- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2003

AFULA, Israel — A Palestinian woman blew herself up during a security check outside a mall yesterday, killing three Israelis in the fifth suicide bombing in 48 hours challenging a U.S.-backed Middle East peace initiative and the new Palestinian prime minister.

Yesterday’s blast in the northern working-class town of Afula near the West Bank was claimed by a militia linked to the mainstream group Fatah, proving particularly embarrassing to Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah leader who had denounced violence and promised to rein in the militants.

The blast went off at 5:14 p.m. at a back entrance to the Shaarei Amakim mall, where shoppers were waiting in line for a security check.

The attacker, identified as Hiba Daraghmeh, 19, from the West Bank village of Tubas, detonated the explosives as she stepped up to security guards, witnesses said.

“There was a big explosion, and my friend and I were blown over backwards,” said Etti Pitilon, 19, a border policewoman. “I saw bodies, but I don’t want to think about it,” she added, crying.

Two guards, a man and a woman, were among the three persons killed. Forty-seven persons were wounded, several of them seriously.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia linked to Fatah, and the Islamic Jihad group both claimed responsibility for the bombing. The two militias have carried out joint attacks in the past.

The bomber was an English literature student, whom her father, Azem, described as devout. She usually wore a veil over her face except for her eyes, a particularly conservative covering rarely seen even among religious Palestinian women. She left home yesterday afternoon, saying she was going to class, her father said.

The latest string of attacks began Saturday evening, just before a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Mr. Abbas, the first Israeli-Palestinian summit since the outbreak of fighting.

Hamas bombers struck in the West Bank city of Hebron on Saturday, twice in Jerusalem on Sunday, and in the Gaza Strip yesterday morning, killing a total of nine Israelis and wounding 23. Three of the bombers were from Hebron.

Israel blamed Yasser Arafat for one of the steepest spikes in violence in nearly three years of fighting, saying he encouraged terror, even if he was not involved directly in planning attacks. Mr. Arafat angrily denied the accusations, claiming Palestinian security agents had foiled several attacks.

Mr. Sharon resisted renewed pressure from his Cabinet to expel Mr. Arafat, apparently because of U.S. opposition to a step that could derail the “road map” plan and send the situation spinning further out of control.

Trying to deepen Mr. Arafat’s isolation, Israel decided Sunday to boycott foreign envoys who met with the Palestinian leader. Mr. Arafat has been confined to his compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah for more than a year by Israel.

President Bush is pressing Arab nations to block funding and other support for militant Palestinian groups.

Radical Palestinian groups were closing down operations in Syria, officials in the groups said yesterday, after the United States intensified pressure on the Damascus government to curb Palestinian militants.

Journalists who went to the Damascus offices of three of the main organizations — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command — found them closed yesterday.

Elsewhere yesterday, seven persons, including three civilians, were killed when Fatah guerrillas clashed with militants from another group in Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp.

The violence, the worst in a year at the Ein el-Hilweh camp near the southern port city of Sidon, wounded at least 21 persons.

Witnesses and Palestinian officials in the camp said the fighting involved Fatah guerrillas and gunmen from the extremist Islamist al-Nour group, a breakaway faction of the radical Asbat al-Ansar group, which was on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.

Three Fatah guerrillas and a militant from Asbat al-Ansar were killed in the fighting, witnesses and Palestinian officials said.

On Saturday, a shootout erupted after a guerrilla’s funeral near the camp. Al-Nour’s leader, Abdullah Shreidi, was critically wounded. His uncle, Yahya Shreidi, and an unidentified bodyguard were killed. On Friday, an Arafat supporter was killed.

The clashes in recent days are believed to be part of a power struggle between Fatah and militant Palestinian factions.

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