The suicide attack, the second in two days, scuttled planned cease-fire talks between Israeli and Palestinians headed by U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni.
Israeli officials cancelled the meetings with Palestinians, scheduled to begin today, shortly after the explosion.
Israeli government officials held Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat responsible for the attack, citing his inability or unwillingness to control Palestinian militants.
“Israel is looking for a cease-fire and this is the Palestinian answer,” said Gideon Meir, an official of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a group connected to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the suicide attack in a telephone interview with the Associated Press.
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade identified the suicide bomber as Mohammed Hashaika, 22, from the West Bank village of Talooza.
A spokesman for Yasser Aratat today told reporters that the Palestinian Authority condemned Thursday’s attack and that Arafat remained committed to the cease-fire proposals by CIA Director George Tenet and a commission led by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell.
“President Arafat said there was an urgent need to implement the two [U.S.-backed proposals] as soon as possible,” said spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah.
Later Thursday, Yasser Arafat personally condemned the bombing.
“We strongly condemn this military operation — especially since it was against innocent Israeli citizens,” Arafat read from a prepared statement. He added Palestinian officials would “take the appropriate and immediate measures to put an end to such attacks” and promised to “exert every possible effort to make the mission of Gen. Zinni a success.”
The United States has urged Israeli and Palestinian officials to begin cease-fire negotiations in time for next week’s important Arab summit in Lebanon, where Saudi officials planned to present a Middle East peace plan.
U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni was scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Thursday evening to arrange a truce.
According to anonymous Israeli government sources, Sharon planned to meet with senior Cabinet ministers after his talk with Zinni to discuss possible responses to the recent Palestinian attacks.
In the U.S., President Bush said today he was disappointed by Yasser Arafat’s efforts to end the violence against Israel, and that Vice President Dick Cheney would meet with Arafat only after the Palestinian leader agrees to the U.S. proposals.
The vice president has offered to meet with Yasser Arafat if Zinni deems significant progress towards an end to Palestinian attacks. “But it will depend on whether or not Arafat is complying” with the terms to end the violence, he said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell called Arafat Thursday to demand the Palestinian leader publicly condemn the attack in both English and Arabic and “to punish the leaders of organizations responsible for recent attacks, making sure those responsible are brought to justice,” said State Department spokesman Philip Reeker.
The State Department has also begun the process of classifying the Al-Aqsa Brigade as a foreign terrorist organization, according to Reeker. When asked to clarify whether there was a link between Arafat and Al-Aqsa, Reeker replied only that their connection was unclear.