A suicide bomber, apparently on a revenge mission, detonated explosives strapped to his body as he rode his bicycle into an Israeli checkpoint Friday, killing himself and three soldiers and wounding 11 other people.
The attack occurred at the main junction of Gaza’s north-south highway, 200 yards from an Israeli settlement. Israeli and Palestinian soldiers mount their joint patrols of the road at the spot, and operate separate checkpoints there.
Shortly after the bombing, a pair of masked gunmen appeared in a crowd of about 3,000 people holding a memorial service in Gaza City for Hani Abed, a leader of the militant Islamic Jihad movement who was blown to bits Nov. 2 by a bomb in his car in Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza.
The gunmen claimed responsibility for the attack on the Israeli soldiers, saying it was the “first revenge attack for the death of Hani Abed.”
A leaflet that was later distributed by Islamic Jihad identified the bomber as Hisham Ismail Hamad, 21, of Gaza City’s Sheik Radwan neighborhood.
Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat quickly condemned the attack on the Israelis, through an aide.
“He asserted that the Palestinian Authority and its bodies will take all necessary and deterrent measures to deal with the situation,” Arafat aide Khaled Salam told Reuters news agency. Quoting Palestinian sources, Reuters later said Arafat had ordered a roundup of militants.
Arafat’s condemnation is unlikely to mollify Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who faces growing domestic political pressure to compel Arafat to crack down on Islamic militant movements in Gaza. Israel withdrew from most of Gaza in May, handing over responsibility for security and daily life to the PLO.
However, Israelis and Palestinians jointly patrol some roads, and Israelis still provide security for Jewish settlements.
“All the expectations that Arafat would be in control of the territories are not being realized,” said Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Israel’s minister of housing.
In a meeting with Arafat just three days before the bombing, Rabin decided to speed up talks on transferring authority from Israel to the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. The Palestinians want Israeli troops to move out of Palestinian population centers so that they can hold elections before the end of the year.
But each attack on Israeli civilians or soldiers makes it harder for Rabin to explain to Israelis why they should trust Arafat to control the West Bank, where about 140,000 Jewish settlers live--some in close proximity to Palestinians.
“The Palestinians must know that how they conduct things here is a sort of precedent,” Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, the military’s chief of staff, said Friday night.
The bicyclist apparently rode past the Palestinian checkpoint and pedaled up to the concrete blocks meant to protect Israeli soldiers who guard the road leading to the Jewish settlement. He blew himself up between an army jeep and a red Fiat sedan carrying members of the Kmeil family, Palestinians on their way to spend a day at their farm.
Those killed included three army reserve officers, according to Israel Television.
Four other soldiers, one border police officer and one other police officer were wounded in the blast. One of the wounded was reported to be in critical condition, suffering from head injuries.
Relatives of the Kmeils said six family members were wounded in the blast. Palestinian police said a colonel in the police force was also wounded.
Mahmoud Abu Kmeil, 34, was reported in moderate condition Friday night in Gaza’s Shifa Hospital. Hospital staff said Kmeil was shot in the back, apparently when soldiers opened fire after the bomb exploded. His 60-year-old mother, his wife and their three children escaped with minor injuries.
A visibly angry Barak stood near the debris left by the blast three hours after it occurred and blamed the Palestinian Authority for failing to prevent it.
“We have an agreement,” Barak said. “We expect them to live up to their responsibilities. We expect the Palestinian Authority to move ahead and take responsibility, to prevent people from reaching such places with explosives on their bodies or in their cars,” he said.
Israeli and Palestinian security officials planned to meet Friday night to decide how to jointly investigate the attack and prevent future attacks.
“The Palestinians should know,” he said, that the occurrence of such attacks “might influence the content and nature of relations (between Israel and the Palestinians) and the chances of our future dialogue.”
Barak declined to say whether Israel will reimpose the closure on the Gaza Strip that it began to lift only 10 days ago.
Rabin had closed the strip after another suicide bomber, from the Islamic militant movement Hamas, attacked a bus in Tel Aviv on Oct. 19. That bombing took the life of the attacker and 22 others.
As Barak spoke, workers began to clear away evidence of the bombing. Syringes and other emergency medical supplies littered the blood-soaked ground where medics had treated the wounded before helicopters evacuated them to hospitals.
The Kmeils’ sedan, its windows blown out and its frame crumpled, lay in the street surrounded by pieces of the family’s clothing and picnic lunch. A few yards from the sedan stood an army jeep with its front window shattered.
Two hundred yards up the closed-off and darkened road, a trio of reserve soldiers stood behind more concrete blocks, guarding the gates of the Netzarim settlement.
“Those were our friends,” said one of the soldiers, who declined to give his name and refused to allow reporters to enter the settlement.
“There are 10 families here,” he said angrily, gesturing toward the settlement. “Those three guys who were killed, they each have families.”
The reservist said the three officers had gone to the checkpoint after hearing that a Palestinian demonstration was planned there.
The bomber apparently slipped through the Palestinian checkpoint when Palestinian police were distracted by the arrival there, shortly before 2 p.m., of a busload of Palestinians wishing to protest the Israeli presence.
Israel has nearly 20 small settlements in Gaza, but most are clustered in two locations in the north and south of the strip. Netzarim is an isolated settlement in an area heavily populated by Palestinians.