A Palestinian literature student climbed the steps to a thronged shopping mall in northern Israel on Monday afternoon and blew herself up, killing three bystanders and wounding dozens more in the fifth such suicide attack in 48 hours.
The string of blasts suggested that U.S. efforts to quell the violence in this region have divided the Palestinian leadership, shattered Palestinian militants’ cease-fires and thrust the 31-month-old intifada into a dire new phase.
“This is a declaration of war,” Ranaan Gissin, an advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said after the Monday bombing.
Nevertheless, President Bush, who has been the chief force behind recent peace efforts, insisted in Washington that he remained committed to pushing the process forward.
“The road map still stands,” Bush said, referring to a new internationally designed peace plan during an appearance at the White House with Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. “The vision of two states existing side by side in peace is a real vision and one that I will work toward.
“I not only believe, I will move the process forward,” Bush vowed.
Administration officials said they had maintained contacts with the two sides since the bombings began and were continuing to prod them to take incremental steps toward a final peace.
But some administration officials were privately somber about the developments and said that at the least, the increase in violence would greatly lengthen the time needed to coax the parties forward.
Some U.S. experts were also pessimistic.
Edward S. Walker Jr., a former assistant secretary of State for the Middle East, said the attackers had succeeded in “stopping things cold.”
“Frankly, I don’t expect this administration to push Sharon while his people are suffering,” said Walker, now president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank. He predicted that the bombings would also undercut the authority of new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas unless the United States can find a way to end the violence.
In the latest attack, a woman identified as 19-year-old Hiba Daraghmeh stood in line at the entrance to a shopping mall in Afula, a sleepy, working-class town not far from the line that separates Israel from the northern West Bank. She neared security guards, then set off her explosives, witnesses said.
There was a flash of fire, flying metal, the crack of exploding windows. Eti Pitilo, an off-duty border policewoman, stood a few feet away when the explosion occurred. She was blown onto her back and lay smelling the smoke and another odor she couldn’t quite place.
“I think it may have been the smell of the bodies,” she said later from her hospital bed. “I couldn’t see, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t talk. I was just crying.”
It is in scenes like these that any recent diplomatic progress has come unraveled. Sharon and Abbas met Saturday night to talk peace. But two days and five suicide bombings later, Abbas was complaining that the string of attacks played into Sharon’s hands by providing him with a ready excuse to delay further negotiations.
“We strongly condemn the killing of innocent civilians,” he said Monday, “be they Palestinian or Israeli.”
Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade -- the military offshoot of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction -- both took credit for Monday’s attack. As the militants vowed to keep fighting occupation, a tense Israel tightened roadblocks and closures in the Palestinian territories.
In a bid to further isolate Arafat, Israeli officials also decided to boycott any foreign dignitaries who might visit him.
Meanwhile, frustrated Israeli lawmakers urged Sharon to pluck Arafat from the ruins of his West Bank compound and send him into exile.
Deporting Arafat is a suggestion that seems to surface whenever Palestinian militants have dealt Israel a particularly painful blow. But this time, officials hinted that their patience was wearing thin.
“If Arafat continues to act as the main obstacle to the process,” Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said in a speech to Tel Aviv University’s board of trustees, “there will be no alternative but to think about steps to deport Arafat.”
Sharon, however, ignored the calls to exile his longtime foe -- a move that would certainly further destabilize the region and anger international mediators.
“Arafat causes less damage in the Muqata” -- the Palestinian leader’s compound in Ramallah -- Gissin said. “For the moment, he has to stay put.”
Israelis who helped engineer the appointment of Abbas, Arafat’s choice for prime minister, now say they overestimated his popularity and ignored Arafat’s staying power. As Israel pushes Abbas to dismantle the infrastructure of Palestinian militants, the resistance organizations grow scornful of the new prime minister -- and wary of being disarmed by his security forces.
The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade abandoned its cease-fire around the time of Abbas’ appointment April 30. The powerful Islamic resistance group Hamas followed suit.
“Things are exploding now because patience has its limits,” said Ismail abu Shanab, a spokesman for Hamas in the Gaza Strip. “We were trying to give the peace effort a chance, but now the resistance continues.”
Since Saturday, Hamas bombers have killed nine people, striking Jews in the West Bank city of Hebron, soldiers in Gaza and blue-collar commuters in Jerusalem.
With violence surging around him, Sharon backed out of a visit to Washington planned for today, drawing sharp criticism from his government. Lawmakers berated the prime minister for squandering a moment of vulnerability, when it might have been easier to win U.S. sympathy for Israel’s objections to the peace plan.
But Sharon, who prides himself on his close relationship to Bush, slapped aside the complaints.
“Leave these matters to me,” he told legislators from his Likud Party. “My relationship with the U.S. administration and the U.S. president is such that they perfectly understand the situation here.”
Palestinians and Israelis are stuck, each side demanding that the other act first -- and each awaiting the intervention of the United States.
Palestinian negotiators say they won’t tighten security until Israel accepts the U.S.-backed peace plan, and are calling for the United States to force Sharon to cooperate.
“We thought the Americans would really put more pressure on the Israelis, but has Bush got the courage?” said Manuel Hassassian, a Palestinian analyst and negotiator. “This is the real test of power.”
In his comments at the White House, Bush called it “sad and pathetic” that some people in the region “still cannot stand the thought of peace.”
The president also understood Sharon’s reasons for postponing his White House visit, aides said.
Bush “respects this decision, understands it,” said Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary. “He looks forward to greeting Prime Minister Sharon at the first opportunity.”
Administration officials said Palestinian authorities must take steps to close down Palestinian terror organizations. Then, Israel must “think of how it can act in ways to support Prime Minister Abbas and his new government and show respect for the life and dignity of the Palestinian people,” said Richard Boucher, the chief State Department spokesman.
U.S. officials said that they were also urging Palestinian and Israeli security officials to work together to try to halt terrorism and that only through such joint efforts can progress be made.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell talked Sunday with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Abbas and was keeping in contact with other regional leaders, Boucher said.
U.S. officials also made it clear to the Israelis that they agreed with Sharon’s decision to resist efforts to have Arafat expelled.
Walker, of the Middle East Institute, said he too believed that the best hope lies in trying to foster cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security organizations.
“They need to work together and recognize that it’s in their best interests to do so,” he said.
Philip C. Wilcox Jr., president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace argued that U.S. officials cannot follow Sharon’s demand that all violence stop before the two sides move toward peace.
Stack reported from Jerusalem and Richter from Washington. Special correspondent Ruth Morris in Afula contributed to this report.