A Palestinian suicide bomber attacked a bakery in this southern Israeli resort town on Monday, killing three people and himself, police said. It was the first suicide bombing in Israel in nine months and the first ever to hit Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city.
The morning attack struck Eilat, a normally tranquil Red Sea resort located at Israel’s southern tip near the Jordanian and Egyptian borders. Separated from Israel’s largest cities by hundreds of miles of desert, it has been largely immune from Israeli-Palestinian fighting and is a popular getaway for Israelis.
Israeli leaders said the bombing jeopardized a two-month truce in Gaza. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed to continue the “ongoing and never-ending struggle against terrorists.”
His defense minister, Amir Peretz, convened an emergency meeting of top security officials. “This is a grave incident, it’s an escalation and we shall treat it as such,” Peretz said.
A spokesman for Hamas, the radical Islamic group that controls the Palestinian parliament and Cabinet, praised the bombing as a “natural response” to Israeli policies — a position likely to complicate the group’s efforts to end a crippling aid boycott imposed by the international community.
Two Palestinian militant groups, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, claimed joint responsibility for the attack.
Both groups said the bombing was meant to help bring an end to weeks of Palestinian infighting that has killed more than 60 people in the Gaza Strip since December. Fighting continued across the Gaza Strip on Monday, and four people were killed officials said.
“The operation has a clear message to the Palestinian rivals. It is necessary to end the infighting and point the guns toward the occupation that has hurt the Palestinian people,” a posting on the Islamic Jihad Web site said.
The group identified the bomber as Mohammed Siksik, 20, of Gaza City. Saksak’s family said he had left their home three days ago and not returned.
Relatives said he was despondent because he was unemployed and his baby daughter died recently of an illness. Also, his best friend was killed in a clash with Israeli forces, they said, and his brother is a top Islamic Jihad militant.
Blast shakes building
Benny Mazgini, 45, said he was in an apartment across the street when the building shook from the force of the blast. When he ran outside, Mazgini said, he saw body parts scattered on the sidewalk.
“It was awful — there was smoke, pieces of flesh all over the place,” Mazgini said.
The attack was the second suicide bombing in Israel since Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections last January. The group came under heavy criticism for making statements in support of an April suicide bombing in a Tel Aviv restaurant that killed 12 people shortly after it took power.
Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, called the attack a “natural response” to Israeli military policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as its ongoing boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian government. “So long as there is occupation, resistance is legitimate,” he said.
He also said attacks on Israel were preferable to the recent bout of Palestinian infighting in Gaza between his group and the more moderate Fatah Party of President Mahmoud Abbas. “The right thing is for Fatah weapons to be directed toward the occupation not toward Hamas,” Barhoum said.
An Israeli spokesman reacted cautiously to the initial reports of an attack, but hinted at a potentially tough response.
“At this point it’s unclear what the origin of the terror attack is,” said David Baker, an official in Olmert’s office. “Israel as a nation is continually confronting terror threats. Israel is always on guard against such attacks and we are compelled to continue to do so.”
After Monday’s blast, police cordoned off the area, and Bruno Stein, Eilat’s police commander, said the police believed there could be more bombers in the city.
“Our assumption is that it’s not one bomber, and there might be more bombers in Eilat right now,” Stein said. Israeli emergency services went on high alert.
First attack in resort city
The attack was the first suicide bombing to hit Eilat, which is distant from Israel’s major population centers and has been largely insulated from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Suicide bombings are sharply down from their height four years ago, when hundreds of Israelis were killed in dozens of attacks. However, a renewal of such violence could derail efforts by the United States, Israel and Abbas to renew long-stalled peace talks.
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, one of the groups claiming responsibility for Monday’s attack, is linked to Fatah. However, Fatah spokesman Ahmad Abdul Rahman condemned the violence. “We are against any operation that targets civilians, Israelis or Palestinians,” he said.
Eilat is located on the Red Sea near the Jordanian and Egyptian border, and al-Qaida operatives have been active in both neighboring countries. However, there was no indication the group was involved in Monday’s attack. There was no immediate word on how the bomber reached Eilat.
Palestinian attackers from the West Bank have been able to infiltrate Israel by traveling in cars with Israeli license plates, often driven by Arab citizens of Israel. Several Palestinian tourism agencies based in Jerusalem run tours to Eilat for West Bank Palestinians. The buses, which also have Israeli license plates, travel quickly through checkpoints with minimal inspections.
The Israel-Egypt border, which runs near Eilat, is regularly crossed by smugglers entering Israel, according to police. Though the smugglers for the most part bring drugs and prostitutes into Israel, local officials in Eilat raised the possibility that the bomber had used the smuggling route to cross from Egypt.
The only attack to hit Eilat since the renewed outbreak of Israel-Palestinian violence in 2000 came in August 2005, when Islamist militants linked to al-Qaida fired a rocket from Jordanian territory at the city, causing no casualties.
The last deadly attack in the city was in 1992, when Palestinian militants swam to an Eilat beach and killed an Israeli security guard.