JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak hinted on Tuesday that the suicide bombers who struck a southern Israeli town came from a West Bank militant hotbed, challenging militants’ claims that the attackers entered Israel through its porous border with Egypt.
If the bombers turn out to have come from the West Bank, that could cloud recently revived peace efforts. Although the Israeli military has a heavy presence in the West Bank, it has also demanded that moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas do a better job to rein in militants there.
In Gaza, meanwhile, eight Palestinians were killed in Israeli military operations, including six in an airstrike that targeted a Hamas police station. A Hamas leader, Sami Abu Zuhri, said Israel would “pay a high price for these crimes.”
On Monday, two Palestinian attackers entered the remote southern Israeli town of Dimona, with explosives belts strapped to their bodies. One blew himself up, but the second was injured in the blast, and police shot him to death before he could detonate his device.
A 73-year-old Israeli woman was killed, her husband was critically wounded, and 10 other people were less seriously hurt.
Shortly after the bombing, a Palestinian militant group in Gaza said the two attackers took advantage of the recent anarchy on the Egypt-Gaza border to go to Egypt and then sneak through the porous frontier with Israel. But Barak appeared to question that claim Tuesday in an appearance before cadets at a base in southern Israel.
The Israeli defense establishment, Barak said, “will find a solution to the terror from Hebron,” he said, in a reference to the West Bank’s largest city. Hebron is a militant center dominated by the Islamic Hamas group, which also rules the Gaza Strip. Hebron is located in the southern West Bank, 55 kilometers (35 miles) north of Dimona, in an area not yet set off by the barrier Israel is building to keep out West Bank attackers. In 2004, Hebron suicide bombers killed 16 people in a twin attack in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba.
Israeli government officials confirmed there were strong indications the bombers came from Hebron. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the final conclusions of Israel’s investigation of the bombing haven’t been announced.
Palestinian officials said Israeli troops arrested the father and brother of a Hamas activist in the town. Israeli defense officials suggested more than one militant cell had tried to infiltrate Israel, generating confusion over who actually carried out the attack and where it originated.
In Gaza on Monday, the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a violent offshoot of Abbas’ Fatah movement, provided the names of the men it said were the bombers and a detailed account of how they sneaked into Israel. The families of the two young men conducted mourning rituals. In the West Bank, there were no signs of mourning.
The group insisted Tuesday that it had carried out the attack.
On their Web site Tuesday, Hamas militants in Gaza denied any involvement in the bombing.
Although the attack in Dimona complicated peace efforts, it didn’t derail them. Late Monday, Israel’s chief negotiator, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, met with the lead Palestinian negotiator, Ahmed Qureia.
Still, Israel has insisted repeatedly that it would not implement any peace deal with the Palestinians until militant groups in the West Bank and Gaza were dismantled. Abbas has not yet done that in the West Bank and is in no position to do it in Gaza, where Hamas militants overpowered his security forces in June to wrest control.
On Tuesday, Israel pushed forward with its military campaign against Gaza rocket and mortar squads. Two Hamas militants were killed in clashes with Israeli troops early Tuesday. Israeli aircraft later killed six people in an attack on a Hamas police station, after rockets struck two factories in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, causing damage but no injuries.
Israeli police, meanwhile, were out in higher numbers Tuesday at entrances to cities, shopping malls and bus and train stations. Overnight, border police arrested 240 Palestinians who had entered Israel illegally to work, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. One of the militant groups that claimed to have carried out the attack said its gunmen were poised to strike again, but Rosenfeld said no specific new threats were identified.
The claim that the bombers entered Israel from Egypt has revived a long-standing proposal to build a barrier along the 250-kilometer (150-mile) border with Egypt.
Hamas militants tore down large sections of Gaza’s border wall with Israel on Jan. 23, allowing hundreds of thousands of Gazans to pour into Egypt unchecked. The border breach, and Monday’s attack, fueled Israeli fears that Gaza militants had streamed into Egypt and planned from there to infiltrate Israel and strike places like Dimona, which lies about 60 kilometers (35 miles) from the Egyptian border. Egypt didn’t reseal its border with Gaza until Sunday.
Israel’s desert border with Egypt is mostly open, with few obstacles. By contrast, a large fence complex separates Gaza from Israel, and attacks from the seaside territory have been rare.
In a related development, two dozen Hamas activists from the West Bank city of Nablus held a news conference to urge fellow Hamas militants to disarm in exchange for amnesty. They also urged Hamas to restore Abbas’ authority in Gaza. Many of them had been jailed in the West Bank following Hamas’ Gaza takeover. Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas leader in Gaza, said he thought the Nablus group made the statement to win release from prison.