By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
JERUSALEM, Feb. 4 -- Palestinian suicide bombers struck a shopping street in southern Israel on Monday, killing an Israeli woman and injuring more than 20 other people in the first such attack in a year.
Israeli officials said they were investigating whether the two men who carried out the attack in the town of Dimona had taken advantage of the opening of the Gaza Strip-Egypt border last month to cross into Egypt and then enter Israel.
Egyptian authorities continued their efforts to reseal the border Monday, prompting violence between Palestinians and Egyptian security forces that left one Palestinian dead and at least three injured, according to health officials in Gaza. Ambulances took away an unspecified number of injured Egyptian troops.
On Jan. 23, Palestinian gunmen used explosives and machinery to knock down miles of the concrete and metal barriers on the seven-mile border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Home to 1.5 million Palestinians, Gaza is bordered by Israel to the east and Egypt to the southwest.
Israeli officials have warned of new attacks since the border walls fell, saying they believed Palestinians had used the breach to smuggle arms into Gaza and to send attackers to Egypt on their way to Israel.
In Jerusalem, before the Dimona bombing, Israeli officials said they had decided to reinforce Israeli troops on the Egyptian border and revive plans to fence the entire 140-mile boundary between Egypt and Israel.
Despite "what has been largely a quiet border over three decades" following the signing of a peace deal between Israel and Egypt, it was clear that Israel "can no longer assume that's going to be the case in the coming weeks and months," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli government.
In January 2007, a Palestinian from Gaza trekked across the Sinai desert and attacked a bakery in the Israeli resort city of Eilat, where he killed three Israelis and himself.
Monday's blast occurred on a street lined with shops in Dimona, about 40 miles from the Gaza Strip. A nuclear reactor facility there is believed to be the site of Israel's nuclear weapons program, although Israel has never acknowledged having such weapons. Israeli authorities said the reactor was not the target.
At about 10:30 a.m., two Palestinians wearing explosive belts entered one end of the shopping street. One detonated his explosives, killing the woman and injuring more than 20 other people, including his accomplice.
A physician, Baruch Mandelzweig, told news agencies that he and nurses from his nearby clinic started to treat a critically injured man before they spotted a belt rigged with explosives. "We ran away," Mandelzweig said.
An Israeli officer then shot the man five times, the last time point-blank in the head, killing him before he could detonate his belt.
Israeli authorities did not release the dead woman's identity. Israeli news media said she was 20 years old and had lived in Dimona.
In Gaza, Abu Walid, a spokesman for the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, said his group had carried out the attack. The group is an armed wing of the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The attackers came from a neighborhood just outside Gaza City and from the central Gaza city of Khan Younis, said Abu Walid, who gave only his nom de guerre.
"We are assuring that they got from Point A, Gaza, to Point B, which is Dimona," without crossing into Egypt, Abu Walid said.
In a poor neighborhood on the edge of Gaza City, the mother of a 19-year-old identified as one of the bombers wept as neighbors and gunmen came to console or congratulate her over her son's death.
Loay al-Lahwani left his home Wednesday evening, telling his family he was going off with friends, said his father, Zaki al-Lahwani.
Lahwani laid part of the blame for the attack on Israel, because of the restrictions it has imposed on Gaza. "A young man, he can't work; there's a siege all over Gaza; the borders are blocked and people dying everywhere" in Israeli airstrikes. "We don't know what he is thinking in this moment," the father said.
An Israeli airstrike struck Gaza hours after the bombing, wounding a senior Palestinian official and two others, Palestinian and Israeli officials said.
Special correspondents Nora Younis and Islam Abdulkarim in Gaza contributed to this report.