Just hours after a suicide bomber killed at least four Israelis outside a shopping mall in the northern Israeli coastal city of Netanya, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon signaled his determination to go ahead with the withdrawal from Gaza by sealing it off to non-residents.
None of the 7,000 Jewish athletes in Netanya for the Maccabiah games was hurt in the Tuesday bombing, and all were ordered to remain in their hotels that evening and not to attend an outdoor festival staged in their honor. The next morning, one Dutch soccer player left for home, reportedly at the request of his girlfriend.
Sharon’s order to seal off the Gaza Strip appeared designed to head off a planned march next Monday by opponents of the withdrawal. Plans had called for thousands of Jews from across Israel to march to the Gush Katif settlement bloc in the southern Gaza Strip in a demonstration against the pullout, which is scheduled to begin Aug. 15.
But opponents of the withdrawal said the Netanya bombing only underscored their belief in the folly of the Gaza disengagement plan.
"You don’t reward terror," said Shani Simkovitz, a spokeswoman for the Regional Council of Gush Etzion. "To me the withdrawal is a joke. First a bomb went off in London and now Netanya and terrorists are threatening other major cities all over the world. We’re engaged in an international fight against terror, and disengagement will not bring peace."
Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon, said there is "a direct ideological connection between those who are taking the terrorist war to the heart of Europe and those who did the bombing in Netanya."
He cited as evidence an Islamic Jihad publication based in Gaza that expressed support for the London bombing. The Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the Netanya bombing, as it did for the suicide bombing in February outside a Tel Aviv nightclub that killed five Israelis. That attack ó the last suicide bombing in Israel before this week ócame just two weeks after the Palestinian Authority and Israel each pledged to maintain an informal truce.
Aryeh Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York, said Islamic Jihad has never abided by that agreement. He pointed out that in recent weeks it has tried but failed to mount other attacks against Israelis.
"Each time they were blocked [by Israeli security forces]," he said. "This time they succeeded."
Mekel noted that Hamas, another Palestinian terrorist organization, has largely abided by the truce and that its leaders say they want to also be part of the political process. He said Islamic Jihad is competing with Hamas for popular support by mounting terrorist attacks.
"They want to show that Israel is getting out of Gaza because terror and violence forced it to do so," Mekel said. "So Islamic Jihad thinks that if it does well-publicized attacks, it will get the so-called credit for it. It’s a crazy situation."
He said Israel would now have to take an offensive position against Islamic Jihad after waiting in vain for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to act.
"He said he would take steps against the terrorists, but we see he is not doing anything," Mekel said. "We can’t allow a situation like this to occur, so we will pursue them wherever they live. We will try to arrest them and destroy their cells and confiscate their weapons." On Wednesday, Israeli troops swept into the West Bank city of Tulkarem, a short distance from the village in which the suicide bomber lived. Sharon said he had dispatched the troops with orders to "launch a relentless attack against the Islamic Jihad terrorist organization and its commanders."
Israeli media reports said two armed Palestinians were killed in the raid, one of whom was a security guard who is said to have opened fire when the troops entered the city. Two Israeli troops and a Palestinian were lightly wounded during the initial fighting, and five members of Islamic Jihad were arrested. Some weapons and explosives were also reportedly seized.
The suicide bombing also led Israel to impose a closure on the West Bank and to consider delaying this week’s planned transfer of Bethlehem to the Palestinian Authority. Simkovitz pointed out that the 18-year-old Palestinian who blew himself up Tuesday evening on a crosswalk just outside the Sharon mall had somehow managed to traverse the security barrier Israel erected to separate itself from Palestinian West Bank villages about 10 miles away. "Terrorists dig under walls, they climb over them, there is no 100 percent guarantee they can be kept out," she said. "There are alerts all over now … and the Arabs are laughing at us. They know that if they get Jews to leave from one area, they will get us to leave another and another just as we left Lebanon with our tail between our legs."
Gold said the bombing might affect Israel’s redeployment around areas of the northern West Bank where four settlements will be evacuated.
"The ongoing threat of terrorism only underlines Israel’s need for defensible borders in the West Bank, in contrast with the full pullout in Gaza," he said. "Obviously, Israel’s deployment and planning will depend on the nature of the threat that is developing." Mekel said he believed Israel would be able to root out the terrorists without having to take back control of any West Bank cities handed out to the Palestinian Authority. Tulkarem was handed back four months ago. Bruce Maddy Weitzman, a fellow at the Dayan Center for Middle East and North African Studies at Tel Aviv University, said he too believes that the Tulkarem incursion is expected to be a "specific, localized operation."
"The Israeli government is trying very hard to keep things under control, because it’s very committed to the [Gaza] evacuation," he said. "Islamic Jihad is not committed to the calm. When they can carry out an operation they will. It’s a terrible thing, but I don’t see it having a major impact on the situation."
The suicide bombing came just one day after Israel’s cabinet approved plans to speed up completion of the security barrier around Jerusalem.
Israel correspondent Joshua Mitnick contributed to this report.