- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 28, 2005

TEL AVIV — A Palestinian suicide bomber set off an explosion in the central bus station of the southern Israeli city of Beersheba early yesterday, seriously injuring two security guards in the first terrorist attack since Israel began its pullout from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.

The rush-hour attack undermined the fragile calm that has allowed the Israeli withdrawal to proceed with relatively few clashes with Palestinian militants and is likely to increase the pressure on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to crack down on gunmen in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Mr. Abbas denounced the bombing and called it a “terror attack.”

“We condemn such attacks. We don’t accept them, and we call on everyone to refrain from retaliation,” he said.

At the same time, the Palestinian leader said, Israel had provoked the attack by killing five Palestinians last week during an attempt to round up militants in the West Bank city of Tulkarem.

Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant affiliate of Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party, took responsibility for the attack. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade has refrained from attacks during the eight-month period of calm, but Islamic Jihad has initiated strikes on Israelis, including the bombing of a Tel Aviv beach nightclub in March.

The bombing also spurred calls in Israel for the government to speed up construction of its security barrier, which has not been completed near the southern rim of the West Bank because of legal challenges.

Israeli Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra warned that if the Palestinians didn’t start confronting militant groups, Israel would “take care” of them by itself. He also lamented the uneven pace of construction of the security barrier.

“A serious attack was avoided this morning in Beersheba … because of the alertness of the two security guards and the bus driver,” said Southern District Police Chief Uri Bar Lev. “This incident could have resulted in many injuries.”

The explosion occurred at about 8:30 a.m. at the beginning of Israel’s workweek. The bomber tried to board the No. 9 bus, asking to reach the local hospital, but the suspicious driver refused entrance to the man and alerted two security guards, who gave chase.

“I suspected him because he had very large backpack with a plastic bag in his hand,” said bus driver Eli Horesh, who said the explosion occurred about 100 yards from his vehicle. Dozens of bystanders were admitted to the hospital with minor injuries.

In spite of the bombing, Israel’s Cabinet approved a security protocol with Egypt that will enable Israeli soldiers to relinquish control over a Gaza flash point near the Palestinian border town of Rafah.

The agreement provides for the deployment of several hundred Egyptian border police along the frontier with the Gaza Strip, modifying security arrangements from the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

The pact will allow Israel’s military to abandon the Philadelphi corridor, a heavily fortified strip of land inside the Gaza border, which the army has used to attack Palestinian smugglers supplying ammunition to militants.

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