JERUSALEM—A suicide bomber hit a southern Israeli bus station Sunday, seriously wounding two security guards, in the first attack since Israel began removing thousands of Jewish settlers from the occupied Gaza Strip earlier this month.
The guards thwarted a more deadly assault, but Sunday's morning rush hour bombing raised concerns that Islamic militants are stepping up their attempts to undermine tentative steps toward peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Nearly four dozen people suffered minor injuries in the attack at the central bus station in Beersheeba, a small city not far from the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian officials condemned the attack, but Israeli officials said it was a sign that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas needs to immediately crack down on Islamic militants suspected of dispatching the bomber.
"We call on responsible Palestinian leaders to step up to the plate, to act and to prevent Islamic Jihad and Hamas from hijacking the Palestinian national agenda," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry.
No group immediately claimed responsibility, but leaders with both Islamic Jihad and Hamas claimed that the bombing was justified in the wake of an Israeli attack in the West Bank last week that left five Palestinians dead.
The deaths occurred during an Israeli raid against Islamic Jihad in the West Bank town of Tulkarem against Islamic Jihad. The timing, just as the Gaza pullout was ending, drew criticism from Palestinian leaders who accused Israel of provocation.
On Sunday, the Israeli newspaper Maariv reported that an internal military investigation concluded that the operation was botched and led to the death of an innocent boy.
In response to the suicide bombing, Palestinian National Security Adviser Jibril Rajoub also blamed those who launched the Tulkarem attack for sparking the suicide bombing.
Israeli officials dismissed such suggestions and said that it is incumbent upon Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, to disarm Islamic militants intent on pressing ahead with their attacks on Israel.
"I think the government has to make it clear to Abu Mazen that if he doesn't destroy terror, terror will destroy him," said Agriculture Minister Israel Katz.
Abbas faces serious internal hurdles in confronting Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both of which have strong support in the Gaza Strip. In recent weeks, the militants have taken credit for forcing Israel to pull its settlers out of the Gaza Strip and vowed to use the same tactics to push settlers out of the West Bank.
That message was dramatically highlighted over the weekend when one of Israel's most wanted, Hamas leader Mohammed Deif, appeared in silhouette in a video and vowed to continue attacks until Israel is destroyed.
In Sunday's attack, a driver in Beersheeba became suspicious of the solitary man who approached and asked which bus went to the nearby hospital and then sat down on the curb, said Israel Police Inspector Micky Rosenfeld. The man detonated a backpack full of explosives when the two guards approached him on the sidewalk.
Sunday's attack came hours before Israel's Cabinet approved a plan to pull its military out of the southern Gaza Strip border with Egypt and allow their southern neighbor to boost its presence on the border.
The decision, which faces a vote later this week in Israel's parliament, could allow Israel to remove its forces from the contentious border by year's end.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Mohammed Najib contributed to this report from Ramallah.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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