Back-to-back suicide blasts kill 2 Israelis, rattle Mideast truce

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Newsday in the Mideast
ROSH HAAYIN, Israel - Fracturing an already shaky 6-week-old cease-fire, two teen-age Palestinian suicide bombers blew themselves up in successive attacks yesterday, killing two Israelis and wounding 11 others.

The bombings, at a mall in this small town near Tel Aviv and at a bus stop near the Jewish settlement of Ariel in the West Bank, further threaten a U.S.-backed peace plan already battered as each side accuses the other of failing to make necessary concessions.

The violence also raises the possibility that senior U.S. officials, who have been visiting frequently to coax both sides to agree to the smallest details, will have to become more deeply involved if the peace effort is to be preserved.

Two militant groups, Hamas and the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, claimed responsibility for the blasts, which came after more than a month of relative quiet. The attacks jolted Israelis back to a time when suicide bombings were a routine part of the Palestinian uprising, raising fears that the short, welcome respite was over.

In Rosh Haayin, municipal worker Shlomo Bashari stood stunned, with blood from a woman he had dragged out of the wreckage smeared on the breast pocket of his blue uniform. "She yelled, 'Save me,'" he said, as rescuers performed the grim and all-too-familiar task of collecting human remains.

Israeli police called the timing of the attacks a coincidence, even though the bombers, both 17, lived a few blocks from each other in the West Bank city of Nablus and died in self-triggered explosions that came only a few miles and less than an hour apart.

A renegade faction of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades said it sent its attacker to the mall in Rosh Haayin, along the West Bank, where a 42-year-old man was killed inside a supermarket. The faction has refused to honor the cease-fire even though the group is affiliated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah political party, which signed it.

Hamas, which until yesterday had stuck to the truce, said it dispatched its bomber to the bus stop in the West Bank, where an 18-year-old army recruit was killed, to avenge the death of two of its members during an Israeli army raid in Nablus last week.

Hamas gave the Associated Press a letter from the bomber, Islam Yousef Qteishat, saying: "Father, don't be sad, lift your head in pride, because your son died a martyr for the sake of God."

U.S. response

Speaking in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said that the bombings were done "by people who were doing everything they can to destroy the dreams of Israelis and Palestinians alike."

Powell dismissed reports that the peace initiative has failed. "We've already seen reports on television that say, well, the road map is now finished, or the cease-fire is over, or this is all off track," he said. "No, it's not. We cannot let it go off track."

White House officials said the Palestinians "must act now" to dismantle militant groups.

Israel's response was muted as it canceled the release of about 70 Palestinian prisoners, all of them petty criminals; moved tanks closer to Nablus, and imposed curfews on surrounding villages. Government officials said they would act with restraint and preserve the peace process.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, visiting the agricultural ministry, said again that the Palestinians had not yet taken security seriously. He did not convene his security Cabinet, which usually meets before large-scale military operations are launched.

"We see that the Palestinian Authority isn't doing what it has to do, and the main thing it has to do is dismantle terrorist organizations, confiscate their weapons and wage an uncompromising campaign against terror," Sharon said. He vowed that the political process would end if "terror does not stop."

Israeli officials were not a party to the three-month cease-fire, which expires at the end of September, regarding it as an internal agreement among the Palestinian Authority and various armed militant factions. Israeli officials have since accused Hamas and Islamic Jihad of exploiting the truce to rearm.

A day after the truce was announced at the end of June, the Israeli army pulled troops back from occupied areas of the Gaza Strip and out of the West Bank city of Bethlehem, and returned security control there to the Palestinians. Since then, five Israelis and one foreign national have been killed in sporadic attacks, most in or near areas still occupied by the Israeli army.

The army has continued to conduct raids, impose curfews and shoot suspected militants in six Palestinian cities on the West Bank still under its control. Army and police officials said they have arrested 10 suicide bombers on the way to attacks since the end of June.

The raid in Nablus last week, during which an Israeli soldier was killed, was aimed at arresting two Hamas leaders and destroying a suspected bomb factory. Army officials complained that Palestinian police should be shutting down such places as part of its agreement to eradicate militant groups under the U.S.-backed road map to peace. Palestinian officials say it is impossible for their police to patrol cities under military occupation.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority's prime minister, cut short a trip to the Persian Gulf yesterday to fly back to the region.

Speaking from Qatar, Abbas condemned the attacks but said he also condemned "the recurring Israeli provocations."

"The Palestinian Authority will work hard to maintain the truce and the quiet," he said.

Fearing a civil war, Abbas has refused to disband militant groups - a key provision in the road map - as he tries to turn the temporary truce into a lasting peace through negotiations. That, he said, is impossible as long as Israel continues its military operations, expands West Bank settlements and proceeds with a 215-mile security fence to separate Israel from the West Bank. Palestinians say the combination electronic fence and concrete wall is eating up hundreds of acres of their land, raising obstacles to peace.

Israelis say the bombings prove the need for the fence. A 95-mile section reaches just short of Rosh Haayin; the mall is 300 yards from the West Bank.

Israeli police said they are not sure how the Rosh Haayin bomber reached Israeli territory but said his alleged driver, an Israeli-Arab, had been arrested.

The regional police commander, Amichai Shai, said his district got a warning from Israeli intelligence about a possible bomber in the area at 9 a.m. Shai said he ordered hundreds of police to set up roadblocks and dispatched two officers to the two shopping centers in Rosh Haayin, a routine procedure because of its proximity to the West Bank. He said an officer was pulling into the parking lot when the bomb went off at 9:15 a.m.

The police commander said the bomber, identified as Hamis Jurrin, was wearing a backpack filled with six pounds of explosives. He walked into the grocery store, aimed his explosives at two checkout clerks and exploded himself, killing one shopper, Yehezkel Yakutieli, 42. Nine people were wounded, including the clerks and a security guard.

'If there was a fence'

"If there was a fence, this couldn't have happened so easily," said Zion David, 24, who was on his way to the store to buy cigarettes when the bomb went off in front of him.

A short time after the Rosh Haayin blast, another suicide bombing occurred at a bus stop on the Trans-Samaria highway, which cuts across the center part of the West Bank linking Jewish settlements to Tel Aviv. Palestinians are not allowed to use most of the highway.

Israeli police said the bomber emerged from olive groves next to the busy road and approached a bus stop where three Israelis were waiting. They apparently became suspicious, and the attacker detonated his bomb, killing Erez Hershkovitz, 18, and wounding the others.

Debris was strewn across the bloodstained road near the entrance to Ariel, one of the largest Jewish settlements - with 18,000 inhabitants, a university and an industrial park. Residents have demanded that the security fence, which would miss them by 10 miles, be extended for their protection.

Ron Nachman, Ariel's mayor, predicted that his campaign for the fence, stalled by intervention from the Bush administration, would be easier.

"The debate about the fence is over," he said.

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