NETANYA, Israel (AP)- A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up Monday among shoppers waiting to enter a mall in the northern Israeli town of Netanya, killing at least five people and wounding more than 30 others.
The bombing escalated already heightened tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, marked by recent airstrikes and rocket attacks. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon scheduled an emergency meeting of his Security Cabinet later Monday to discuss a response to the bombing.
Islamic Jihad, a militant group that has carried out several suicide bombings in recent months, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it came in retaliation for Israeli targeted killings of the group”s leaders.
Police said the bomber blew himself as he was about to undergo a random security check at the mall”s entrance. The blast shattered windows and pocked the outside of the brown, multistory building. Pieces of concrete were ripped off the facade, blood stained the base of the building and debris was scattered on the sidewalk.
One body lay on the ground, its blackened legs sticking out from under a blanket, while another lay nearby under a sheet. Emergency workers hurriedly pushed wheeled stretchers with the wounded toward waiting ambulances.
Avi Sasson, deputy police commander in the northern region, said a guard spotted the bomber. "Just as police were going to check him, he put his hand in a bag and blew up," he told Israel Radio.
Israeli malls have been fortified in the wake of past attacks. Shoppers must undergo several security checks, including opening the trunks of their cars and passing through metal detectors, before entering.
A witness, identifying himself as Michael, said he saw three people lying on the ground.
"There was one who I thought was maybe still alive. There was a big pool of blood. I checked the pulse in her neck and concluded she was dead," said Michael, who said he served as a medic in the Israeli army.
Sharon has repeatedly said that long deadlocked peace negotiations cannot resume until militant violence stops, and Monday”s attack was likely to set back renewed efforts to return to the internationally sponsored "road map" peace talks.
"The Palestinian Authority continues to refuse to take the most elementary steps to prevent terrorism. They refuse to incarcerate terrorists. They refuse to dismantle the terror organizations and put them out of business once and for all. And we”ve seen these results today in Netanya," said David Baker, an official in Sharon”s office.
In Ramallah, Abbas condemned the attack and promised an especially harsh response by his security forces.
"This operation … against civilians causes the most serious harm to our commitment to the peace process and the Palestinian Authority will not go easy on whoever is proved to be responsible for this operation," said a statement issued by Abbas” office.
In a phone call to the AP, Islamic Jihad identified the attacker as Lotfi Abu Saada, from the village of Illar, north of the West Bank town of Tulkaram. A video released by the group showed the bomber posing with a grenade launcher and an assault rifle.
Islamic Jihad has carried out all four previous suicide bombings since a cease-fire declaration last February. The group has said it reserves the right to retaliate for any perceived Israeli violations.
Israel said that Islamic Jihad”s attacks make it a legitimate target, despite the truce. Israeli troops killed Luay Saadi, a West Bank leader of the group, on Oct. 24, and late last month arrested another leader, Iyad Abu Rob, after a daylong siege in the town of Jenin.
Earlier, the Al Aqsa Martyrs” Brigades, a violent group linked to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas” Fatah movement, also claimed responsibility, but did not release the name of a bomber.
The attack followed growing tensions along Israel”s border with the Gaza Strip. Palestinian militants fired two rockets from Gaza into Israel at nightfall Sunday, following the first Israeli airstrikes in Gaza in more than a month. Israel withdrew from Gaza in September, and has promised a tough response to any attacks coming out of the area.
During five years of fighting, Netanya, a coastal city about 20 miles (30 kilometers) north of Tel Aviv, has been a frequent target of suicide bombings due to its close proximity to the West Bank.
But following Israel”s construction of a West Bank separation barrier in the area, along with a cease-fire declaration in February, there has been a sharp drop in such attacks.
Monday”s attack was the fifth since the cease-fire declaration, and the first suicide bombing in Israel since Oct. 26, when a 20-year-old Palestinian blew himself up at a felafel stand in the town of Hadera, killing five Israelis.
Monday”s attack was the third on the Netanya mall since 2001, including a July 12 attack at one of the mall entrances that killed two women.
Netanya also suffered one of the deadliest bombings over the past five years, an attack on a ritual Passover meal at a hotel March 27, 2002, that killed 29 people. The attack sparked Operation Defensive Shield, during which Israel retook control Palestinian towns and cities in more than two weeks of bloody fighting.