The Israeli army has sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip until further notice, Israeli sources reported on Wednesday. The closures came after a Palestinian bomber killed three Israelis and wounded about 61 at a shopping centre in the Israeli town of Netanya on Tuesday evening.

The bomber was identified as Ahmed Abu Khalil, 18, from the village of Ateel near the West Bank city of Tulkarem, which is only 12 kilometers away from Netanya.

The Israeli army raided Tulkarm during the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday. At least one Palestinian policeman was killed and a second was reportedly critically wounded in an exchange of fire. Several people were arrested, according to Palestinian officials. Israelis sources claim they were Islamic Jihad operatives.

Israel has conducted a series of attacks against Islamic Jihad activists in the past couple of months, and hundreds have been arrested.

Reuter’s news agency reported that the Islamic Jihad movement released a statement claming responsibility for the bombing in a phone call to its West Bank office in Tulkarem.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, however, told reporters that an official Islamic Jihad statement denied relation to the attack. Abbas blamed the attack on traitors ‘working against the Palestinian interest.’

Other Palestinian officials also strongly condemned the bombing, charging that it was intended to foil the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in August.

‘Those who carried out the bombing intend to sabotage all the efforts being exerted to have a smooth and peaceful Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and a revival of the peace process,’ said Dr. Saeb Erekat, the PA’s chief negotiator.

The bomber apparently blew himself up on a crowded pedestrian crossing  near the entrance to a mall in Netanya, a coastal city between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Israeli police believe that the bomber,  apparently wearing an explosive belt, tried to enter the mall, but instead decided for unknown reasons to blow himself up at the entrance, even though he hadn’t been noticed. They said that there had been no prior warning of a potential bombing.

On May 18, 2001, a bomber blew himself up at the Netanya mall, killing five Israelis. The last suicide bombing in Netanya was carried out May 19, 2002, when three Israelis were killed on a street not far from the mall.

The bombing was the first suicide attack in Israel since the Palestinian factions agreed  in talks in Cairo in March to maintain ‘calm’ until the end of 2005. The bombing is the first suicide bombing in Israel since Feb. 25, when a bomber blew himself up outside a nightclub at Tel Aviv beachfront, killing five Israelis.

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