Israeli police identified the bomber as a 23-year-old man from Bethlehem, and Arab television news reported that the Islamic militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon convened his security cabinet later in the day to discuss possible reactions to the bombing. Since the resignation of left-wing Labor party cabinet members, Sharon is working with a more hawkish transitional government.
Israeli hardliners, including former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have called for Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s expulsion in retaliation for similar suicide bombings. The U.S. has opposed such action saying it would undercut efforts to end the violence in the region. Analysts have also said the U.S. position is an effort to maintain the support of moderate Arab governments in the war against terror and efforts to disarm Iraq.
Arafat’s Palestinian Authority released a statement later Thursday calling the targeting of civilians “a morally and politically reprehensible act and undermines our people on the international scene.”
Prompted by Egypt and the European Union, Arafat’s Fatah faction has been negotiating with the Islamic group Hamas for a limited ban on suicide bombings, arguing that further attacks will strengthen the Israeli right-wing parties ahead of elections in January. However the ban under discussion would not apply to Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, areas Israel has occupied since1967.
President Bush, speaking from a NATO meeting in Prague, condemned the attack, and said his goal remains the creation of independent Israeli and Palestinian states living side-by-side in peace.
Elsewhere in the region, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a second Palestinian teenager in as many days. The army said the boys were throwing gasoline bombs, but Palestinian witnesses said they were throwing stones. A group of boys calling themselves the “Striking Force” has been attacking Israeli patrols in the West Bank, sometimes dropping showers of rocks down from the roofs.
Israeli forces remain in control of the West Bank town of Hebron, after gunmen from the Islamic Jihad killed 12 Israeli soldiers, police officers and settlers’ guards last Friday. The Israeli Foreign Ministry had originally reported that the victims were Jewish worshipers on their weekly walk to a holy site. An army spokeswoman said the military is investigating the incident and plans to publish an account of it soon.