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Northern Israel Explosion Kills One

March 1, 2001

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MEI AMI, Israel (AP) _ As Israeli police closed in, a suspected Palestinian militant detonated a bomb in a taxi van Thursday, killing one Israeli, injuring nine people and reigniting debate over how Israel should respond to terror attacks.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak said the blast appeared linked to an attempted attack Wednesday in central Tel Aviv, where a bomb at a food stall was discovered and safely exploded.

As investigators sifted through debris from the crumpled white van near the northern Israeli town of Mei Ami, Israeli leaders accused Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat of failing to crack down on Islamic militant groups.

``As long as activists (from militant groups) are walking around freely in the West Bank and Gaza, the responsibility is of those who let them walk around,″ said Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh. ``We see the Palestinian Authority as responsible for the situation.″

Palestinian Cabinet secretary Ahmed Abdel Rahman called that ``a false accusation″ and said Sneh’s remarks were part of an Israeli plan for ``wider aggression against our people and our authority.″ He refused to condemn the bombing.

Sneh said he believed the militant Hamas or Islamic Jihad were behind the blast, but the groups made no claims.

The taxi’s passengers _ and the list of injured _ included both Arabs and Jews.

The dead man was identified as Claude Knafo, 29, of the Israeli city of Tiberias.

The badly injured Palestinian suspect, who was in the van at the time of the bombing, was flown by an Israeli helicopter to a hospital.

The blast also wounded six others in the van and two people nearby, police said.

Police said they had been searching for the suspect after receiving information he was in northern Israel, possibly with explosives. Several checkpoints were quickly set up.

When the taxi van stopped at a roadblock, police were checking the ID papers of the passengers, when ``the terrorist apparently set off the bomb,″ said Police Commissioner Shlomo Aharonishki.

``I heard a loud explosion. ... I saw body parts, someone’s hand,″ said truck driver Daniel Grosser.

The suspect was believed to be a resident of the West Bank, according to police, and may have activated the explosives with a cell phone, according to Israeli media reports.

Police said they detained an Israeli woman in connection with the blast, but declined any further comment. Israeli media reported that she is a young immigrant from Russia who lives in the Tel Aviv area, and the suspect spent Wednesday night at her home.

The explosion was the latest attack in five months of violence, which contributed to Barak’s crushing loss in a Feb. 6 election.

The Israelis have imposed a tight closure on Palestinian areas to prevent people there from entering Israel. But bomb attacks have continued, and each blast brings renewed calls for a tough Israeli response.

``We are going to fight terror without any reservations,″ said Israeli elder statesman Shimon Peres, who is expected to become the foreign minister in the government of Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon.

But Peres cautioned against imposing ``collective punishment″ against all Palestinians and escalating tensions. ``I believe that Sharon doesn’t want ... this entire country to be covered in blood,″ he said on Israeli television.

In a pre-emptive move, the Bush administration warned Israel not to try to reoccupy territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority as a means of trying to curb terror attacks.

Sharon has said his top priority is restoring a sense of security to Israelis, and that peace talks will resume only after all violence stops.

The Palestinians accuse the Israeli military of using excessive force in the fighting, which has left 412 people dead, including 339 Palestinians, 58 Israelis and 15 others.

They also say their economy has been strangled by the Israeli closure, which prevents many Palestinians from reaching their jobs.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the conflict has pushed millions of Palestinians into a ``dire socioeconomic situation″ and called for urgent help from the international community.

``The recent crisis has had a catastrophic effect on the Palestinian economy, reversing the achievements of several years of recovery and progress,″ Annan said.

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