Police in Israel shot and killed a Palestinian suicide bomber yesterday after he and an accomplice launched the first suicide bomb attack inside Israel for more than a year, killing a woman and injuring 11 other people in an explosion at a shopping center in the town of Dimona.
Both bombers wore explosive belts packed with ball bearings but only one detonated. After the first bomber detonated his explosives the second bomber, whose belt failed to go off, survived for several minutes, as witnesseses tried to help him. When they discovered he was wearing an explosive belt an Israeli police officer fired several shots into his body and then shot him in the head.
The two bombers were from Gaza and appeared to have crossed into Egypt after the border wall was breached two weeks ago. From there they would have made their way through the deserts of northern Sinai and into southern Israel, a route that will severely embarrass the Egyptian government.
Responsibility for the attack was claimed by a hardline element in the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant group linked to the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who is involved in a new round of peace talks with the Israelis. Abbas, however, condemned the bombing.
The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said yesterday that his government would continue its "war" against Palestinian militants. His government had spoken before of its concern that militants might slip out of Gaza and attack southern Israel while the border with Egypt was open. Security alerts had been issued across the south.
"A constant war is being conducted in the south of the country, a war of terror against us and our war against terror, this war will continue, terrorism will be hit," said Olmert. "We will not relent." After the bombing yesterday, Israel launched an air strike on a car in northern Gaza killing a senior militant from the Popular Resistance Committees, one of the armed groups that fires makeshift rockets into Israel.
The two bombers, named later as Luay Laghwani, 22, and Mousa Arafat, 23, arrived at the shopping center shortly before 10.30am. Dimona, which is the site of Israel’s highly secret nuclear reactor, is otherwise a poor, industrial town. Staff at one of the cafes in the centre said one of the men stopped first to buy a coffee. Marina Chaban, a waitress, said he wore a red coat and had long hair and a dark beard. "He came in for a coffee," she said. He left with his drink in a plastic cup and then minutes later staff heard the explosion.
Baruch Mandeltzweig, a doctor working in a nearby clinic, saw the second bomber on the ground and began trying to treat him, thinking he was a victim. "His head was moving. He was a patient who could be treated," he told Israel Army Radio. "We started to treat him and then we saw an explosive belt. I managed to see a small gas canister and small plastic bags attached to his body. He was on the ground and was bleeding from his head. I thought he had a chance to live," he said. "I thought it might be the terrorist but I wasn’t sure, as it wasn’t written on his forehead that he is a terrorist. All I knew was that there was an injured person and I needed to treat him."
But as soon as he saw the bomb he pulled back.
Moments later an Israeli police commander, Kobi Mor, who had been called to the scene to help, opened fire on the bomber. "I took cover and could see the terrorist moving his hand towards the bomb. I fired at the terrorist along with a second policeman. After we ceased fire I could see his hand moving and I thought that he was trying to detonate the bomb. I knelt down and shot his head," he said.
The shooting was caught on camera, and Israeli TV stations broadcast the footage repeatedly, calling Mor the "hero of the day." Police awarded him a special certificate and he was promoted from the rank of chief inspector to superintendent.
The body was on the ground for several hours as police defused the bomb, using a remote-controlled robot. In Gaza the two bombers left behind videos saying farewell to their families.
It was the first such attack in Dimona and a sign for some Israelis that southern towns are now more likely to be targeted. The last suicide bombing in Israel, in January last year, killed three people in the resort town of Eilat, also in the south. Again the bombers came from Gaza and crossed into Egypt, this time by tunnel, and from there into southern Israel. "The border between us and the Sinai is open. All the cities in the south are a target now," said Meir Cohen, the mayor of Dimona.
Eli Yishai, a deputy prime minister of Israel and head of the rightwing religious Shas party, said he believed the Israeli military needed to retake control of the no-man’s-land on the border between Gaza and Egypt. "We’ve been lax in Gaza," he said. "There is no country in the world that would be quiet while Qassam rockets have been launched against it."
‘You can’t understand the horror of what happened here’
Moshe Malka, 36, a lawyer, was working in his office nearby when the blast happened. He said he ran down with a first aid kit and saw people dead and injured on the ground.
"I saw one of the injured was a man lying on his back," he said. "His eyes were opening and closing. I went to help and took his coat off to see how I could treat him – and then I saw a belt of explosives. He was injured, but he was still alive. I shouted to everyone to get away. He was one of the bombers."
Then he saw a woman also injured on the ground. "She was calling for help. I took her by the shoulders and with another man we dragged her away. She understood that there was a second bomber trying to explode himself," he said.
"They were horrible sights that I wouldn’t want anybody to see in their lives. You can’t understand the horror of what happened."