Signaling that the departure of ailing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would not diminish violent attacks, a militant group that said it carried out a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv Monday warned Palestinian leaders not to give up the armed struggle against Israel.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) asserted responsibility for the blast in a congested marketplace in which three people and the bomber were killed and 32 wounded. The group issued a communique threatening "anyone who lets himself be seduced into talking about ending the resistance and haggling over the national legitimate rights and principles of our people."
The warning echoed messages issued by other Palestinian militant groups since Arafat, 75, left his heavily damaged compound in the West Bank Friday for the first time in 21/2 years to undergo examinations and treatment at a military hospital outside of Paris.
The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Arafat's Fatah political movement, distributed leaflets with a similar demand across the West Bank and Gaza Strip over the weekend. The message appeared to be aimed at moderate Palestinian leaders that the United States and other nations have supported as potential replacements for Arafat.
While not named, one of the intended targets appeared to be Mahmoud Abbas, the former Palestinian prime minister who quit in part over Arafat's refusal to institute power-sharing reforms. Abbas is now running the day-to-day affairs of the international Palestine Liberation Organization.
The current prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, who is heading the Palestinian Authority in Arafat's absence, told reporters after Monday's bombing, "Such attacks do not serve our cause amid such a difficult situation." He added, "We call on everyone to stop targeting civilians."
"Today's terror attack proved that there has been no change in the Palestinian Authority," Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said. "Words, promises and half-hearted condemnations will not suffice."
The suicide bombing came as both the Palestinian and Israeli governments are confronting internal strife. Palestinian leaders are struggling to fill a power vacuum in Arafat's absence. Leila Shahid, the Palestinian envoy to Paris, told the Reuters news agency on Monday that Arafat "is improving by the hour, but he is very tired and exhausted."
Sharon is facing stiff opposition even within his own political party over his proposal to vacate Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank. This week the Israeli parliament is scheduled to debate his $60 billion budget proposal for 2005 and the funding for the disengagement plan. Sharon's Gaza withdrawal won preliminary approval in the Knesset last week, but must still clear several legislative hurdles.
The Palestinian suicide bomber set off the blast outside the Zion Cheese shop in the narrow, crowded alleyways of the Carmel Market at 11:15 a.m. Monday. The force of the explosion spewed body parts across mounds of fruits and vegetables, set fire to a clothing stall and blew packages of socks and clumps of herbs across the sidewalks. Shoppers scrambled in panic through the pedestrian marketplace, which sprawls for blocks in central Tel Aviv, crammed with stalls of inexpensive clothing, housewares, toys and foodstuffs.
"The sights were awful," said Rachel Yishayau, a 58-year-old banana and kiwi vendor whose stall was just yards from the bomber. "There was an elderly woman. All her clothes were ripped off. . . . I covered her up with the carpet we use to cover our fruits."
"This was a single suicide bomber -- a man who blew up in the heart of the market," said David Tzur, commander of the Tel Aviv district police, adding, "We had no concrete warning of an attack in Tel Aviv or for this specific place."
Israeli police identified one of the dead as Shmuel Levy, 65, from Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv. The two women killed in the blast were still unidentified late Monday.
The PFLP, one of the four main groups that has launched attacks against Israelis during the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000, identified the bomber as Amer Far from the Askar refugee camp near the northern West Bank city of Nablus. Friends and relatives of Far gave conflicting accounts of his age, ranging from 16 to 19.
Shortly after 9 p.m. Monday, undercover Israeli troops entered the center of Nablus and shot and killed four Palestinian fighters in a gun battle, including Majdi Maree, a senior leader of the local branch of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, according to Palestinian security sources and hospital officials. They said that Israeli soldiers in civilian clothes arrived on an apparent arrest mission and sparked a prolonged gunfight, during which the four men were killed and another four people were injured.
An Israeli military spokeswoman said soldiers entered the city on a "pinpoint activity to arrest several operatives" from al-Aqsa. As the troops advanced on a group of five militants, she said, "they aimed their weapons at the [Israeli] forces, and before they were able to shoot, the forces hit them," striking three. One was arrested, she said.
The PFLP, which was founded with a secular rather than an Islamic ideology, also carried out the last suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, at a suburban highway junction on Dec. 25, and has sponsored numerous shooting attacks against Israelis and Jewish settlers in the West Bank in the past four years.
The last suicide bombing inside Israel occurred on Sept. 22 at a Jerusalem bus stop and hitchhiking post. Two Israeli border policemen were killed in the incident.
The number of suicide bombings inside Israel has declined in the past year as Israeli military forces have conducted continuous attacks against suspected militants across the West Bank. Israeli officials also credit a large wall-and-fence complex around and through the northern West Bank with deterring would-be bombers.
So far this year, 56 people have died in 11 suicide bombings, according to Israeli government statistics; in 2003, 139 people died in 23 bombings. Since the conflict began more than four years ago, 109 suicide bombings have killed 502 people.
Moore reported from Jerusalem. Researchers Samuel Sockol and Hillary Claussen contributed to this report.