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Suicide Bomber Hits Israeli Shopping Center

By VOA News, IsraelNationalNews.com, Ha'aretz, Ynetnews.com

A suicide bomber has killed at least four people, including that of the suicide bomber, and injured about 91 more in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya. The extremist group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack. The bomb exploded at about 6:35 p.m. just outside a busy shopping mall in the city.

The attacker, Ahmed Abu Khalil, was an 18-year-old Palestinian from the West Bank village of Atil, about eight miles east of Netanya. He had just finished high school a few days ago. The bomber, who apparently was wearing an explosive belt or carrying a bag of explosives, was stopped before actually entering the mall. A suicide bomber attacked the Sharon mall a few years ago. In the previous attack, security guards also stopped the bomber before entering the mall. Five persons were killed in that attack. "We reiterate our commitment to calm, but we have to retaliate for Israeli violations," suicide bomber Khalil said in a farewell video.

The bomber exploded on the south side of the Herzl and Petach Tikva Streets' intersection. Cars in the intersection were also damaged by the blast, with plastic and metal pieces flying in all directions, as windows at the entrance to the mall were blown to bits. Police sappers dispatched to the scene examined the area and the bomber's body and removed people from the scene for fear of additional explosions.

Later, police closed off all entrances to and exits from the city in a bid to capture the person who drove the bomber to the scene of the attack. Eyewitnesses told officers about an apparently Arab man who escaped from the area carrying a bag. Police forces and helicopters are currently looking for the suspect.

Paramedic Rafi Sheva, who resides near the mall, says he heard the blast and arrived at the scene immediately. "I saw two bodies around and another body was that of the terrorist," he said. "I started to treat those seriously injured. The wounded were in panic and screaming in pain. Others were lying on the road and simply kept silent, due to shock," he said.

Sources in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office said that Israel would react to the attack with a "heavy hand." They also said that Islamic Jihad had removed itself from the truce agreement reached at Sharm Al Sheikh in January. Security sources said that the army would expand its operations against Islamic Jihad in the northern West Bank.

"Israel has done all it could to ease up Palestinian needs but the PA has not fulfilled obligations undertaken at Sharem al Sheikh and shows no signs of doing so," David Baker, an official in the Prime Minister's Office, said in response to the attack. The Palestinian Authority condemned the bombing Tuesday evening, saying that it had been intended to derail Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip next month.

Following the bombing, police declared a high state of alert across the nation. A special foreign language hotline was opened following Tuesday evening's bombing. The number is: 12-55-08-1010

Arik Twik, who was standing about 70 feet away from the mall's entrance, said he saw a suspicious person, who a mall security guard also spotted. "The terrorist apparently realized he'd been identified, stood in the middle of the crosswalk right next to four young girls, French tourists apparently, and then blew up," he said. "It was a big mess."

Netanya resident Pazit told Ynet: "My mom was right at the mall's entrance. She turned around and was about to leave when the explosion was heard. She said body parts were flying...the doors exploded from the blast. She sounded very frightened."

Netanya is at Israel's narrowest point, nine miles from the West Bank. The city has been a frequent target of Palestinian bombers, but the frequency has dropped sharply in the past year, with completion of a section of the separation fence along that part of the West Bank.

Miriam Feinberg, the mayor of Netanya, where much of the Maccabiah Games is taking place, told Israel Radio that she witnessed the attack. "I was at a junction... I saw the attack in front of my eyes," she told the radio, adding that she had been on her way to attend the games. She said that the city intended to continue with its planned events, Israel Radio reported. A Maccabiah official said Tuesday evening that all Maccabiah participants had been accounted for.

Ambulances rushed to the scene as bodies were recovered and the injured taken away to hospitals. It has become a familiar scene in many Israeli cities during the past four and a half years of violence. But the attack shattered a five-month calm that had held, with some exceptions, since Israel and the Palestinians agreed to a truce in early February. A few weeks into that truce a suicide bomber from Islamic Jihad blew himself up outside a Tel Aviv nightclub.

Shortly before the Netanya attack, a car exploded in the Jewish West Bank community of Shavei Shomron, located a few kilometers east of Tulkarem. Nobody was injured in that attack. Police investigators suspect there may be a connection between the two attacks. Police believe the explosion was a botched car bombing that went awry when the explosives detonated prematurely. The driver of the car was captured. The incidents occur at a sensitive time as Israel prepares to withdraw its settlement from the Gaza Strip and small portions of the West Bank.

(Video footage from the scene of the attack can be seen at http://switch5.castup.net/cuplayer.asp?customer=skin_ynet_but_main_slide_flash&source=default&clip.nb=http%3A%2F%2Fswitch3%2Ecastup%2Enet%2Fcunet%2Fgm%2Easp%3FClipMediaID%3D68112%26ak%3Dnull%26nb%3D1)

The United States has strongly condemned the suicide bombing. Officials in Washington acknowledge Israel's right to self-defense following the Netanya attack. But they also say they hope Israel will consider the consequences of retaliatory action, if any, and that they are hopeful the Gaza pullout proceeds on schedule next month.

Responding to the attack at a news briefing, acting State Department Spokesman Thomas Casey condemned the incident and suggested it was aimed at blocking progress toward peace in the region. "This really is just another example of violence being perpetrated by those who oppose peace and who have nothing but a rejectionist agenda to sell. It's all the more reason why our focus has to be, and has to continue to be, on helping the Israelis and the Palestinians move forward on the 'road map' and helping them deal with the challenges that are out there."

The White House also condemned the bombing in the strongest terms, saying there's no justification for the murder of innocent civilians. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan urged the Palestinian Authority to take action to dismantle terrorist organizations to stop attacks like Tuesday's from happening in the first place.

The State Department meanwhile confirmed that U.S. and Israeli officials have held talks on possible new financial aid to Israel to help underwrite the costs of the Gaza withdrawal, including compensating uprooted Israeli settlers. Israel is reported to be seeking more than $2 billion in U.S. grants and loan guarantees spread out over several years. It would be in addition to the nearly $3 billion in military and economic aid provided to Israel each year in what is the largest single U.S. foreign assistance program.


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