The interception came as police chased two suspicious vehicles speeding from the West Bank into Israel near the northern town of Hadera. One of the vehicles, a pickup truck, was rigged with 1,300 pounds of explosives, two barrels of fuel and containers of metal fragments.
Police said a cell phone programmed to set off the bomb was attached to the truck.
A bomb squad took the truck to an open space and detonated it, completely destroying the vehicle. Military officials said the second vehicle was meant to serve as a getaway car. Police were still looking for the drivers, who escaped on foot after the chase.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres called the police action a “miracle.”
Had the bomb gone off, Peres said, “it would have cost such loss of life that it would have changed almost the entire political situation in one moment.”
Israel is on the highest alert for attacks during the upcoming Jewish New Year holiday, which begins at sundown on Friday.
Also Thursday, Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip exploded a bomb beneath an Israeli tank, killing one soldier and wounding three. Several miles away, a gunman fired on an army patrol, killing an officer. Israeli troops killed the gunman.
Militants linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement claimed responsibility for the two attacks.
Meanwhile, a popular Palestinian leader is trying to turn his trial in a Tel Aviv court into a showcase for what he calls the crimes of Israeli occupation. Marwan Barghouti, head of President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction in the West Bank, is charged with orchestrating 37 attacks that killed 26 Israelis over the past two years. He has told the three-judge panel that the court has no right to try him.
“The one who should be sitting here [as a defendant] is the government of Israel,” he said in fluent Hebrew.
Barghouti, one of the Palestinian leaders often mentioned as a possible replacement for Palestinian President Arafat, could face a life sentence if convicted.
During the proceedings, tension in the packed courtroom has led to daily scuffles between Jewish and Arab spectators.