IMAGE: After the blast in Beersheba
Nir Elias  /  Reuters
Israeli police officers survey the scene of Sunday's suicide bombing in the southern city of Beersheba.
updated 9/20/2005 12:59:07 PM ET 2005-09-20T16:59:07

A suicide bomber blew himself up outside the central bus station in this southern Israeli city during morning rush hour Sunday, critically wounding two security guards in the first attack since Israel began its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this month.

The bombing raised pressure on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to crack down on militant groups. Israel has said any progress in peacemaking after the Gaza withdrawal will require Abbas to disarm the militants — a step he so far has been unwilling to take.

Abbas denounced the bombing as a “terror attack,” and called on Israel to show restraint and continue to respect a shaky, six-month-old cease-fire. “We condemn such attacks. We don’t accept them, and we call on everyone to refrain from retaliation,” he said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. All the major Palestinian militant groups had threatened to avenge an Israeli raid in the West Bank last week that killed five Palestinians. In his comments Sunday, Abbas suggested the raid had provoked the attack.

Israel forcibly removed the last of its 8,500 Jewish settlers from Gaza last week, and is expected to complete the pullout by early October.

Cabinet OKs Egypt border plan
Pushing forward with the withdrawal, Israel’s Cabinet approved a plan to allow Egypt to deploy 750 troops along the border between Gaza and Egypt to prevent weapons smuggling into the Palestinian territory. The plan will allow Israel to withdraw its troops from a security strip on the Gaza-Egypt border, a key step in the pullout.

Israel also began exhuming on Sunday the 48 bodies buried in the Jewish cemetery in Gaza for reburial inside Israel. The reburials are expected to be finished by the end of the week.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he hopes the pullout will lead to a resumption of peace talks, which have been frozen for more than two years, but the bombing Sunday cast doubt on that possibility.

“Israel has taken the necessary steps to further the prospects of peace with the Palestinians,” said David Baker, an official in Sharon’s office. “This bombing ... is another indication that the Palestinian Authority must take proper steps against terror, and without these steps, there will be no progress between both sides.”

Crowded station
Sunday’s attack occurred in a dirt parking lot about 100 yards from the bus station, which was crowded with morning rush-hour travelers. Witnesses said two security guards halted the bomber, preventing a much larger attack. The guards were critically injured with burns and shrapnel wounds.

Taxi driver Itzik Ohana said he was waiting for customers in the lot when he saw the bomber, a man about 20, who had short hair and was dragging a heavy bag and sweating. The man frequently stopped to put the bag down and rest.

Ohana said he told a security guard about the suspicious-looking man and called the police. “While I was talking to the police there was an explosion,” he said.

After the attack, police raised the alert level across the country.

During Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the West Bank is becoming the focus for Israel’s war against militants. He said Israel has made it clear that the Palestinians must fulfill their pledges to act against militants.

Tensions rose in recent days between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel upset the Palestinians last week with plans to confiscate land around the West Bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim, for construction of the massive separation barrier.

Israeli troops also killed five Palestinians in an arrest raid in the West Bank town of Tulkarem. Israel said the five were all fugitive militants, but the Palestinians said two were unarmed teenagers. Their deaths prompted calls for revenge from the Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades groups.

Khaled al-Batch, an Islamic Jihad leader in Gaza, said he did not know who carried out Sunday’s attack. “But it came as a natural reaction to the occupation crimes,” he said. “It is our right to retaliate.”

On Saturday, Hamas released a videotape purportedly showing its top bombmaker celebrating the Gaza pullout as a victory for armed resistance and calling for continued attacks until Israel is destroyed. The bombmaker, Mohammed Deif, has been in hiding from Israeli troops since 1992.

Israeli authorities suspected the attacker came from the Hebron area in the southern West Bank. Construction of the barrier, which Israel says is meant to block attacks, hasn’t been completed in that area, allowing militants to infiltrate relatively easily. Two suicide bombers from Hebron struck Beersheba in August 2004, killing 16 people, prompting Israel to speed up construction in the area.

“We have to finish the fence and we are making efforts,” Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert told Israel Radio.

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