Wednesday, August 13, 2003

ROSH HA’AYIN, Israel — Two Palestinian militants detonated suicide bombs less than an hour apart in an Israeli town and a nearby West Bank settlement yesterday, killing two Israelis and wounding 11 in strikes that could threaten a 2-month-old U.S. peace initiative.

The attackers, both aged 17, were also killed in the explosions, the first such bombings since Palestinian organizations announced a unilateral cease-fire six weeks ago.

The Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for one of the attacks, calling it retaliation for an Israeli army strike in the West Bank city of Nablus last week in which two Hamas members were killed, and said it would now return to observing the cease-fire.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade said it carried out the second attack and threatened more.

After the two suicide bombings, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accused his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas of failing to carry through on his promises to dismantle militant groups.

“In spite of commitments that the Palestinian Authority has taken on itself, before us [Israel], the president of the United States, George Bush, and the whole world, there has been no concrete action by the Palestinians against terrorist organizations,” Mr. Sharon said.

“This has permitted these organizations to reinforce, organize and arm themselves and to sabotage all possibility for progress in the peace process,” he told a group of Jewish youngsters visiting from abroad in comments broadcast on Israeli television.

The first explosion went off at about 9:10 a.m. at a supermarket checkout counter in an open air shopping mall just coming to life in the city of Rosh Ha’ayin, a city in central Israel that abuts the West Bank border.

It was the first attack inside Israel since the start of a three-month cease-fire declared by Palestinian militants. It blew out the windows at the entrance of the supermarket. One man was killed and nine were injured.

The second bomb detonated less than an hour later at a road stop outside the entrance to the West Bank settlement of Ariel — just 10 miles east of Rosh Ha’ayin.

The attacker, identified as Islam Qteishat, triggered the explosive after arousing the suspicion of three hitchhikers standing on the shoulder of the road, killing one and injuring two.

The violence prompted warnings from Mr. Sharon and other Cabinet ministers that Israel would halt confidence-building measures called for under the “road map” peace plan unless the Palestinian Authority stepped up its effort to rein in militants.

“It won’t be possible to advance the political process, and ultimately the Palestinians may not get what they want if terror doesn’t stop completely,” Mr. Sharon said.

Mr. Abbas condemned the attacks and cut short a visit to the Persian Gulf to return to the West Bank, but he also accused Israel of violating the road map by attacking militants in the West Bank over the last month.

At the end of June, Palestinian militant groups from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party agreed on the cease-fire just as the Palestinian Authority reached a pullback agreement with Israel for the Gaza Strip.

Spokesmen for Hamas said the success of the cease-fire, known in Arabic as a “hudna,” depended on Israeli behavior even though Israel was not a party to the pact.

“We are still committed to the hudna, but we have stated that if the Israelis continue in the terror actions against the Palestinians there will be reaction from our side,” said Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

“The Israelis have violated all our conditions day after day, so we had no other choice. It all depends on Sharon.”

Despite the timing and location of the two attacks, an Israeli army spokesman said the military was unsure whether they were carried out in coordination with one another. Cooperation between Hamas and Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade on such terror attacks is unusual, said Yoni Sheinfeld, a spokesman for the Israeli army central command.

The attack in Rosh Ha’ayin rocked a neighborhood populated by senior Israeli army and police officers, including National Police Chief Shlomo Aharonishki.

Although the city lies just inside the border with the West Bank, residents said they had believed the absence of any attacks in the three-year Palestinian uprising here stemmed from the high presence of police officers, even if they weren’t on duty.

Vladimir Reider, a Russian immigrant violinist with the Israeli Chamber Orchestra, said he had come to a pharmacy in the supermarket to buy medicine and was standing near the cashier when the suicide bomber detonated the explosive.

“I heard the explosion behind me — it was three meters away,” said Mr. Reider, who still was having trouble hearing out of his left ear. “I didn’t know what had happened. Then I saw a young man sprawled on the floor with half his body blown away. He was still alive, but barely.”

The attack is likely to bolster calls in Israel for the government to complete the construction of a security fence between the Palestinians and Israelis. The first section of the fence, completed only two weeks ago, ends just a few miles north of Rosh Ha’ayin.

Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman told Israeli radio that the government should reroute the fence 10 miles into the West Bank to include his town of 17,000, the largest settlement in the northern West Bank.

President Bush has said directing the barrier through Palestinian lands in the West Bank would be a “problem.”

Since the end of the war in Iraq and the introduction of the road map peace plan, the mood in Israel has improved, with diners returning to restaurants and consumers spending more on electronic appliances.

But there was little optimism after yesterday’s bombing that the tenuous Palestinian cease-fire would strengthen into a durable period of peace.

“I think the hudna is a show for both sides. Neither side wants peace,” said Omer Ozer, an employee at a candy kiosk next to the supermarket that was bombed. “Now it’s the end of the show.”

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