Five hours that marked new peak in Middle East's daily diet of violence

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The Independent Online

The tit-for-tat warfare that has raged between Palestinians and Israelis for almost a year peaked yesterday with three guerrilla attacks within five hours that killed five Israelis and wounded 112 inside Israel and the occupied West Bank.

The tit-for-tat warfare that has raged between Palestinians and Israelis for almost a year peaked yesterday with three guerrilla attacks within five hours that killed five Israelis and wounded 112 inside Israel and the occupied West Bank.

Two Arabs were killed by their own bombs, while a third was shot dead by Israeli troops while planting an explosive near the border fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Israel retaliated for the attacks with helicopter strikes on Palestinian security bases in three West Bank towns, Ramallah, Jericho and Kabatiya. As on previous occasions, the Palestinians had vacated the buildings in anticipation of reprisal raids, which prompted many Israelis to question whether their leaders have any effective antidote.

In the most devastating of the Arab operations, a suicide bomber killed himself and three Israelis at a crowded railway station in the coastal resort of Nahariya, five miles south of the Lebanese border. He waited outside a café until a train pulled in to the platform, then detonated his explosive. Nahariya is the end of the commuter line from Tel Aviv to the north. The station was packed with soldiers returning to base after weekend leave.

"I was standing near by and I heard a great explosion," said Avi Levy. "It took me a minute to come to my senses and then I saw glass everywhere and I saw people running like crazy. People were crying and hysterical." Elroey Abuhatzira, 22, a soldier, said he believed he spotted the bomber awkwardly holding a large gift-wrapped box moments before the explosion. "I saw pieces of meat flying by me and I am sure this man is part of the soot and was pulverised in the explosion," he said from his hospital bed.

Further down the Mediterranean coast, a West Bank Palestinian driver was blown apart when a bomb he was carrying detonated prematurely at a busy junction. The fire brigade took more than two hours to put out a blaze that gutted a bus and other Israeli vehicles waiting at the red light.

Police suspect the driver was aiming for the resort of Netanya, the scene of repeated bombings over the past year, and that he intended to park the car and make his way back to the West Bank.

In a third action, Palestinian gunmen killed a nursery school teacher, 24, and the driver of a van that was ferrying her to work in a Jewish settlement in the upper Jordan Valley. Three other teachers were wounded.

Israelis were disturbed that the Nahariya suicide bomber was, according to their government, an Israeli Arab citizen. Mohammed Shaker Habashi, 55, from the Galilee village of Abu Snan, was a leading light of the militant Islamic Movement.

Some sources named the bomber as Mohammed Salah, but police said they found Habashi's identification card at the scene. They also recovered a hand of the bomber, and were checking the fingerprints to see if it belonged to Habashi, who once ran unsuccessfully for mayor in the nearby village of Abu Snan.

Israel's 1 million Arabs have been identifying more closely with the Palestinian nationalist cause, but, if confirmed, this is the first time one of their number has killed and died for it. If they were to stage more attacks, it would vastly complicate Israel's security problems.

Israeli Arabs live inside Israel proper, and do not face tough restrictions on their movements, as do the 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

The suicide is particularly worrying for the security services because it is not an isolated phenomenon. An alert taxi dispatcher spotted a bomb that had been left near the Church of the Annunciation on Saturday in Nazareth. Police, who managed to disarm it, believe it was to be picked up and taken to a Jewish target.

Elsewhere in Galilee, a region with a large Israeli Arab population, four youths from the village of Dir Hanna were arrested last week on suspicion of planning to plant bombs in Israel. They are reported to have told their interrogators that they were recruited by the Tanzim, the military wing of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

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