Suicide bomber strikes in Beersheva

An Israeli fireman on Sunday surveys the scene following a suicide attack in the city of BeershevaAbbas condemns attack, describes it `terrorist operation’

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — A suicide bomber blew himself up yesterday wounding some 40 Israelis, two of them seriously, in the southern Israeli town of Beersheva. The bombing came four days after Israeli troops killed five Palestinians, three of them teenagers, in the northern West Bank town of Tulkarem.

According to Israeli reports, the bomber had tried to board an Israeli bus during rush hour yesterday, when the bus driver became suspicious of a heavy backpack and alerted two security guards to the man. When the two confronted the man he detonated the bomb.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. All the major Palestinian factions had vowed revenge after the August 25 Tulkarem incursion in which, according to Palestinian sources, a member of Islamic Jihad, a member of the Fateh-affiliated Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades as well as three unarmed teenagers were killed. Israeli security sources Sunday suggested a Hamas cell in Hebron was responsible, but Palestinian sources said they expected Islamic Jihad to claim responsibility.

Israeli officials, meanwhile, said the bombing showed that the Palestinian Authority was not doing enough to confront armed Palestinian groups.

“Israel has taken the necessary steps to further the prospects of peace with the Palestinians,” said David Baker, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “This bombing … is another indication that the Palestinian Authority must take proper steps against terror, and without these steps, there will be no progress between both sides.”

PA President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack, describing it as a “terrorist operation.”

Presidential national security adviser, Jibril Rajoub, however, said Israel had to expect consequences for the Tulkarem incursion.

“Israel must know that if it continues with this state terrorism it will lead to more violence in the region,” he told AFP.

During Sunday’s Israeli Cabinet meeting, Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel has made it clear that the Palestinians must fulfil their pledges to act against the factions.

Mofaz also vowed that Israel would complete its West Bank barrier, a significant source of friction with the Palestinians, who see the barrier as a blatant landgrab. Last week, Israel announced that it would extend the barrier 14km into the West Bank around Maaleh Adumim, the largest West Bank settlement, and expropriation orders has already been handed to Palestinians who own land on its route.

Also last week, the Israeli housing ministry announced tenders for 3,500 new housing units in Maaleh Adumim, and Israeli officials confirmed plans to build a police station near the same settlement, thereby isolating occupied East Jerusalem from its West Bank heartland. Settlements in occupied territory are illegal according to international law.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Cabinet yesterday approved a plan to hand over responsibility of the Gaza-Egypt border to Egyptian troops. The plan calls for Egypt to deploy 750 troops along the border to prevent weapons smuggling into the Palestinian territory.

The plan will allow Israel to withdraw its troops from a security strip on the Gaza-Egypt border, though no agreement has yet been reached on control over the Rafah Crossing into Egypt. Israel wants to move the crossing to a point at the south-eastern edge of Gaza, in effect making it a three-way border between Egypt, Israel and Gaza. The PA wants the crossing to remain where it is, under third-party observation but with no Israeli presence.

In another development, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana is to meet Abbas and Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia in Gaza City on Monday, Palestinian officials said.

Solana’s three-day mission from Sunday night, during which he is also to meet Sharon, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Mofaz, marks the first high-profile foreign visit since the Gaza pullout.

“In Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, talks will focus on the ongoing Israeli disengagement from Palestinian territory and on the Middle East peace process,” a statement from Solana’s office said last week.

“The visit will underscore the EU’s commitment to remain engaged and to do whatever it can, at the request of both parties, to be of further help in a spirit of friendship and partnership.”

Abbas and Qureia are also to meet Monday with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, Palestinian sources said.

They said Suleiman was to ask Palestinian groups in Gaza to prolong the de facto truce they observed during the evacuation of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and parts of the northern West Bank that was completed last week.

Israeli troops are to leave the Gaza Strip in mid-September, completing Sharon’s controversial disengagement plan.

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