Three Israelis killed as wave of suicide attacks gathers strength

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The Independent Online

A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up yesterday at the entrance to a crowded shopping centre in the northern Israeli town of Afula, killing three Israelis and wounding at least 18.

One of the dead was a female security guard who had prevented the bomber from going inside the building. It was the fifth Palestinian suicide bombing in three days. A senior Israeli police officer said: "We are in the middle of a wave of terror that is growing and gathering strength."

Israeli commentators compared the spate of attacks to the surge of bombings that killed dozens of Israelis in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv early in 1996. This time, they said, the assailants were aiming to damageMahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian Prime Minister, as much as Israel. Radical groups were determined to sabotage his attempt to return to the negotiating table and to implement the international "road-map" to peace.

But President Bush said he was sure the peace process would continue despite the latest bombing. He said: "I've got confidence we can move the peace process forward."

Islamic Jihad and Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades claimed responsibility for the Afula attack. The previous four were carried out by Hamas, another militant group. Abdullah al-Shami, one of Islamic Jihad's leaders, said in Gaza: "This is our response to the crimes of the occupation. We resist it whether there is a road-map or not. We don't want the Zionists to feel safe."

Danny Seaman, an Israeli government spokesman, said: "Unless the international community and the Palestinians put a stop to this, there will be no hope for peace. The road-map has been replaced by a trail of blood that will lead the Palestinians to disaster."

Israeli officials blame Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, for encouraging terrorism. Mr Arafat is locked in a power struggle with Mr Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), whom he appointed under pressure from the US and Egypt.

Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, said on Sunday that he had rejected calls to send Mr Arafat back into exile, but Shaul Mofaz, his Defence Minister, said yesterday: "If Arafat continues to act as a main obstacle to the peace process, and at the same time Abu Mazen is willing to battle the terrorist organisations, there will be no alternative but to think about steps to deport him."

Security sources believe that yesterday's bomber infiltrated Israel from the West Bank in defiance of a siege on all Palestinian towns imposed by Israel after a suicide attack on a bus in Jerusalem on Sunday. Afula is about 6 miles north of the West Bank border and 10 miles from Jenin, a militant stronghold. Religious volunteers, who retrieve body parts for burial, said the blast was magnified in the enclosed space. Limbs were blown off and windows shattered.

Avner Vigeema, a lorry driver, said: "I saw one woman running away, then falling flat on top of a white car, covering it in blood," he said, his own T-shirt stained with blood. "I saw a man move his head from side to side, then die."

Mr Vigeema, who fought with the Israeli army in Lebanon 20 years ago, said: "In a situation like this, you have to forget the dead and help the wounded. It's not a time to be emotional."

Earlier yesterday, a cyclist detonated a bomb near an army vehicle in the Gaza Strip, killing himself and wounding three soldiers. A settler and his wife were killed in the West Bank town of Hebron on Saturday. Seven passengers died on Sunday in the Jerusalem bus bombing and another man blew himself up at a nearby checkpoint when challenged by police.