- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2003

PETAH TIKVA, Israel — A Palestinian suicide bomber killed four persons at a bus stop near Tel Aviv yesterday minutes after Israeli helicopters killed a top Islamist militant and at least four persons in Gaza.

The attacks shattered more than two months of relative calm that had spurred efforts to revive talks between Israelis and Palestinians on a U.S.-led plan for ending more than three years of conflict.

The militant Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing.

“This is the first operation in a series of retaliations. We swear to make an earthquake in the Zionist entity,” a PFLP statement said, referring to a deadly Israeli raid on the West Bank city of Nablus last week.

Israeli police said the bomber killed himself, another man and three women, and wounded 16 in the blast at the bus stop near Petah Tikva — “Gateway to Hope” in Hebrew — on a highway leading out of Israel’s coastal metropolis of Tel Aviv.

Two bodies lay under blankets, and blood spattered the ground. The blast reduced the bus stop to a frame and brought rush-hour traffic on one of Israel’s busiest roads to a stop.

“I heard a noise like a rocket and we came here and it was full of people. I saw the head of the terrorist on the bridge,” said a 26-year-old giving only the name Lior, who lives nearby. Some onlookers in the religious neighborhood chanted, “Death to Arabs.”

In the last big suicide attack in Israel, on Oct. 4, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew herself up in a crowded beach restaurant in the city of Haifa, killing 23 other persons.

Just minutes before the latest bombing, Israeli helicopters launched a missile strike, killing Meqled Hmaid, military chief of Islamic Jihad and a top deputy of the group sworn to Israel’s destruction and at the forefront of a suicide bombing campaign.

Three bystanders, including a 15-year-old, also died in the strike on two cars in Gaza City, medics said.

Hundreds of Islamic Jihad fighters, who came to the mortuary in mourning, fired guns into the air and yelled, “Allahu akbar” (“God is greater”), as news broke of the explosion near Tel Aviv.

“God has taken revenge,” they shouted.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Hmaid had been planning a “mega terror attack” in the Gaza Strip area.

Islamic Jihad vowed an “earthquake-like” response to his assassination.

Militants have rebuffed efforts by Egypt to secure a cease-fire with Israel and revive the U.S.-backed “road map” meant to lead to a Palestinian state by 2005.

Israel has used helicopters to track and kill dozens of militants, but it was the first such attack on Gaza for more than two months. On Oct. 20, Israel killed two Hamas militants in a minivan. Another 11 persons died in raids that day.

Israel says the recent calm is an illusion and that it has foiled some two dozen attempts by would-be suicide bombers.

An official in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office said the suicide bombing was “another indication that the Palestinian Authority’s terrorist infrastructure is always just one step away from lashing out at Israeli civilians.”

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia condemned “the phase of violence and counterviolence” and urged an immediate cease-fire by both sides for resumption of the road map.

Mr. Sharon has said he is committed to the peace plan, but that if it fails he will take unilateral separation steps that would cost Palestinians land they want for a state.

Israel demands that the Palestinians crack down on militants.

Palestinians say Israel must meet its own road map commitments of freezing Jewish settlements on occupied land. They also want a halt to work on a barrier cutting through the West Bank, which Israel says is to keep out bombers, but Palestinians describe as a land grab.

An Israeli raid on a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip killed at least nine persons on Tuesday, prompting Palestinians to call off a meeting called to try to arrange a peace summit.

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