TEL AVIV — Another Palestinian suicide bombing has sown tragedy in Israel and raised the stakes in a national leadership race.
An Islamic Jihad terrorist blew himself up Monday outside the Sharon Mall in Netanya, which has seen several such attacks as it is very close to the West Bank. At least five people were killed, and more than 50 were wounded.
The bomber was identified as a 21-year-old man from the West Bank.
Israel responded by closing the West Bank and Gaza, and then launching a military crackdown in the West Bank on Tuesday.
Witnesses reported that Israeli troops swept into the suicide bomber’s home village near Tulkarm, arresting his father and three brothers. A total of 14 wanted Palestinians were detained overnight, Israel Radio reported.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said that the action against Islamic Jihad would be comprehensive and long lasting.
The U.S. State Department said that the attack underscored the need for the Palestinian Authority and Syria, which hosts Islamic Jihad, to crack down on terrorist groups.
“The Palestinian Authority must take immediate steps to prevent these attacks, to end the violence and to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism,” spokesman Adam Ereli said Monday.
Sensing that the situation could spiral out of control, P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the bombing and pledged to arrest those responsible.
But belying Abbas’s words, Islamic Jihad held a press conference in Gaza City, which is under full P.A. control, to celebrate the attack.
P.A. police detained three Islamic Jihad militants in Nablus, but they were not believed to be related to the Netanya bombing. P.A. forces also tried to arrest an Islamic Jihad member in a refugee camp in Jenin, but gave up after militants responded with gunfire, Ha’aretz reported.
The bombing was the third attack on the shopping mall, Netanya Mayor Miriam Fierberg said in a conference call Monday with Jewish federation officials in Cincinnati, Netanya’s sister city. Netanya is located close to Israel’s pre-1967 border with the Palestinian territories, and the mall is at the entrance to the city. Therefore facilitators who drop off the bombers can make a quick getaway.
As the bomber approached the mall at about 11:30 a.m., guards identified him as a potential terrorist and pinned him against the wall. But he managed to set off explosives in his bag, killing a security guard and several other people nearby.
“The fact that the security guard and policemen managed to identify the bomber meant that they prevented a major disaster,” Israel Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi said.
Fierberg said that the day started out as a perfect one for her city. The weather was unseasonably warm, and she was hosting a party at City Hall to celebrate the decision of major Israeli high-tech firm Elbit to move to Netanya.
Then her cell phone rang, and she got word of the attack.
“This is the way we have to live here and to cope,” she said in the conference call, which was held between visits to the hospital to check on the wounded.
Sharon’s right-wing rivals in the Likud Party — which he left last month, founding a new, centrist party to compete in March 2006 elections — lost no time in condemning him.
“Thanks to Sharon, we risk seeing a terror base being created right next to the Dan region,” legislator Uzi Landau told reporters. “Today’s terror attack is only a sign of things to come.”
Landau withdrew from the Likud primary race Monday to endorse the front-runner, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Other candidates include Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Mofaz.
Sharon’s new party, Kadima, also faces a challenge from the left, from Labor Party leader Amir Peretz.
A former trade union chief with little experience in making war or peace, Peretz was quick to call for an “all-out crackdown on terror.” But he also has appealed to Israeli doves by vowing that if he’s elected prime minister, he’ll withdraw from large areas of the West Bank.
Sharon has a strong lead in popularity polls. This is, in large part, because of his alliance with veteran diplomat Shimon Peres, who left Labor last week after losing a leadership primary to Peretz.
While he was Labor chairman, Peres helped Sharon push through the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza this past summer, a move intended to kick-start moribund peace efforts with the Palestinians. But there have been two suicide bombings since the pullout, as well as salvos of rocket fire from Gaza at Israeli border towns.
The latter tactic appears to be extending its reach. This past Saturday, two rockets struck Shuva, a village five miles from the Gaza boundary that had not been hit until now. Mofaz ordered a resumption of air strikes aimed at killing Palestinian terrorists involve in producing and launching rockets.