Israel explosion kills at least four

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A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up today among people waiting to enter a shopping mall in the northern Israeli town of Netanya, killing at least four shoppers and wounding 35.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent offshoot of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party, claimed responsibility for the attack, in a telephone call to The Associated Press.

Ami Klein, a lawyer who witnessed the explosion from a nearby courthouse, told Israel Radio that the attacker reached the entrance to the mall but wasn't able to enter. "The boom shook the entire courthouse," Klein said.

Police said the bomber blew himself up in a line of people going through a customary security check at the mall's entrance. Police blocked off the area, fearing a second bomber was nearby.

The blast was likely to dash new hopes for progress in Mideast peacemaking following a recent decision by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to break away from his hard-line Likud party and form a new centrist coalition presumably more amenable to compromise.

Sharon has said repeatedly that long deadlocked peace negotiations cannot resume until militant violence stops, and Monday's attack was likely to set back renewed efforts to return to the internationally sponsored "road map" peace talks.

"The Palestinian Authority continues to refuse to take the most elementary steps to prevent terrorism. They refuse to incarcerate terrorists. They refuse to dismantle the terror organizations and put them out of business once and for all.

And we've seen these results today in Netanya," said David Baker, an official in Sharon's office.

The attack followed growing tensions along Israel's border with the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian militants fired two rockets from Gaza into Israel yesterday, following the first Israeli airstrikes in Gaza in more than a month. Israel withdrew from Gaza in September, and has promised a tough response to any attacks coming out of the area.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the attack. "I believe that this harms Palestinian interests and is another act to sabotage efforts to revive the peace process and to sabotage the Palestinian elections," he said, referring to a parliamentary vote set for January.

During five years of fighting, Netanya, a coastal city about 20 miles north of Tel Aviv, has been a frequent target of suicide bombings due to its close proximity to the West Bank.

But following Israel's construction of its West Bank separation barrier in the area, along with a cease-fire declaration in February, there has been a sharp drop in such attacks.

Monday's attack was the fifth since the cease-fire declaration, and the first suicide bombing in Israel since 26 October, when a 20-year-old Palestinian blew himself up at a felafel stand in the town of Hadera, killing five Israelis.

On 12 July, a suicide bomber blew himself up among a group of teens near a shopping mall in Netanya, killing himself and two women.