Wednesday, July 13, 2005

TULKARM, West Bank — Israeli troops reoccupied the West Bank city of Tulkarm early yesterday, killing a Palestinian policeman in a firefight and arresting five Islamic Jihad activists after killing four Israelis in a suicide bombing.

The Tuesday bombing outside a shopping mall in the coastal city of Netanya rattled a five-month-old truce.

However, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and most Palestinian militant groups have an interest in minimizing violence ahead of Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements in mid-August.

Israel yesterday closed the settlements marked for evacuation to all nonresidents to prevent protesters from reaching the area ahead of the pullout.

In response to the bombing, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered security forces to step up operations against Islamic Jihad, which has taken responsibility for a series of recent attacks, and to “hit the leadership” of the group.

“We will not stop until they stop the terrorist murders,” he said.

In a statement posted on Islamic Jihad’s Web site yesterday, Abu Dajana, the spokesman for the group’s militant wing, threatened retaliation if Israel targets the group’s leaders.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday demanded that Syria break its ties to Islamic Jihad.

State Department officials said they had no direct information that Syria knew of or helped plan the shopping mall attack, but added that they have long insisted that Damascus close an Islamic Jihad office operating openly in the capital.

“It is essential that the Syrian government end its support for terrorist organizations, particularly those who are headquartered and harbored in Damascus,” Miss Rice said as she was completing a tour of Asia. “Syria should stop letting its territory be used for insurgent activities and for activities which frustrate the aspirations of the Lebanese, Iraqi and Palestinian people.”

In response to the attack, the Israeli army sealed off the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, barring all Palestinians from entering Israel, a routine measure after attacks. Troops entered Tulkarm in search of the bombing’s masterminds and blew up a storage shed that they said housed an explosives laboratory.

Israel handed Tulkarm to Palestinian control four months ago as part of what was to have been a gradual Israeli withdrawal from West Bank cities. Israeli Cabinet ministers said yesterday that the process had been frozen.

The bomber was 18-year-old Sami Abu Khalil from the village of Atil near Tulkarm, eight miles east of Netanya. On Tuesday evening, he detonated 22 pounds of explosives strapped to his body outside a shopping mall in Netanya. He killed two 16-year-old girls and a 31-year-old woman. A woman died yesterday.

In the Gaza Strip, two foreign aid workers — one British and one Austrian — were kidnapped from a Palestinian refugee camp, but were released less than 24 hours later. The two had been working on a project in Gaza when they were snatched from their car in the Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza overnight.

• Staff reporter David R. Sands contributed to this article from Washington.

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