A 64-year-old Palestinian grandmother blew herself up near Israeli troops sweeping through northern Gaza on Thursday, and eight other Palestinians were killed in a day of clashes and rocket fire.
The militant Hamas, which is in charge of the Palestinian government, claimed responsibility for the suicide attack and identified the bomber as Fatma Omar An-Najar. Her relatives said she was 64 — by far the oldest of the more than 100 Palestinian suicide bombers who have targeted Israelis over the past six years.
Israeli forces were moving through the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza on the second day of an operation to stem rocket fire from the coastal strip into southern Israel. They spotted a woman acting suspiciously, the military said. Soldiers threw a stun grenade, a weapon that makes a loud nose but causes no damage. The woman then set off explosives she was carrying, killing herself and slightly wounding two soldiers.
At the compound where her extended family lives near Jebaliya camp, her oldest daughter Fatheya explained the bomber’s motives.
“They (Israelis) destroyed her house, they killed her grandson — my son. Another grandson is in a wheelchair with an amputated leg,” she said.
Female suicide bombers were a rarity during the first several years of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that has gradually changed. The last suicide bombing, on Nov. 6, was also carried out by a woman in northern Gaza.
But the past few weeks have seen an increase in militant activity by women in Gaza who have served as “human shields” defending the homes of militants that Israel has threatened to destroy.
‘We were looking for martyrdom’
Fatheya said she and her mother had taken part in rally at a Gaza mosque three weeks ago where women defied a cordon of heavily armed Israeli troops to create a diversion for besieged Hamas fighters to slip away.
“She and I, we went to the mosque. We were looking for martyrdom,” the daughter said.
Hamas spokesman Abu Obeideh said both Palestinian men and women are committed to battling the Israelis.
“We told the Zionist enemy we will meet it with many surprises ... and this is one of the surprises,” he said.
Before setting out on her mission, An-Najar filmed the video testament customary for suicide bombers. A copy obtained by The Associated Press showed a petite woman wearing a white headscarf and black dress, toting an assault rifle on her shoulder and standing in front of a Hamas wall mural.
Reading from a sheet of paper, she dedicated her attack to the Hamas-led government and to the movement’s military commander, Mohammed Deif.
“I hope God accepts it,” she said.
Eight other Palestinians were killed Thursday. In Gaza, three militants from the Palestinian Resistance Committees were killed in an Israeli airstrike on their car, Palestinian security and hospital officials said. The military confirmed the air force had attacked a vehicle.
The Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades said one of its men, a 20-year-old, was killed in a clash.
Two Hamas militants were killed in a gun battle with Israeli forces, and another was shot dead as he was about to fire a rocket at Israel, the military said. Another man died of wounds in a Gaza hospital. It was not known whether he was a militant or a civilian.
Homemade rockets fired at southern Israel
Despite the stepped up Israeli military operations, militants kept firing their homemade rockets at southern Israel. Five were fired from Gaza, the army said. No one was hurt.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz was in Sderot, next to northern Gaza, where he lives, when the alarm warning of a rocket attack sounded. Channel 10 TV showed him being hustled by security officers into a concrete-lined room, and seconds later the explosion of two rockets could be heard clearly.
The escalating violence added urgency to diplomatic efforts to defuse the conflict.
In one hopeful sign, the Damascus-based supreme leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, began talks with Egyptian mediators in Cairo on a vital prisoner swap with Israel and formation of a Palestinian national unity government that could end months of crippling Western aid sanctions.
No announcement was made after the talks between Mashaal and the chief of Egyptian intelligence, Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s point man for the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
The capture in late June of an Israeli soldier by Hamas-linked militants set off the latest Israeli offensive in Gaza. Israel insists the soldier must be returned before other issues are discussed.
Hamas official Mussa Abu Marzouk told the AP that negotiations were centering on Israel’s three-stage release of 1,400 Palestinian prisoners, including 400 children and women, in exchange for the soldier.
Mashaal, who is recognized as having the final say in Hamas, was also expected to discuss prospects for replacing the current Hamas-led Palestinian Cabinet with a more moderate coalition including President Mahmoud Abbas’ more moderate Fatah Party. Talks have been sputtering for months.
The West cut off funds to the Palestinian government in March, when Hamas took control after sweeping Fatah out of office in a parliamentary election. The United States, Europe and Israel list Hamas as a terror group. A government with Fatah might satisfy Western demands.