- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 5, 2008

DIMONA, Israel — A Palestinian suicide bomber yesterday killed one Israeli and wounded 12 in this dusty desert town just a few miles from Israel’s secretive nuclear reactor, marking the first such attack inside Israel in a year.

Gazan militants took responsibility, reinforcing fears of Israeli security officials that last month’s breach of the border wall between Gaza and Egypt would enable terrorists to reach Israel through Egypt.

Egyptian and Gazan security forces worked yesterday to finish resealing the border under terms of an agreement reached late last week in Cairo.

But a senior Hamas official told The Washington Times that humanitarian aid from Arab nations would be allowed to pass through and that the border would be reopened to travelers seeking to reach third countries after two or three weeks.

Additional casualties in Dimona were avoided when first-aid workers tending to the wounded noticed a second would-be bomber who had been critically injured in the explosion.

A video camera captured the action as the injured militant tried to lift his hand to his suicide belt in a final attempt to set off his own bomb. Sgt. Koby Mor then fatally shot the man at a range of about 10 feet.

“I saw the terrorist attempt to lift his hand to blow up the bomb. You could see all of the wires” on the explosive belt, Sgt. Mor said. “I fired four bullets into his head and neutralized him.”

Israel has been deeply concerned since Hamas militants breached long stretches of the border wall near the Rafah crossing two weeks ago that Palestinian militants would be able to move into Egypt’s Sinai Desert and then cross into Israel.

Brig. Maher El-Ramliy, a former Hamas activist now with the international police organization Interpol, insisted in Gaza City that Hamas was not responsible for the attack in Dimona.

“We will not allow anyone to infiltrate the border illegally. We are obligated to Egypt and want to preserve our relations and our trust,” he said in an interview.

But claims of responsibility were made by militants from the Gazan branches of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is loosely affiliated with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah Party.

There was also a late claim of responsibility from the military wing of Hamas, which said the bomber had reached Dimona from the West Bank city of Hebron.

“We confirm that the [Israeli security agencies] have failed,” a militant named Abu Fuad told reporters. “The martyrs went from Gaza to the areas of Palestine captured in 1948” — a reference to Israel.

Israeli security services have not confirmed the identity of the bombers. But if the bomber did reach Israel through Egypt, it is likely to exacerbate tensions between the two countries.

The attack will also complicate nascent peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, a signature initiative in the final year of the Bush administration.

“A constant war is being conducted in the south of the country,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said after the bombing, “a war of terror against us, and our war against terror. This war will continue. Terrorism will be hit. We will not relent.”

As Israel has completed large sections of a security barrier around much of the West Bank, Israel’s southern reaches have become the most vulnerable area to attack.

The last suicide bombing in an Israeli city occurred in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, an attack at the end of January 2007 that security officials blamed on militants who came through the Sinai Peninsula.

Many Israeli authorities now are calling for a fence along the border with Egypt. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who visited the scene of yesterday’s attack, pledged to seal the Sinai border with a fence within three years, a project that observers estimated could cost hundreds of millions to dollars to complete.

The open border between Israel and Egypt has become a route for traffickers of drugs and prostitutes. It has also allowed African refugees seeking asylum to enter Israel.

Dimona Mayor Meir Cohen said his town had been jolted out of an illusion that it was immune from such threats.

“This town was quiet and peaceful. We thought [the bombers] would stop somewhere else along the way,” he said. “Tomorrow morning, Dimona will never return to the way it is today. We need to take care of the border with Egypt. It may cost billions, but the lives of people are at stake.”

At Rafah, angry Palestinians hurled rocks at the Egyptian border forces as they resealed the border, which had been readily crossed for two weeks by Gazans seeking food and other supplies made scarce by an Israeli blockade.

Senior Hamas official Ahmed Yousef said the closing was carried out as part of “a gentlemen’s agreement” reached between Hamas and Egypt during talks late last week in Cairo.

According to the loose agreement, the border was to be resealed while permitting humanitarian aid from Arab nations to enter Gaza.

In about two or three weeks, the border will open again for pedestrians returning to Gaza or with documents that show they are traveling to a third country for business, study or other purposes, Mr. Yousef said.

He said talks would continue on a more permanent agreement, which could include a role for forces loyal to Mr. Abbas or for European Union observers.

Egypt has not commented publicly on the agreement.

Erica Silverman reported from Gaza City.

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