JERUSALEM — When Hamas militants toppled the imposing iron and concrete walls separating Egypt and the Gaza Strip in a predawn attack two weeks ago, Israel's military went on high alert.
It shut down the laxly patrolled road that runs along the adjacent Egyptian border, closed national parks in the area and urged tourists in the area to leave.
Monday, it became clear why: Two suicide bombers apparently from the Gaza Strip sneaked into Dimona, the southern Israeli desert town best known for housing the country's not-so-secret nuclear program. The pair hit an outdoor mall, killing a woman and injuring at least 11 people in the first suicide attack in Israel in more than a year.
The bombing was a reminder that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, whom the Bush administration is counting on to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel, has little control over Gaza, where the uncompromising Islamic militants in Hamas run the show.
Two secular groups, the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade — which is loosely allied with Abbas' Fatah party — and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility for the attack.
The president's office rejected al Aqsa's claim, however, and sought to cast blame on Palestinian hard-liners opposed to peace talks. "Fatah has confirmed that the al Aqsa Brigades has nothing to do with this attack," Abbas' office said.
Later in the day, Hamas leaders claimed that their followers had conducted the attack and that the pair came instead from the West Bank town of Hebron.
The attack might have been worse except that the second bomber apparently was knocked out by the force of the first blast, police said. When he came to and tried to set off his explosives amid medics tending to the wounded, police shot and killed him.
Analysts said the bombing would add to the many obstacles in the way of the peace talks.
"This is just one more complication in a series of complications," said Hillel Frisch, a senior researcher at Bar-Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. "It has the cumulative effect of deepening the impression that this peace process is pie in the sky."
The last fatal suicide bombing in Israel was on Jan. 29, 2007, when a Palestinian from Gaza crossed into the Sinai and killed three Israelis in the Red Sea resort town of Eilat. That blast, too, was carried out by a member of al Aqsa.
When Hamas demolished the walls that separated Egypt and Gaza two weeks ago, Israel warned that militants would try to use the chaos to smuggle weapons into Gaza and get attackers out.
Before Egypt regained control of the border Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had swept across and cleaned Egyptian towns of nearly all their supplies. The two attackers may have been among them.
Moshe Malka, a lawyer in Dimona, told Israel TV that he was working in his office near the shopping area when he heard the explosion. He grabbed a first aid kit and ran to the scene.
"On the way I saw body parts. There was a burning smell," he said. "The wounded were lying on the ground. There were legs. I saw the head of a young man. People were calling for help."
While tending to the wounded, Malka said, he opened the jacket of a dazed and bloody man and saw that he was wearing an explosives belt. Malka, wounded Israelis and medics scrambled away before police opened fire.
"We thought we had killed him, but two minutes later he lifted up his hand,"
Police Commissioner Dudi Cohen said. "Apparently he was trying to detonate the explosive. I got out from under cover and fired four shots at his head and I killed him."
Dimona, which is in the Negev desert about 90 miles south of Tel Aviv, is best known as the home of Israel's nuclear reactor. In the 1980s, a nuclear researcher at the facility, Mordechai Vanunu, exposed secrets of the nuclear-weapons program, revelations that led to his spending 18 years in prison for treason.
There was no suggestion from the Palestinian militants who took responsibility for Monday's attack that the nuclear program had been a target.
Supporters of tougher security measures seized on the attack as further evidence that Israel should build a new wall along their country's 140-mile border with Egypt. The costly idea has received only muted support from Israeli leaders over the years.
(Churgin is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Ahmed Abu Hamdan contributed to this report from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.)