JERUSALEM, Nov. 7 (JTA) Terror struck inside Israel one day before Israeli and Palestinian officials were to begin final-status negotiations.
Israeli officials said they would fight terrorism and advance peace moves with the Palestinian Authority despite a triple bombing in the northern coastal town of Netanya.
No group claimed responsibility for the three pipe bombs that exploded Sunday, lightly to moderately wounding dozens of people. A fourth pipe bomb did not detonate.
Israeli and Palestinian officials blamed the attack on Islamic militants seeking to derail the peace process.
The Israeli Cabinet was meeting to approve the next withdrawal from the West Bank when the attack occurred.
According to witnesses and police, the explosions occurred at about 10:30 a.m in the heart of Netanya’s business district.
Witnesses and police said the bombs had been planted near a garbage bin at a corner near a bank.
“I was at the corner, waiting at a red light, when I heard an explosion behind us, three explosions,” said an Israel Radio reporter who was at the scene.
“There was heavy smoke and fire. I looked behind and saw fire in a pile of garbage and saw six or seven people lying on the sidewalk. Police arrived in a few minutes.”
“Suddenly I heard this explosion,” said another witness. “I turned around. I was burned in the hand. My father was thrown back by the force of the blast.
“Everyone was running around. People were lying in the streets. It was chaos.”
Police cordoned off the area as ambulance crews began evacuating the wounded to three area hospitals.
Israeli police put up roadblocks around Netanya as part of a search for suspects. A local police official confirmed that suspects had been detained for questioning based on descriptions given by witnesses.
An Israel Radio reporter said police were investigating whether the same terrorist cell that planted two pipe bombs outside the Netanya police station three months ago an incident that caused no damage or injuries was involved in Sunday’s bombing.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak soon issued a statement saying the government was determined to eliminate terrorism and that it expected the Palestinian Authority to do likewise.
The Palestinian Authority also spoke out against the attack.
Tayeb Abdel Rahim, secretary of the Palestinian Authority, said there was a clear link between the attack and Monday’s scheduled start of the final- status talks.
He said the Palestinian Authority had in recent weeks arrested some 25 Islamic Jihad activists and members of the Hamas military wing who were allegedly planning terrorist attacks.
The bombing followed last week’s summit in Oslo, where Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat vowed to press ahead with the final stretch of the peace process.
Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said Sunday that Israeli officials have long been warning that Islamic militants may try to sabotage the process.
The militants “do not want us to move forward,” Sneh told Israel Radio. But, he added, “the dialogue will continue.”
Communications Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said that despite Sunday’s attack, he believes Israel should go ahead with the next West Bank withdrawal.
Under the terms of the September land-for-peace agreement Israel signed in Egypt, Israel is slated to transfer an additional 5 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians on Nov. 15.
“I see no reason to stop this process,” Ben-Eliezer told Israel Radio.
In the wake of the attack, Israeli police were put on heightened alert throughout the country.
Police Commissioner Yehuda Wilk said police had received no specific information of a planned attack in Netanya.
He dismissed a possible link between the nail-packed pipe-bombs in Netanya and a Hamas leaflet distributed over the weekend threatening attacks against Israel.
“This is not the same” kind of attack “as the leaflet discussed. This was a pipe bomb with improvised explosives.”
But “that doesn’t say there won’t be attempts to carry out more serious attacks,” he added.
Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin was quoted as telling Qatar television he could neither confirm nor deny the authenticity of the leaflet because he was not in contact with the organization’s military wing.
The attack in Netanya, located about 11 miles west of the boundary with the territories, further fueled an ongoing debate over whether to create a physical separation between Israel and the West Bank.
“I think we most move forward and view the separation as a central objective when we reach a final agreement with the Palestinians,” Ben-Eliezer said.
Knesset member Uzi Landau, a member of the Likud opposition, charged that Barak has adopted too soft an attitude toward the Palestinian Authority.
“It is very clear that terrorist attacks we saw this morning in Netanya are not only continuing but will continue, because the government relates with forgiveness to all of the Palestinian Authority violations,” Landau said.
“Arafat was much more determined in his fight against terror” during the tenure of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he added. “There were hardly any terrorist attacks. But apparently Arafat is not afraid of Mr. Barak.”