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Israeli warplanes pound Gaza after suicide bombing

Written by: Staff

JERUSALEM, Mar 31: Israeli warplanes struck Gaza early today after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed four Israelis near a West Bank settlement, an attack the new Hamas government called a ''natural response to Israeli crimes''.

The suicide bombing by the Palestinian militant group al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades came days after Hamas took office and Israeli leader Ehud Olmert's Kadima party won elections on a platform of setting borders in the West Bank if peacemaking remains frozen.

Israeli officials said the bomber, whose group is part of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction, was disguised as a religious Jewish hitchhiker and blew himself up when Israelis in a car picked him up near a settlement.

The suicide attack was the first such bombing in two months.

Hours later, Israeli warplanes destroyed several sites in northern Gaza and artillery gunners fired shells in open areas in the territory that the army says Palestinian militants use to fire rockets into Israel. No casualties were reported.

Palestinian militants in Gaza frequently fire rockets into Israel and killed two Israelis in one such attack last week.

Israeli forces also later detained several suspected militants in the West Bank, a military source said. Israeli media quoted security sources as saying two men were involved in the suicide attack, one of them being the bomber's brother.

Mushir al-Masri, a spokesman for Hamas, which took office after its government was sworn in by the Palestinian parliament on Wednesday, called the suicide attack a ''natural response ...

to the continued Israeli killing, incursions and arrests''.

The Islamic group beat Abbas's Fatah in a legislative vote in January and is sworn to Israel's destruction. The militant group carried out about 60 suicide bombings during a Palestinian uprising in 2000 but has abided by a truce since March 2005.


''Our Palestinian people have the right to defend themselves,'' said al-Masri, an elected legislator.

Palestinian governments under Fatah's control had recently condemned suicide bombings inside Israel, though used more careful language when it came to attacks inside the West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 west asia war.

Israeli officials said yesterday's attack near the settlement of Kedumim followed dozens of warnings of impending attacks.

''The Palestinians continue to remain totally indifferent and are not preventing terror attacks,'' said David Baker, an official in the prime minister's office.

Hamas's exiled leader Khaled Meshaal had stressed earlier that Hamas remained committed to fighting Israel.

Criticising Hamas for failing to soften its line since it won the election, a ''Quartet'' of west asia mediators warned the group that direct financial aid to the Palestinian Authority would inevitably be affected.

Olmert's centrist Kadima party won Tuesday's election on plans to set Israel's final borders within four years, with or without the agreement of the Palestinians, by removing isolated settlements in the West Bank and expanding bigger ones.

Palestinians say such a move would annex land and deny them the viable state they seek in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel withdrew settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip last year in a move supported by most Israelis.


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