Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz ordered the military Monday to intensify operations against Islamic Jihad and approved the assassination of the radical Palestinian group's senior leaders after one of its operatives blew himself up outside a crowded Israeli shopping mall.
The attack in the coastal city of Netanya killed at least five Israelis as well as the bomber, who was identified as Lutfi Amin Abu Saadeh, 21, a factory worker from the West Bank village of Kfar Rai. More than 30 people were wounded in the suicide attack, the first in Israel since late October and the second attack at the Netanya Hasharon Mall this year.
The huge blast was set off about 11:30 a.m. local time and left bodies scattered outside the mall, at the eastern entrance to the city, about 10 miles from the West Bank. Its glass-and-marble facade was shattered in places and stained with swirls of blood as far as 60 feet from the site of the explosion. Body parts were found as far as 300 feet away.
Among the dead was a mall security guard, who had approached the bomber at the entrance. Witnesses said a female police officer had tipped him off to the bomber, screaming, "Terrorist, terrorist!"
The policewoman, Shoshi Attia, who was wounded in the blast, said she had been looking the bomber "in the eye" when he pressed the button "and blew up."
"I flew, and all I remember is that I was looking in his eye, I saw his gaze," she said, speaking to Israeli reporters from her hospital bed.
Israeli officials praised the guard and Attia for saving lives by preventing the man from entering the mall.
The attack came as Israel and the Palestinian Authority are preparing for national elections, and officials on both sides said the attack was intended to shape the emerging campaigns and undermine progress toward reviving peace efforts.
"Those who are responsible should be hunted down by the Palestinian police," Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement. "The Palestinian Authority will have no tolerance for such actions."
The attack further threatened an informal cease-fire that Abbas arranged in March with a dozen armed Palestinian factions. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has demanded that Abbas disarm the Palestinian groups as a prerequisite for progress on the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map." Sharon has also warned that Israel might not cooperate in allowing the Palestinian parliamentary elections, scheduled for Jan. 25, unless the groups are disarmed.
Abbas has sought to improve security by bringing the groups into the political process, allowing them to participate in municipal elections and, soon, the national voting for parliament.
Islamic Jihad, however, has declined to participate in elections. The relatively small group, whose military operation has far more influence inside the organization than its political wing, does not recognize Israel's right to exist.
At a news conference in Gaza City, an Islamic Jihad spokesman said the attack was a response to Israel's recent killing of two of the group's leaders and to the "massacres" of the Israeli occupation.
"This is a first message to whoever will conspire against the arms of the resistance, and we warn of any attempt to pursue those who carried out this operation," the masked spokesman said.
Israeli officials said the attack showed that Abbas's strategy was failing. Sharon, who quit the Likud Party last month and has formed a new political party, says he will pursue a peace agreement with the Palestinians. But a decline in Israel's security could turn public opinion against the highly popular prime minister.
The Palestinian cease-fire brought a significant reduction in violence after nearly five years of the most recent Palestinian uprising, and came as part of a broader deal reached by Sharon and Abbas in February at the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Under the agreement, Israel returned Tulkarm in the West Bank, 10 miles east of Netanya, to Palestinian security forces early this year. But Israeli military forces rolled back into the city in July after a bomber from a nearby village killed five Israelis in a suicide attack outside the Hasharon Mall.
Palestinian leaders say Israel's mass arrests, checkpoints and military operations in the West Bank have inflamed the security climate, while Israeli officials say they are acting to head off Palestinian attacks.
Mofaz, who is running for the leadership of Likud, also asked the attorney general Monday for permission to raze the bomber's family home. Human rights groups have condemned this practice as collective punishment. An Israeli military committee determined earlier this year that the damage caused by the home demolitions outweighed the security benefits.
Wilson reported from Jerusalem. Special correspondent Islam Abdel Kareem in Gaza City contributed to this report.