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Suicide bomber kills himself; raises fears of more attacks in Israel

Updated:

JERUSALEM (AP) _ A Palestinian with a backpack of explosives blew himself up Thursday as his bicycle reached the concrete barrier of an Israeli army outpost, heightening fears that Israel could face a renewed wave of bombings.

The militant group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack by the 24-year-old in the Gaza Strip, the first suicide bombing during a month of upheaval. Israel responded by blocking the main road in Gaza with a tank and bulldozing trees that Palestinians could use for cover to fire on the isolated base.

The diplomatic front appeared bleak, with Israel and the Palestinians giving a cool response to President Clinton's proposal of Washington meetings aimed at ending the violence. Street clashes broke out again in the West Bank and Gaza, and both sides maintained their hostile rhetoric.

``First of all the Palestinians must stop the violence,'' said Danny Yatom, Prime Minister Ehud Barak's top adviser. ``We can't accept the violence as it is today.''

Palestinian leaders said the United States could no longer be the sole mediator, calling for the European Union, Russia and others to join future talks.

A 14-year-old Palestinian boy died of a gunshot wound to the head suffered two weeks earlier, but no deaths were reported in Thursday's clashes. In four weeks of fighting, 129 people have been killed, all but a few of them Palestinians.

The suicide bombing pointed to an escalation in the conflict and added to Israeli concerns that a bombing campaign may be unleashed following the Palestinians' release of 85 militants from jail two weeks ago. The Palestinians say they have re-arrested 22 people.

``We've been warning that these kind of attacks were in the works,'' said army spokesman Col. Raanan Gissin.

The bomber, identified as Nabil Araeer, pedaled his bicycle to the Israeli post until he reached the massive concrete blocks of the retaining wall. He then detonated several pounds of explosives in his backpack, the army said.

An Israeli soldier was lightly hurt in the blast at Gaza's Gush Katif Junction, where Palestinian rioters have clashed with Israeli troops guarding Jewish settlers.

In nearby Gaza City, hundreds of people descended on the Araeer family home to offer condolences. Araeer's brother, Yassin, described his brother as a devout Muslim who went to the local mosque every day for pre-dawn prayers.

Araeer, who worked as a janitor at a kindergarten, was jailed briefly by the Israelis several years back, but was not in detention when the militants were freed two weeks ago, his family said.

Thursday's bombing came on the anniversary of the 1995 assassination of the Islamic Jihad leader, Fathi Shekaki, in an operation in Malta that was widely attributed to Israel.

The group claimed responsibility in a statement faxed to a Western news agency in Beirut, Lebanon, Israel's army radio said.

Bomb blasts on buses, markets and other public places left scores dead in Israel the mid-1990s, but the number and severity of the attacks have declined in the past few years.

Since Barak was elected in May 1999, there have been sporadic bombings, but only one Israeli fatality _ in a Sept. 27 roadside explosion that killed a soldier in Gaza.

The relative calm had been attributed in part to Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, which had been relatively strong until the fighting began.

Meanwhile, Barak, who urgently needs to form a coalition to salvage his minority government, pounded his fist in anger Thursday at a stormy meeting of his Labor Party.

Barak, who was interrupted by shouting, has come under sharp criticism from members of his liberal party for declaring a ``timeout'' in the peace process.

Responding to critics, he said that if Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat says he's willing to work on peace proposals previously on the table, ``this is a basis for discussion.''

Arafat, too, left open the door for possible talks. Asked if he was willing to meet Barak, Arafat told the U.S. network ABC, ``If it is necessary, why not.''

A senior Palestinian figure, Jibril Rajoub, who is responsible for security on the West Bank, also hinted at the possibility of renewed peace efforts in remarks to Israeli journalists.

``In these tough times, I want to appeal directly to the Israeli public,'' said Rajoub, speaking in Hebrew, a language he learned in 17 years as a security prisoner in Israel.

``We want peace. We believed for many years ... that there isn't an alternative, not for us and not for you, to a peace of coexistence and historical reconciliation,'' he said.

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