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Israel Closes Off West Bank, Gaza

The Israeli military early Wednesday closed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip, banning Palestinians from entering the country, in Israel's first response to a suicide bombing that killed three Israeli women in the seaside city of Netanya.

The closure means that thousands of Palestinians who have work permits will not be allowed to enter Israel. The military said the ban, a routine security measure after such an attack, would be in effect "until further notice." The ban was approved by the government, the military said.

The suicide bomber blew himself up among a group of teens near a crowded shopping mall in the seaside city of Netanya on Tuesday, killing himself and three women. Police said about 30 people were injured, two seriously.

Initial reports said the bomb went off at the entrance to the mall. However, Israel radio later reported that the bomber struck at an intersection near the mall.

It was the second such bombing since a truce declaration on Feb. 8. Two weeks into the truce, a suicide bomber from the Islamic Jihad group blew himself up outside a Tel Aviv nightclub, killing five Israelis.

Tuesday's bomb went off before 7 p.m. local time (11:00 a.m. EDT).

Among the more than 30 wounded was a 6-year-old girl who was badly burned, Israel TV reported.

Israeli police and Palestinian security identified the bomber as Ahmed Abu Khalil, an 18-year-old member of Islamic Jihad from the West Bank village of Atil, about eight miles east of Netanya.

Police said the two dead Israelis were women. Doron Shafir, one of the first paramedics at the scene, said he saw a woman whose clothes were on fire. "Another, her handbag was burning. We stepped on it to put it out. She was just sitting there. She did not know what was happening to her," he said.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did not comment after the bombing. David Baker, an official in Sharon's office, charged that the Palestinian Authority was not doing enough to rein in militants.

It was unlikely that the truce would collapse, however. Both sides have an interest in not walking away from their agreement. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon needs to maintain calm to carry out his Gaza withdrawal this summer, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' political survival depends on maintaining the cease-fire, seen as key to easing harsh Israeli restrictions in the Palestinian areas.

Abbas used unusually strong language in denouncing the bombing. "We condemn this terrorist attack. It's a crime against the Palestinian people," he said. "Those traitors are working against the Palestinian interest. There is no rational man who can do those things on the eve of the Israeli withdrawal from 22 settlements," referring to Israel's planned pullout from Gaza and part of the West Bank.

Palestinian security officials said the bomber came from the same local Islamic Jihad cell that was responsible for the Feb. 25 bombing, but that the Islamic Jihad leadership was not involved.

Netanya is at Israel's narrowest point, 9 miles from the West Bank. The city has been a frequent target of Palestinian bombers, but the frequency has dropped sharply in the past year, with completion of a section of Israel's separation barrier along that part of the West Bank.

The Netanya mall has been a target for suicide bombers in the past. On May 18, 2001, a bomber blew himself up at the mall, killing five Israelis.

The last suicide bombing in Netanya was on May 19, 2002, when three Israelis were killed on a street not far from the mall. The bombing in Netanya was the first suicide bombing in Israel since Feb. 25, when a bomber blew himself up in Tel Aviv, killing five Israelis.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, condemned the bombing. "We understand that those who carried out this attack want to sabotage the efforts being exerted to have a smooth and peaceful disengagement from Gaza and a revival of the peace process," he said.

Minutes before the Netanya blast, an Islamic Jihad militant attempted to drive a car bomb into a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, police said. The bomber was captured after the explosives detonated prematurely, police said, adding that the two attacks were linked.

Police said they believe that there was a link between the attack near the mall and the Shavei Shomron explosion.

In other developments:

Israel's Security Cabinet on Tuesday decided that the Israeli military government, in power in Gaza since 1967, will be canceled when Israel withdraws from the territory next month, according to participants in the closed meeting.

The decision was made in connection with a discussion over whether Israel would continue to be legally responsible for Gaza after the pullout. Israel contends that its responsibility will end with its withdrawal, but Palestinians and the United Nations dispute that, noting Israel would still control crossing points, air space and the seacoast.

Israel's defense minister Tuesday said the military will deal harshly with soldiers who refuse to dismantle Gaza settlements this summer, adding that some 30 soldiers have so far disobeyed orders.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz also told Israel Army Radio he would have preferred not to demolish the homes in the Gaza settlements. However, under an emerging agreement with the Palestinians, army bulldozers would knock down the houses and Israel would pay for the rubble to be removed by the Palestinians, Mofaz said. It remains unclear where the debris will be taken.

Mofaz also said Israel and Egypt were close to an agreement on how to secure the Gaza-Egypt border after the Israeli pullout. Israel would withdraw from a military patrol road between Gaza's southern edge and Egypt, and the Israeli troops there would be replaced by some 750 Egyptian officers, who would try to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed Tuesday to bring the Egyptian deployment to a parliamentary vote, giving in to critics of the move.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav, meanwhile, said he was concerned about increasingly harsh statements and actions by withdrawal opponents.

Katsav spoke a day after what at first appeared like a crude bomb was discovered at Jerusalem's central bus station and travelers were ordered to leave the area. Sappers found no explosives in a package with wires protruding, attached to a 30-pound cooking gas canister. However, a note attached to the package read: "Disengagement will blow up in our faces," a reference to the Gaza plan, and police blamed extremist opponents of the pullout.

Katsav said most Gaza settlers are responsible people, but that "there is a minority that really concerns me, and the statements and acts of this extremist minority could lead to irreversible damage." Katsav said he counted among those extremists several rabbis and politicians.

Several influential settler rabbis have called on Israeli soldiers to disobey orders to dismantle settlements, or to avoid doing service when called up. A growing number of members of Israel's combat units are religiously observant, graduates of so-called "Yeshivot Hesder," or Jewish seminaries that combine study and military training.

Mofaz hinted Tuesday that seminaries whose rabbis urge soldiers to avoid participating in the Gaza withdrawal could be shut down. "I think we will have to think carefully how to deal with rabbis who instruct their students, their soldiers, to disobey orders. They cannot enjoy both worlds," Mofaz said.

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