Suicide bomber strikes in Gaza as anger grows

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The Independent Online
A 22-year-old man driving a donkey cart in the Gaza Strip blew himself up yesterday, slightly injuring three Israeli soldiers in the first Palestinian suicide-bomb attack on an Israeli target for 10 weeks.

The explosion follows the assassination of Mahmoud al-Khawaja, a mid- level Islamic Jihad leader, in Gaza three days ago, which Palestinian leaders blamed on Israeli agents.

Muawiya Ahmed Roka exploded his suicide bomb close to a jeep on the main road between the Palestinian refugee camp of Khan Yunis and the Jewish settlement of Neve Dkalim. Roka, a student at the Islamic University in Gaza, was a member of the Islamic militant organisation Hamas and was on the wanted list of the Palestinian Authority, according to his family.

The explosion in Gaza was part of a surge in violence over the weekend as talks on Israeli redeployment from the main Palestinian towns get close to the 1 July target date for agreement. Israeli soldiers in the West Bank city of Nablus shot dead a student and injured 35 protesters yesterday during a demonstration demanding the release of 5,000 Palestinian prisoners. A 21-year-old man died later in hospital.

In scenes similar to those of the intifada, Israeli troops clubbed demonstrators outside Orient House, the Palestine Liberation Organisation's headquarters in Jerusalem, on Saturday. A significant development is that the campaign for the release of prisoners is being organised by the PLO chairman Yasser Arafat's Fatah, the most powerful Palestinian group in the West Bank.

Violent incidents between Israelis and Palestinians had dropped to their lowest monthly rate since 1987 before this weekend, according to the Israeli army. There have have been no suicide bombings since April and even stone- throwing has sharply declined. Israeli security forces believe this unofficial truce depends on agreement being reached on redeployment within the next few weeks.

The Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, said, after meeting Mr Arafat yesterday, that there is a chance of the 1 July target being met. Mr Arafat asked him to help with the release of prisoners, 2,000 of whom are on hunger strike. Almost all the one million Palestinians on the West Bank know somebody in prison and the prisoner issue can ignite widespread unrest.

Mr Peres spoke of the gap between negotiators on redeployment being narrowed. It appears that Mr Arafat is likely to accept Israeli terms, an initial army withdrawal from the centres of Nablus, Jenin, Qalqilya and Tul Karm. They have a combined population of about 200,000.

Israel is refusing to withdraw from villages surrounding the towns, sparking fears among Palestinians that they will be isolated from their economic hinterland by Israeli checkpoints.