Three killed in suicide bomb attack on Israeli fruit market


THE MIDDLE EAST: Israel is unlikely to launch a large-scale military strike in response to yesterday's suicide bombing, in which at least three people were killed in Netanya's fruit and vegetable market, Israeli officials said.

There are hopes the blast - which ended a 12-day lull in such attacks - would prompt increased international pressure on the Palestinian President, Mr Yasser Arafat, to centralise his multiple security forces and order them to try and thwart such bombings.

Responsibility for the attack yesterday afternoon was claimed by both the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Islamic extremist group Hamas. Both groups have made clear their determination to carry out further bombings. The Palestinian Authority issued a statement condemning the blast.

Israeli officials claim to have thwarted more than a dozen planned suicide bombings in the past few days, since the last major attack, at Rishon Letzion on May 7th, killed 15 Israelis.

Their intelligence services obtained some kind of generalised warning shortly before yesterday's attack. The army set up makeshift roadblocks along the otherwise unfenced border area between Netanya, on the coast, and Tulkarm, the nearest Palestinian city, a 15-minute drive away, from where the bomber is believed to have been dispatched.

However, the attacker presumably crossed into Israel before the roadblocks went up, and witnesses said he was able to make his way into one of the market's narrow alleys undisturbed because he was wearing an raeli army uniform.

The casualty toll was relatively low not because the explosive charge was small but because the market was relatively deserted.

The explosion brought down part of a the market ceiling, destroyed stalls piled high with potatoes and apples, and contained the nails and metal shards that have become a vicious hallmark of such devices.

Amid the chaos in the hospital corridors, one eyewitness spoke of having seen "the front of a man's face blown off and flying upwards."

A second, Mr Amos Offer, waiting for treatment, said the bomber was "standing right in front of me" and that scraps of the man's flesh had landed on him. Eyewitnesses at the scene described a blood-covered, part-naked man crawling out from between a smashed stall, and a dead body lying amid the wreckage.

Israel has been sending troops intermittently into West Bank cities in recent days, including deep into Tulkarm, and is expected to continue that policy. The deliberate downplaying of the prospect of a larger strike contrasts sharply with the threats of harsh action, and a sizeable emergency call-up of reservists, immediately following the Rishon Letzion blast.

At the time, the army was said to be on the point of a massive incursion into the Gaza Strip - an operation shelved because of the lack of clear targets, the likelihood of heavy casualties on both sides, US pressure for restraint, and an awareness that Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt were pressing Mr Arafat to rein in the bombers and Hamas to stop the attacks.

All of those factors remain unchanged except that Hamas has since made plain that it will not halt the blasts. Palestinian ministers continue to speak about imminent reforms in the Palestinian Authority, including the streamlining of the security apparatus. But it is still not clear how wholeheartedly Mr Arafat will embrace calls for reform, or whether he will endorse the plans now taking shape for presidential and other elections in about six months.

At the weekend, Mr Arafat chose not to accept the mass resignation of his cabinet - offered as a sign of ministers' support for reform - and he chose not to hold a scheduled meeting with the election planners yesterday.