Palestinian Suicide Bomber Kills Three in Israel

A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up today in the southern Israeli city of Eilat, killing three Israelis and wounding several others. The bombing comes days before the Bush administration hosts a meeting of the "quartet" of Middle East peacemakers: the U.S., Russia, European Union and U.N.

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There is a new cease-fire agreement tonight between Palestinian factions in Gaza. Fatah and Hamas have been engaged in heavy fighting for five days. And even as the cease-fire announcement was made, there were reports of gunfire in Gaza.

BLOCK: Earlier today, there was the first suicide bombing inside Israel in many months. The explosion in the southern city of Eilat killed three Israelis and wounded several others. It happened just a few days before the Bush administration hosts a meeting of the quartet of Middle East peacemakers. The U.S., U.N., E.U. and Russia are working to restart Israeli/Palestinian talks.

From Jerusalem, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Before today, the tranquil seaside resort of Eilat had been largely spared the violence that has struck other Israeli cities. The first suicide bombing inside Israel in more than nine months ends the longest stretch without such an attack since 2000.

Two militant groups, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, claim joint responsibility describing the Iraq bomber as a 20-year-old from Gaza City who entered Israel through Jordan. Israeli police say he entered Eilat from Egypt and hitchhiked into town.

The militants said the bombing was largely in response to Israeli archeological work near Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque, what the groups called attempts to defile Islam's third holiest site.

Halid al-Bac(ph) is a Gaza spokesman for Islamic Jihad, a group listed as a terrorist organization by Israeli and the West and which carried out the two suicide bombings inside Israel in 2006, killing 11 civilians.

Mr. HALID AL-BAC (Islamic Jihad): (Through Translation) The Palestinian citizens are suffering from direct occupation from the Israelis. It is the normal right for our people to practice resistance with all available options.

WESTERVELT: Despite the expected rhetoric of resistance, it appears that internal Palestinian fighting played a huge role in today's attack. In recent months, the intense power struggle between rivals Hamas and Fatah has plunged Gaza deeper into chaos and closer to civil war. In the last week alone, fighting between Fatah and Hamas has killed more than 30 Palestinians, including at least four more killed in street battles today.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

WESTERVELT: On its Web site, Islamic Jihad said today's suicide bombing "sends a message to end the in-fighting and point the guns toward the occupation," end quote.

Late today, Hamas leader and foreign minister Mahmoud Zahar said the factions had agreed to yet another cease-fire. Since the internal fighting began, half a dozen truces have fallen apart within days, sometimes hours of their agreement.

The Al-Aqsa Brigades, which claimed partial responsibility for today's suicide bombing, are affiliated with Fatah. Several senior Fatah leaders today issued statements condemning the attack. But a senior Fatah spokesman in Gaza, Mahar Makdad(ph), largely endorsed the attack, telling NPR "the bombing sends a message to all the Palestinian factions to rearrange their priorities for the struggle," end quote. A senior Hamas official also endorsed the attack as a, quote, "natural response to Israeli aggression."

Mark Heller is with Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies. He says the Palestinian response to the bombing and their continued internal disarray underscore the immense challenges facing the U.S., the E.U., the UN and Russia when the Bush administration hosts a quartet meeting this Friday to try to restart Arab/Israeli peace talks.

Mr. MARK HELLER (Tel Aviv University Institute for National Security Studies): I don't think that there could realistically have been very high expectations from the meeting in the first place. I think the bombing that took place today simply dramatizes and highlights even more the difficulties that any constructive outside involvement would have to overcome before it can have positive effect.

WESTERVELT: Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert denounced the bombing and said Israel will continue what he called the never ending struggle against terrorists and those who send them.

In a statement, the White House condemned the attack and warned Hamas, which heads the Palestinian Authority, that failure to, quote, "act against terror will inevitably affect relations between the government and the international community."

Hamas seems little deterred by such statements. This weekend, Hamas leader Ismail Haniya denounced what he called dirty American funding and arms, a reference to the White House effort to strengthen the security forces of his rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, with $86 million in non-lethal aid.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News. Jerusalem.

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