EILAT, Israel (Reuters) – Palestinian militant groups mounted their first suicide bombing in Israel in nine months on Monday, killing 3 people in the Red Sea tourist resort of Eilat.
The Eilat blast occurred four days before the so-called Quartet of Middle East mediators was to meet in Washington as part of a bid to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Efforts have been complicated by Palestinian factional gunbattles.
Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades claimed responsibility for what was the first suicide attack in the Red Sea town, and named a 21-year-old from Gaza as the bomber. Israeli police said he infiltrated from Egypt.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said the attackers were trying to disrupt a shaky two-month-old ceasefire between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza.
“We intend to protect Israel’s citizens … We are certainly prepared to give the proper reactions. At the same time, we will do everything to keep the ceasefire,” Peretz told parliament in remarks that could suggest Israel’s response would be limited.
In Gaza, rival Palestinian factions battled in the streets for a fifth successive day on Monday, killing at least three people. Saudi Arabia has offered to host talks between the feuding Hamas movement and Fatah in the holy city of Mecca.
The fighting has been the fiercest since Hamas, an Islamist group, won elections a year ago. Gunbattles have spread across the densely populated Gaza Strip, where 1.5 million Palestinians live, and have prompted some families to flee their homes.
The latest deaths raised to 30 the number of people killed in clashes since Thursday. The fighting, which has erupted periodically over the past year, has derailed unity talks between Hamas and Fatah.
“What else can we call this but a civil war?” asked Abu Omar, a shop owner in Gaza City, where most businesses closed down.
Eilat residents were jolted by what witnesses described as a powerful explosion in the Lechamim bakery in a residential neighborhood of the city, far from its beach hotels.
“I saw a man with a black coat and a bag. For Eilat, where it is hot, it is strange to see someone walking with a coat. I said to myself, ‘Why is this idiot dressed that way?’ Seconds later, I heard a huge blast. The building shook,” Benny Mazgini, a local resident, told Israel Radio.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in broadcast remarks all three of those killed by the bomber were Israelis. He said Israel was weighing its response.
Islamic Jihad and the Aqsa brigades said the bombing was a response to Israeli “attempts to defile al-Aqsa mosque” in Jerusalem, a reference to recent archaeological excavations. Israeli officials said the work had not damaged the shrine.
“The heroic operation announces the beginning of a series of operations in defense of al-Aqsa mosque and it was a natural response to savage aggression by the occupation (Israel),” the two groups said in a statement.
A spokesman for the Aqsa brigades, part of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, identified the suicide bomber as Mohammad Faisal Siksik, 21, from Gaza City, a member of the brigades’ Army of Believers.
Israeli police said the bomber entered Egypt from Gaza and then made his way through the Sinai peninsula to the porous Egyptian-Israeli border north of Eilat, where he caught a ride with an Israeli motorist who drove him into the city.
After dropping him off, the driver phoned police to report the hitch-hiker had behaved suspiciously. The bomber detonated 10 kg (22 lb) of explosives while police were searching the area where he was dropped, a police spokesman said.
Olmert voiced fears the attack could scare tourists away from Eilat.
Nearly 180,000 foreign tourists visited the resort, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, last year. The city has been spared the violence of a more than six-year-long Palestinian uprising.
At his family home in the northern Gaza Strip, Siksik’s brother Naeem told reporters: “We knew he was going to carry out a martyrdom operation. His mother and father prayed for him to succeed.”
In Washington, the White House issued a statement in which it condemned “Palestinian terrorist groups, including Hamas, that condone these barbaric actions”.
It said the Palestinian Authority’s failure to “act against terror will inevitably affect relations between that government and the international community and undermine the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a state of their own”.
A Palestinian suicide bomber last struck in Israel on April 17, 2006, killing 11 people outside a restaurant in Tel Aviv in an attack claimed by Islamic Jihad.