Israeli marksmen comb holy city for female bombers

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The Independent Online

Israeli police rooftop marksmen, black-clad swat teams on motorcycles and soldiers with M-16s swamped west Jerusalem yesterday in a hunt for a potential new threat on the streets of the holy city: female Palestinian bombers.

Soldiers and police were stationed in Jaffa Street, the busy road where Israeli officials believe a young Palestinian woman detonated a bomb a day earlier, killing herself and an 81-year-old Israeli man.

As Israel's government sought to reassure its jittery population after four attacks in 11 days, police investigators were trying to discover the identity of the woman, whose severely mutilated body was discovered at the epicentre of Sunday's explosion. Headlines presented the attack as the first case of an Arab woman blowing herself up in an attempt to kill civilians inside Israel since 1993, when the Palestinian Islamic militants in the occupied territories first began suicide bombings.

But, 24 hours on, Israel's police were still unsure of the exact circumstances.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad – by far the most prolific suicide bombers – are usually quick to claim a so-called "martyr". They often issue video-cassettes to the media in the aftermath of attacks in which the bomber, surrounded by weapons and nationalist flags, makes a farewell speech. The killer's family formally celebrate his death, handing out sweets and sugared coffee; the walls and buildings of his home town are decorated with his portrait and triumphalist anti-Israeli graffiti. But yesterday, there was a mysterious silence across the occupied territories. By evening, no Palestinian armed group had claimed responsibility. Sunday's TV reports saying the woman was a student in her early twenties from Al Najah University in Nablus were greeted with puzzlement in the West Bank.

Gil Kleiman, a spokesman for the Israeli police, described her only as a "possible Palestinian woman" who "triggered the bomb, either accidentally or purposely". He said the severe blast damage to her body indicated she was either wearing or carrying the explosives. But he could not confirm if she was a suicide bomber, or was planting the explosives.

The case attracted deep interest in Israel, not least because none of the more than 30 Palestinian suicide bombers who have struck against Israel since the start of this intifada has so far been female.

The military wing of the highly conservative Islamic-nationalist Hamas movement, which is responsible for dispatching the majority of them, opposes the use of women as kamikaze bombers, preferring devout single men between the ages of 18 and 35. Yesterday, speculation was directed at Islamic Jihad, which has dispatched a female suicide bomber once before, although she was caught before detonating herself. It has ties to Hizbollah, in south Lebanon, which has used women on suicide missions.

Palestinian women have, however, played a central part during the 16-month intifada. And there are signs that they have been radicalised by Israel's military tactics, including a blockade, assassinations, house demolitions, and aerial bombings.

The Hamas suicide bomber, who massacred 15 Israelis in the Jerusalem pizzeria bombing in August, only a few yards from Sunday's bombing, was allegedly escorted there by a woman. A Palestinian woman was accused last year of luring an Israeli teenage boy into the West Bank, where he was murdered, after striking up a relationship with him on the internet. And an Arab woman tried to carry a bomb into the central bus station in Tel Aviv six months ago, but was caught by police.

The possibility that Arab women may be taking part in attacks has done nothing to ease the anxiety over security that grips Israelis. This increased yesterday when police shot dead a Palestinian man in a car on the outskirts of Tel Aviv after he had run into and hurt a soldier and a policeman.

Yesterday one of Mr Sharon's senior Likud ministers, Uzi Landau, was advancing another solution – physical separation from the Palestinians by fences.