JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel on Tuesday clamped a closure on the West Bank and Gaza, banning virtually all Palestinians from Israel, in its first response to a suicide bombing that killed five Israelis outside a shopping mall.
Israeli officials, seeking to put pressure on the Palestinians to crack down on militants, also pledged painful retaliation for Monday”s suicide bombing by the Islamic Jihad group in the coastal city of Netanya.
"We decided to operate in a much broader, much deeper and more intensive manner against the Islamic Jihad infrastructure, and I hope that we will be able to prevent such attacks in the future," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told Army Radio on Tuesday following an urgent late-night meeting of security officials.
Israeli security officials said the army would target Islamic Jihad operatives in the West Bank, both through arrest raids and targeted killings of operatives. The army will also renew airstrikes in the Gaza Strip in response to any rocket attacks launched from the area.
The security officials spoke on condition of anonymity under military regulations.
The closure prevented thousands of Palestinian merchants and laborers from reaching jobs in Israel, dealing a tough blow to the poverty-stricken local economy, although Israel permitted Gaza”s main cargo crossing to remain open. The army said the closure would remain in effect indefinitely.
Israel has long demanded that the Palestinians rein in militant groups as a condition for restarting peace talks.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has so far resisted the calls, fearing a civil war and preferring instead to seek a dialogue with the armed groups.
Early Tuesday, Palestinian security forces arrested three Islamic Jihad members in the northern West Bank, the area from which Monday”s bomber came.
The arrests came after a call by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for the Palestinians to take action against the militants.
U.S. Ambassador Richard Jones on Tuesday said Israel "has every right to defend its people."
"We have called repeatedly on the Palestinian Authority to take actions against these terror groups, in particular Islamic Jihad," Jones told reporters in Tel Aviv. "We are doing everything we can to persuade the Palestinian Authority to shoulder its responsibility as a partner for peace."
Islamic Jihad criticized the arrests of its members. It said the men were low-level operatives and accused the Palestinian Authority of carrying out Israel”s work.
"The Palestinian Authority acts like the security agents for Israel," said Abu Abdullah, an Islamic Jihad spokesman in Gaza. But Israel dismissed the gesture as insufficient.
"Arresting a few activists in a particular atrocity is simply not enough," said Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "This group has to be thoroughly disarmed. If not, they will continue to wreak havoc, murdering innocent civilians and killing the chance for peace."
Islamic Jihad is a small, violent group that has carried out all five suicide bombings since Israel and the Palestinians forged a cease-fire last February. The group says its attacks are in response to Israeli violations of the truce.
With Palestinian legislative elections scheduled next month, a large-scale crackdown at the behest of Israel appears unlikely because it would weaken the standing of Abbas” Fatah movement, which faces a tough challenge from the larger Islamic group Hamas. Islamic Jihad is boycotting the election.
The Jan. 25 election could also temper the Israeli response, since violence could make Fatah appear ineffective and bolster Hamas.
The bombing could also reverberate in Israel, which is holding general elections in March. While Sharon faces pressure to respond to the suicide bombing, prolonged fighting could also hurt the prime minister, who recently left the hard-line Likud Party to form a centrist party more amenable to peace making.
Both Sharon and Abbas, who condemned Monday”s bombing, say they want to return to negotiations over the internationally backed "road map" peace plan.
Monday”s bomber hit a shopping mall in Netanya, a seaside city at Israel”s narrowest point, 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the West Bank, a frequent target of bombers. It was the third time the mall has been struck.
Police and security guards spotted the bomber, who was carrying a black bag and wearing a heavy sweat shirt, outside the building and grew suspicious. A security guard pushed the bomber away from a crowd of people waiting to get in, and the man blew himself up. The security guard was among the dead.
"If the bomber had gotten in, the result would have been much worse," said Israel”s police chief, Moshe Karadi.