A Palestinian suicide bomber on Monday killed three people in a bakery in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, one of Israel’s most popular holiday spots, in the first such attack in the Jewish state in nine months.
Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades claimed joint responsibility for the bombing.
The attack — the first time Eilat has been hit by a suicide bombing — came four days before the so-called Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators was to meet in Washington as part of a renewed effort to revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa brigades said the bombing was a response to Israeli ”attempts to defile al-Aqsa mosque” in Jerusalem, a reference to recent archaeological excavations. Israeli officials said the work had not damaged the shrine.
The blast tore through the ”Lechamim” bakery in a residential neighbourhood far from a strip of beach hotels. Loaves of bread, still on trays, lay on the blood-stained pavement outside.
”I saw a man with a black coat and a bag. For Eilat, where it is hot, it is strange to see someone walking with a coat. I said to myself, ‘Why is this idiot dressed that way?’ Seconds later, I heard a huge blast. The building shook,” Benny Mazgini, a local resident, told Israel Radio.
The identities of the victims were not released.
”The heroic operation announces the beginning of a series of operations in defence of al-Aqsa mosque and it was a natural response to savage aggression by the occupation [Israel],” Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa Brigades said in a statement.
In broadcast remarks, Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz said: ”We will take the necessary steps. I am not going to say now what we will do.”
Mickey Rosenfeld, a spokesperson for the national police, said three people and the bomber were killed in the bakery. Police initially said the explosion was caused by a gas leak.
A spokesperson for the al-Aqsa brigades, part of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, identified the suicide bomber as Mohammad Faisal Siksik (21) from Gaza City, a member of the brigades’ ”Army of Believers’.
At his family home in the northern Gaza Strip, Siksik’s brother Naeem told reporters: ”We knew he was going to carry out a martyrdom operation. His mother and father prayed for him to succeed.”
In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert voiced fears the attack could scare tourists away from Eilat.
Nearly 180 000 foreign tourists visited the resort, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, last year. The city has been spared the violence of a more than six-year-long Palestinian uprising.
”I believe Eilat will overcome this blow and will continue to be the happy and magical city we have come to know,” Olmert said.
Israeli military affairs commentators said the bomber may have crossed from Gaza into Egypt and then made his way across the Sinai peninsula to the porous Egyptian-Israeli frontier near Eilat.
An Islamic Jihad spokesperson said Siksik infiltrated through Jordan, which also borders Eilat, a city of 57 000 people and located about 350km south of Jerusalem.
A Palestinian suicide bomber last struck in Israel on April 17 2006, killing 11 people outside a restaurant in Tel Aviv in an attack claimed by the Islamic Jihad group. – Reuters