete bedlam. People started rushing one way, away from the bombing, and then came rushing back to find their missing children and family.'
But Nissim kept her cool and guided two of her family members out the back of the mall to safety. While perhaps down on her luck, Nissim was not short of Churchillian determination. 'They're not going to get me,' she said with a stiff upper lip, 'my holiday might have started with a bang, but I won't let them win,' she said.
When EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who happened to be in Israel at the time of the bombing, called Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom to express his condolences, Shalom told him that the international community 'must pressure the Palestinian Authority to fulfill its obligations and fight terror.'
James D. Wolfensohn, the Quartet special envoy for disengagement, also expressed his 'deepest sympathy to the bereaved families.'
He added that 'this was an attack not only on the Israeli people but also on the Palestinian people, because it diminishes the prospects for the agreements that will ensure the freedom, dignity and hope they deserve.'
The United States, meanwhile, urged Israel to 'move forward' and not forsake its plan to withdraw from Gaza.
While America condemned the bombing and affirmed Israel's right to self-defense, State Department spokesman Tom Casey appeared to caution Israel about any retaliation. 'We ask them to consider the consequences of any actions they might take,' he said.
Casey said the planned pullout was a 'genuine opportunity' to move forward on a blueprint for Palestinian statehood.
'Obviously, that progress would have to continue, and ultimately we want to see the president's [Bush's] vision of two states living side by side in peace achieved,' Casey said.
Additionally, White House spokesman Scott McAllen said, 'The Palestinian Authority needs to act to dismantle terrorist organizations and to stop attacks from happening in the first place.'
Meanwhile, in London, Palestinian ministers were meeting with Likud and Shas MKs when news of the attack reached the participants.
The MKs stopped the meeting until the Palestinians condemned the event.
The Palestinian representatives included Saeb Erekat, Kadoura Fares and Sufian Abu-Zaideh. The MKs were Eli Yishai and Ya'acov Margi of Shas and Michael Ratzon and Moshe Kahlon of the Likud. Earlier in the day, the MKs laid a wreath on the site of one of the London attacks.
Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz said that illusions about the disengagement plan stopping terror exploded along with the suicide bomber in Netanya. Katz said the policies of targeted killings against terrorist leaders and strikes against the terrorist infrastructure should be renewed.
Hilary Leila Krieger, Gil Hoffman, and AP contributed to this report
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