Suicide bombing kills two, injures dozens


JERUSALEM - For the third time in four days, a suicide bomber struck in Israel, this time killing two Israelis and wounding dozens last night near a crowded pedestrian mall in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Letzion.

Police said the dead bomber, believed to be Palestinian, had short hair that was bleached in an apparent attempt to not appear Arab.

He detonated the explosives in a covered park where people were playing cards at picnic tables.

Israel television said a 15- year-old boy and a 66-year-old man were killed. About three dozen people were wounded, four seriously.

It was the second bombing in Rishon Letzion in 15 days. The city, Israel's fourth-largest, had never before been targeted by a suicide bomber.

As has become routine after such attacks, Israeli officials quickly blamed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who is under increasing pressure to stop the bombings.

"The Palestinian Authority, despite all its promises, is doing nothing to stop terrorist activity," said Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "Arafat is an obstacle to reforms, an obstacle to peace by his mere presence."

Gissin, speaking by telephone, said he lives just 100 yards from the bombing site but was in New York at the time of the blast.

Late yesterday, the Palestinian leadership denounced the bombing, according to the Palestinian news agency, Wafa. In a statement, leaders called on Palestinians to "declare their condemnation of such terrorist attacks." The statement said the bombing gives Israel an "excuse to continue its aggression [against] our people."

Hours before the bombing, Israeli forces killed a leader of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the militant wing of Arafat's Fatah Party.

The leader, Mahmoud Titi, 30, and three others were killed when an Israeli tank fired shells at the group in a cemetery in Balata Refugee Camp, near the West Bank city of Nablus.

An army spokeswoman said the group used the cemetery as a meeting place to plan attacks.

The Israeli military described Titi as a "leading terror operative" and said he was responsible for attacks that killed 11 Israelis.

The killings follow an Israeli policy of assassinating suspected Palestinian militants. Many times, bystanders are also killed.

Also yesterday, a border police officer shot and killed a Palestinian man after he resisted arrest near a checkpoint south of Jerusalem, according to the army spokeswoman. The man was trying to enter Israel illegally, she said.

The incident is under investigation.

Palestinians call such incidents state terrorism and say they provide motivation for suicide bombers to strike back.

Gissin said there was "no moral equivalent" between the actions of the two sides.

"The minute you look for excuses for any terrorism, you lose the moral ground to fight it," Gissin said. "We have the right to defend ourselves."

The Israeli Cabinet convened in a previously scheduled meeting last night, and it was unclear if it would order military retaliation.

Israeli television interrupted regular programming at about 9:20 p.m. with familiar scenes of bodies being carried off on stretchers and frantic people searching for loved ones.

Commentators wondered aloud why so many people would be outside in a public place just days after a suicide bombing killed three Israelis in an outdoor market in the coastal city of Netanya on Sunday. They attributed the large crowd to one of the first warm nights of the year.

There was also a Monday morning attack near a bus stop in northern Israel in which the suicide bomber killed only himself.

Also yesterday, in a pre-dawn raid in Salfit in the West Bank, Israeli soldiers destroyed an explosives workshop, seized weapons, and arrested "about 15 Palestinians suspected of involvement in terrorism," an army statement said.

The military also blocked the main north-south road in the Gaza Strip yesterday in an effort to stop repeated attacks against Jewish settlements there.

Sharon, meanwhile, won a budget vote in parliament yesterday, but the victory left his coalition stripped of its clear majority and vulnerable to a collapse.

Sharon served notice Tuesday that he was dismissing the representatives of two Orthodox Jewish parties from his governing team after they refused to back the budget cutbacks bill in an earlier vote. The dismissals went into effect early today.

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