Suicide bomber kills three in West Bank

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Three Israelis were killed last night when a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in a car near a petrol station outside a Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

Initial reports said the three victims had picked up the bomber, who was hitchhiking, dressed as religious Jew. A rescue worker said the car was still on fire an hour after the blast.

Responsibility for the bombing was claimed by a new cell of the Fatah-linked Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades based in the Balata refugee camp in Nablus. The bombing was the first in the West Bank since December 2005 and the first claimed by any faction other than Islamic Jihad since February 2005.

Rafaela Segal, who lives in Kedumim, told Israel Radio she heard the blast. "I saw thick smoke rising from the gas station and at first I thought the gas station was on fire," she said.

Meanwhile, diplomatic and economic pressure on the Palestinians was significantly stepped up yesterday when the US refused to rule out support for Israel fixing its own borders unilaterally and the international "Quartet" again effectively threatened an economic blockade of the Palestinian Authority.

The Quartet of the US, EU, UN and Russia expressed "grave concern" that the Palestinians' Hamas government, elected in January and sworn in this week, had not yet agreed to recognise Israel, renounced violence and abide by all previous agreements between the PA and Israel. It warned that unless that changed that "there inevitably will be an effect on direct assistance to that government and its ministries".

The UN and aid agencies have consistently argued that it impossible for medical, educational and other services including security to be maintained in the medium to long term without involving the PA and that non-governmental organisations are not equipped to do it.

In a related development in the wake of this week's Israeli elections, the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, was at pains not to reject outright the plans of the election victor, Ehud Olmert, the acting Prime Minister, to draw "permanent" borders unilaterally while pulling some 70,000 settlers out of the West Bank. She said in Berlin: "I wouldn't on the face of it just say absolutely we don't think there's any value in what the Israelis are talking about."

The formulation appeared to leave the door open to a welcome for withdrawal of settlements and to Mr Olmert's intention to fix "permanent borders" unilaterally by 2010. If the US were to recognise unilaterally fixed borders of the kind suggested by Mr Olmert it would reverse the policy of successive US administrations in favour of negotiation and conflict with international law as defined by the International Court of Justice.

Mr Olmert has proposed that the border would run along the 450-mile separation barrier, which puts up to 10 per cent of Palestinian territory on to its Israeli side. The barrier was declared illegal in July 2004 by the ICJ largely for that reason with the US judge dissenting.

Ghassan Khatib, the outgoing Palestinian Planning minister, said last night of Ms Rice's statement: "Unilateralism is not good for the peace process and it what brought Hamas to power." Adding that by ignoring the PA and pulling out of Gaza unilaterally, Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister, had allowed Hamas to take the credit for it." Dr Khatib said the US should be strengthening the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, "and the peace camp in Palestine".

However, the Quartet welcomed the recent statements by Mr Abbas, who has been urging Hamas to abide by previous agreements and commit itself to a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Late soldiers' votes in the election gave Kadima, Likud and the left-wing Meretz an extra seat each - meaning that Mr Olmert could form a centre-left coalition with Labour, Meretz, and the Pensioners' Party if he chose.

In an intensification of military action against firing of rockets by militants in Gaza, the Israeli army said last night it was targeting specific launching sites. It had warned Palestinian security officers to keep out of such areas.