Suicide attacks resume after Israel rejects ceasefire

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An Israeli policeman was killed in a suicide bombing yesterday in a resumption of Palestinian militant attacks after an unprecedented six-week lull in the intifada.

An Israeli policeman was killed in a suicide bombing yesterday in a resumption of Palestinian militant attacks after an unprecedented six-week lull in the intifada.

In a separate attack, in the West Bank, an Israeli motorist was killed, while the charred body of another settler was found in a West Bank rubbish dump. Whether he was killed by militants was not clear, but the Israeli police said they suspected he was.

The Israeli government says the past six weeks without militant attacks have been thanks to the Israeli army's reoccupation of West Bank towns and curfews on Palestinians.

There were, though, suspicions that the timing of the attacks – less than a day after the Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, rejected a partial ceasefire offer from the Palestinian Authority – may be an attempt to send Ariel Sharon's government a message that militants can still strike, and that they can decide the hour.

This is all playing out against renewed international peace efforts. On the sidelines of the UN general assembly in New York, largely overshadowed by Iraq, the Middle East "quartet" – the US, Russia, the EU and the UN – proposed a timetable for establishing a Palestinian state, which could lead to a provisional state being set up as soon as the end of next year.

Under the proposed three-phase "road map", the Palestinians would hold elections and reform their security services – which Israel accuses of complicity in militant attacks – by the end of 2003. In return, Israeli forces would withdraw to the positions they held before the outbreak of the intifada two years ago. That would lead to a provisional state being established. Phase three is a final agreement on borders and status between Israel and a Palestinian state by 2005.

The Palestinian offer of a phased ceasefire was made at the same meeting in New York, and promptly rejected by Israel because it failed in the first phase to include Israeli soldiers or Jewish settlers in the occupied territories. The plan promised instead to haltattacks on civilians in Israel, in return for an end to Israel's policy of killing suspected militants and destroying their homes. This would lead in time to a comprehensive ceasefire.

Yesterday afternoon, Israeli police received a tip-off about a suspicious-looking man with a bag at a bus stop near Umm al-Fahm, a Palestinian- populated town inside Israel near the West Bank.

Israeli security sources said that when police pulled up to question him, he approached their van, then detonated his bomb, killing himself and a policeman. Another policeman was injured, as was a bystander.

Israeli police said they believed the man intended to detonate his bomb on board a crowded bus, which would have caused many more casualties.

There was no immediate admission of responsibility for the bombing, but the Islamic militant group Hamas welcomed it, saying "the Palestinians have every right to fight against the occupation".

Hours earlier, an Israeli man was killed when suspected Palestinian militants opened fire on his car near the settlement of Mevo Dotan in the West Bank. Another man, identified as a Romanian worker, was injured.

In the West Bank, the partly burnt body of David Buhbut, a 67-year-old settler, was found in a rubbish dump.

The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which Israel says is linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah organisation, claimed responsibility for the Mevo Dotan attack, which may have been connected to the killing of two Palestinians by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank yesterday.

The Israeli army said the soldiers opened fire after the men tried to run them over, but according to the local mayor they were ambushed. At least one was connected to the Al- Aqsa brigades, according to the mayor.

After six weeks without a militant attack, Israelis had begun to relax a little. There has been plenty of talk of late of the main Palestinian militant groups signing up to a ceasefire – European diplomats said they were close to getting one as long ago as July. Many here believe the decline in violence was because a ceasefire was in the offing.

But Israeli officials denied yesterday's violence had anything to do with Israel's rejection of the Palestinian ceasefire offer. They claim they have captured would-be bombers during the past six weeks, but that one finally got through.