Suicide Bomber Kills Five at Israeli Mall

A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up Monday among shoppers waiting to enter a shopping mall in the central Israeli town of Netanya, killing at least five bystanders and wounding more than 30.

The bombing escalated already heightened tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, marked by recent airstrikes and rocket attacks. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon scheduled an emergency meeting of his Security Cabinet later Monday to discuss a response to the bombing.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas quickly condemned the bombing.

Islamic Jihad, a militant group that has carried out several suicide bombings in recent months, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was retaliation for Israeli targeted killings of the group's leaders.

Police said the bomber blew himself up as he was about to undergo a random security check at the mall's entrance. Avi Sasson, deputy police commander in the northern region, said a guard spotted the bomber.

"Just as police were going to check him, he put his hand in a bag and blew up," he told Israel Radio.

The blast shattered windows and pocked the outside of the brown, multistory building. Pieces of concrete were ripped off the facade, blood stained the base of the building and debris was scattered on the sidewalk.

"I heard a huge bomb. It felt like my head was exploding. I turned around and I saw a red ball of fire, and then I ran," said Masouda Israel, a 67-year-old woman who was in Netanya for a doctor's appointment. "You see these things on TV, but when you're there, it's totally different."

Bodies lay under blankets while emergency workers hurriedly pushed wounded on wheeled stretchers toward ambulances. Ultra-Orthodox rescue crews sifted through debris and police shut down the city, snarling traffic.

Israeli malls have been fortified in the wake of past attacks. Shoppers must go through several security checks, including opening the trunks of their cars and passing through metal detectors, before entering.

Sharon repeatedly has said that long deadlocked peace negotiations cannot resume until militant violence stops, and Monday's attack was likely to set back renewed efforts to return to the internationally sponsored "road map" peace talks.

"The grave attack in Netanya is more proof of the ineffectiveness of the Palestinian Authority under the leadership of Abu Mazen," said Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, referring to Abbas by his nickname. "Israel will act against the terror organizations with all its might and all the means at its disposal. Israel's response will be hard and painful."

In Ramallah, Abbas promised an especially harsh response by his security forces.

"This operation ... against civilians causes the most serious harm to our commitment to the peace process, and the Palestinian Authority will not go easy on whoever is proved to be responsible for this operation," said a statement issued by Abbas' office.

With Israeli elections planned for March 28, pressure could mount on Sharon for an even tougher response. Sharon left his hard-line Likud to form a new centrist party two weeks ago, saying it would give him more freedom to seek a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Israeli columnist Gershom Gorenberg said Monday's blast was likely to cause Sharon to "emphasize the hardline or the more military side of his personality" ahead of the vote. "In many ways the Palestinians have the fate of the (Israeli) political process in their hands right now," he added.

The Palestinians also have parliamentary elections Jan. 25, and any violence could weaken Abbas' Fatah party, laying bare its ineffectiveness in its race against the Islamic Hamas group.

In a phone call to The Associated Press, Islamic Jihad identified the attacker as Lotfi Abu Saada, from the village of Illar, north of the West Bank town of Tulkaram. A video released by the group showed the bomber posing with a grenade launcher and an assault rifle.

Relatives described Abu Saada, 23, as a primary school dropout who was illiterate and exploited by his handlers. "My son is a poor soul. He doesn't know anything about this," said his mother, Amina.

Islamic Jihad has carried out all four previous suicide bombings since a cease-fire declaration last February. The group has said it reserves the right to retaliate for any perceived Israeli violations.

Israel said that Islamic Jihad's attacks make it a legitimate target, despite the truce. Israeli troops killed Luay Saadi, a West Bank leader of the group, on Oct. 24, and late last month arrested another leader, Iyad Abu Rob, after a daylong siege in the town of Jenin.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent group linked to Fatah, also claimed responsibility, but did not release the name of a bomber.

The attack followed growing tensions along Israel's border with the Gaza Strip. Palestinian militants fired two rockets from Gaza into Israel at nightfall Sunday, following the first Israeli airstrikes in Gaza in more than a month. Israel withdrew from Gaza in September and has promised a tough response to any attacks coming out of the area.

During five years of fighting, Netanya, a coastal city about 20 miles north of Tel Aviv, has been a frequent target of suicide bombings due to its close proximity to the West Bank.

But following Israel's construction of a West Bank separation barrier in the area, along with a cease-fire declaration in February, such attacks have dropped sharply.

Monday's attack was the fifth since the cease-fire declaration, and the first suicide bombing in Israel since Oct. 26, when a 20-year-old Palestinian blew himself up at a falafel stand in the town of Hadera, killing five Israelis.

Monday's attack was the third on the Netanya mall since 2001, including a July 12 attack at one of the mall entrances that killed two women.

Netanya also suffered one of the deadliest bombings over the past five years, an attack on a ritual Passover meal at a hotel March 27, 2002, that killed 29 people.

The attack sparked Operation Defensive Shield, during which Israel retook control Palestinian towns and cities in more than two weeks of bloody fighting.

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