JERUSALEM - A Palestinian suicide bomber dressed as an Israeli soldier blew himself up at an outdoor marketplace yesterday in the northern city of Net- anya, killing three Israelis and ending a respite in Middle East violence.
At least 50 others were injured in the blast, which occurred amid wooden fruit and vegetable stalls about 4:15 p.m. Several people were reported in critical condition in the attack at the market, which was not crowded at the time.
Two militant groups, the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, claimed responsibility for the bombing in anonymous phone calls to a television station in Lebanon.
The bombing shattered a relative calm that had followed the end of Israel's sweeping two-month offensive in the West Bank that was launched after another suicide attack in Net- anya on March 27 that killed 29 people on the eve of Passover.
Over the past week, the news has been filled with diplomacy and internal politics on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. Various peace plans were put forward, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was preparing for elections to answer demands for reform.
But Israeli security officials have been warning that the threat of more violence had not ended. They said several planned attacks on Jerusalem were thwarted over the weekend, as Israelis celebrated Shavuot, a pilgrimage holiday that marks the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai seven weeks after the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has repeatedly said he will not entertain cease-fire talks or negotiations about a Palestinian state until terror stops and Arafat initiates reforms that would reduce the leader to figurehead status.
Arafat said that reform and elections are not possible until Israel withdraws its troops in the West Bank to positions held before September 2000, when the deadly uprising began. Such a move is unlikely by the current government.
"It is obvious that the Palestinians still refuse to take any steps whatsoever to reign in the terror that emanates from the territories," said David Baker, an official in Sharon's government. "Israel will continue to employ whatever means are necessary to protect its citizens."
Last night, Israeli army forces entered the West Bank city of Tulkarm and arrested two Palestinians. No other information was available. Also yesterday, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine opened fire on a convoy of Israeli cars in the Gaza Strip. Four soldiers were injured when their jeep overturned.
Hours later, Palestinians said several Israeli tanks rolled into part of the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Arafat's office is headquartered.
An army spokeswoman said a force including armored personnel carriers, but no tanks, entered the city after shots were fired at an Israeli motorist traveling to a nearby West Bank settlement. The driver was unhurt, she added. The troops withdrew a short time later, without any contact with Palestinians, the spokeswoman said.
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, appearing on NBC's Meet the Press, again urged Arafat to crack down on militant groups, but added that "there clearly is a class of bombings that he can't rein in."
Cheney said, "We've got to find a way to get a handle on it, because we're not going to get that peace process back on track until the violence ends." The United States is planning on sending CIA Director George Tenet to the region to unify Arafat's many security forces under one command and help it target militant groups.
In Natanya, police said they had been on high alert all afternoon after receiving warnings about a potential attack. An hour before the explosion, police said, they had specific information that a bomber had gotten into the city, but they didn't know where.
Last night, the alert continued as police said they were searching for a female accomplice, who was reportedly armed. Authorities also said the alert they had received might have been for a second attacker also targeting Netanya.
The force of the blast ripped apart a section of the market, threw tables half a block and left pulverized fruit spread over the ground. Shopping bags were scattered about, and pictures broadcast on Israeli television showed a bloodied man crawling through the debris. A body lay between stalls.
Firefighters rescued many victims who were trapped under the market awnings.
It was unclear last night which group carried out the attack. Hamas has publicly rejected Arafat's calls for restraint and vowed to continue its deadly campaign.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine is angry that Arafat ended the siege on his Ramallah compound by striking a deal to send four of its members and its West Bank leader to a Jericho jail guarded by American and British security officers.
The last suicide attack occurred May 7 at a pool and gambling hall in Rishon Letzion, a city outside Tel Aviv, in which 15 people were killed. That prompted the Israeli army to call up reservists and mobilize near the crowded Gaza Strip, which had been spared during the latest offensive.
But the operation was called off at the last minute, partly because of pressure from the international community, which worried about another setback in restarting peace talks. Israel has vowed to strike back after each attack.
Yesterday's bomber reportedly came from Tulkarm, located about 10 miles from Netanya. It was one of the cities that Israeli troops entered in late March, and they have gone in several more times in limited operations since then.
Israel, along with the United States, has repeatedly demanded that Arafat order his security forces to prevent further terror attacks, and after the bombing in Rishon Letzion, he told his police to do just that. But he also said it would be difficult because Israel's army had destroyed most of the police stations and killed or arrested many of the officers.
Arafat is now facing pressure from other places as well. Palestinian politicians and residents are demanding reforms and elections.
Over the weekend, 15 of his Cabinet ministers offered to resign, and others urged an end to corruption.
Leaders of other Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, also are urging Arafat to change his government and rein in terror groups. Jordanian Prime Minister Ali Abul-Ragheb visited Arafat in Ramallah yesterday and told the leader that reform is necessary to prepare for a state.
Hours before the attack, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres outlined a new peace plan, in which a Palestinian state would be recognized after the Palestinian security forces are reorganized and unified under one command.
Then, over the period of two years, other contentious issues such as borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem could be resolved.
But Sharon has ruled out statehood until the authority is completely restructured and Arafat's power is diminished. Last week, Sharon's right-wing Likud Party voted to never accept a Palestinian state.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.