- The Washington Times - Monday, December 5, 2005

NETANYA, Israel — A Palestinian blew himself up at the entrance of a shopping mall in this seaside city, killing at least five Israelis and wounding dozens just as critical Israeli and Palestinian parliamentary campaigns were getting under way.

The late-morning strike raised concerns that a fragile 10-month-old lull in violence could collapse, with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reportedly agreeing at an emergency Cabinet meeting to retaliatory strikes as early as today. Analysts said the Israeli government will be under pressure to act as the election campaign heats up.

The explosion occurred about 11:30 a.m., shattering the glass facade of the mall and leaving splotches of blood on the wall of the building.

After being alerted to a suspicious-looking man with a black bag, police officers and mall security guards chased him to the side of the mall’s main entry, but failed to capture him.

“I shouted, ‘Terrorist, terrorist, look at him,’” said Shosh Atia, a policewoman injured in the explosion. “I closed to within [five yards] of him, he looked me in the eye and pushed the button.”

The Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad took responsibility for the bombing, saying it was a response to the recent killings of senior group operatives by Israel. The bomber was identified as Lotfi Abu Saada, who skirted the Israeli barrier encircling the northern West Bank en route to Netanya.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas denounced the bombing and ordered the arrest of the perpetrators.

But Israeli officials said the Palestinian government was failing to fight terrorists. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, seeking election as chairman of the conservative Likud Party, said Israel would pursue “wider” and “deeper” anti-terrorism operations.

Israel sealed off the West Bank and the crossings with the Gaza Strip. Mr. Mofaz said he would seek permission from Israel’s attorney general to renew the policy of home demolitions, despite an internal army report criticizing the practice.

“This attack raises a question mark about the intentions of the Palestinian Authority to continue with negotiations,” Mr. Mofaz told Israel Radio.

Israel’s Channel 2 television news reported that Palestinian Authority security officers moved to arrest Islamic Jihad members in Jenin, but that they backed down after being confronted by gunmen from Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, another militant group.

The attack follows several days of escalating violence, in which Israel’s army shelled the Gaza Strip and launched air strikes in retaliation for the firing of crude Kassem rockets by Palestinian militants into southern Israel.

The Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot reported that Mr. Sharon — who resigned from Likud to start a centrist party — ordered the army to gear up for a wide-ranging offensive against Palestinian militants in the northern West Bank.

But an upsurge in violence could strengthen the chances of the Islamic militant group Hamas to win the Palestinian parliamentary elections over Mr. Abbas’ Fatah.

The Palestinian elections will be held Jan. 25. Israelis vote on a new parliament March 28, with Mr. Sharon clinging to a small lead in the polls.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli condemned the attacks and said they put new pressure on Syria to act against Islamic Jihad, whose headquarters are in Damascus, Syria.

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