Woman suicide bomber kills four

A Palestinian suicide bomber blew herself today at the main crossing point between Israel and the Gaza Strip, killing at least four Israelis and wounding seven other people.

Witnesses said the bomber blew up at Erez Crossing, where thousands of Palestinian labourers and foreigners pass between Israel and the coastal strip.

The dead were all Israeli, military sources said. The army said four of the wounded were Palestinian.

Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, issued a joint claim of responsibility.

The bomber, identified as Gaza resident Reem Raiyshi, aged 21, had two small children and was described as a Hamas activist. She appeared to be the first female suicide bomber from the militant Islamic fundamentalist group.

Soldiers often target Palestinian men as potential attackers. Hamas' use of a woman bomber could signal its willingness to compromise its religious principles in order to more easily carry out attacks.

Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin said the use of a woman was unique, but holy war "is an obligation of all Muslims, men and women."

"This is an indication that resistance will continue," he said.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia declined to condemn the attack, saying that continued Israeli attacks and restrictions on the Palestinians are leading "to more escalation on both sides."

The explosion occurred shortly before 10am. The bomber told soldiers at the crossing point that she would set off a metal detector because she had an implant from surgery to repair a broken leg. She was then ushered to a special room for a security search, said Major Sharon Feingold, a military spokeswoman.

A Palestinian woman who identified herself only as Amena said she was waiting outside the room when four other Palestinian women entered and the blast went off.

"I heard soldiers screaming, the blast was very strong and I saw one of the women, the last one who went into the room, was bleeding from her legs," she said.

Another witness, who declined to be named, said an unfamiliar woman waiting with the labourers was walking strangely. When she offered to help the stranger, the woman brushed her off and the blast went off shortly afterward.

The soldiers then forced everyone out and shut down the crossing after the blast, witnesses said.

Avi Pazner, an Israeli government spokesman, said: "The attack this morning is particularly shocking because as a gesture of goodwill, Israel allows Palestinian workers to come into Israel. And the Palestinian terrorist organizations took this opportunity in order to kill as many people as possible.

"I presume that we will have to take measures in order to prevent that ... It's too early to say exactly what measures we will take. We are still counting our dead."

A US official said Israel was likely to close Erez for the 4,000 Palestinian labourers who cross daily to work in a nearby industrial zone.

"We have an extraordinary situation of Palestinian intentions, where they try to kill a couple of Israelis" in an effort to spark retaliation against Palestinians, the official said.

The suicide bombing came after violence yesterday left a Palestinian and an Israeli dead.

Palestinians opened fire last night on an Israeli vehicle at the entrance to the settlement of Talmon, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, killing Roi Arbel, 28, and slightly wounding two others, the army said. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades claimed responsibility.

In the Gaza Strip, Israeli troops killed a Palestinian who opened fire on them near the Egyptian border, the army said.

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