The Associated Press
JERUSALEM - An Islamic militant riding a bicycle detonated explosives yesterday at an Israeli army outpost in the Gaza Strip, killing himself in the first suicide attack in a month of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
The assailant was tentatively identified as Nabil Araeer, a 24-year-old kindergarten janitor from Gaza City. In wall graffiti near his home, the Islamic Jihad group claimed responsibility for the blast that lightly injured an Israeli soldier.
Israel's Army radio said that Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement sent to a Western news agency.
After the explosion, an Israeli tank blocked the main north-south thoroughfare in Gaza, backing up Palestinian traffic for several miles. The tank crew kept guns pointed at the street from behind sandbags piled up atop the tank.
Yesterday marks the fifth anniversary of the assassination of the Islamic Jihad leader, Fathi Shekaki, in an operation attributed to Israel.
The explosion came as President Clinton tried to bring Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Washington for separate meetings on how to rescue Mideast peace-making. The response to Clinton's new initiative has been muted.
"No one said Ehud Barak is going to Washington," Barak's chief policy adviser Danny Yatom told Israel army radio. "What is important now is to stop the violence and that hasn't happened yet."
Barak has said he was taking a time-out from peace talks after a month of rock-throwing clashes and gun battles in which 127 people have been killed, most of them Palestinians.
Palestinian negotiators said the United States could no longer be the sole mediator, and that the European Union, Russia and others should be asked to join the talks. The West Bank head of Arafat's Fatah movement, Marwan Barghouti, went a step further, saying the uprising should continue to extract concessions.
"We must continue this uprising to change the rules of the negotiations and break the monopoly of the Americans," Barghouti said. "America is not an observer. It is protecting Israel's interests."
In yesterday's attack, the assailant rode his bicycle toward the Israeli post, hit the defensive wall and detonated the explosives.
The Araeer family in Gaza City opened a house of mourning, serving bitter coffee to hundreds of people paying condolence calls as Quranic verses played over loudspeakers.
The wall graffiti read: "Islamic Jihad celebrates the martyrdom of Nabil Araeer."
The family said it had not yet received official word that he was dead. Nabil Araeer worked as a janitor at the "Charity" kindergarten run by Islamic Jihad.
His brothers said he was very devout, getting up before dawn every day to pray at the neighborhood mosque, and that in the early 1990s, he was briefly jailed by Israel for membership in an Islamic group.
The Israeli army commander in the Gaza Strip, Maj. Gen. Yomtov Samiya, held Arafat's Palestinian Authority ultimately responsible, saying it has done nothing to prevent such attacks.
Still, he said a meeting Wednesday evening with Palestinian security officials on how to restore calm had been encouraging. "I can say it was positive and optimistic, unlike the other meetings this month," he said.
There has been growing concern in Israel about the new alliance between Arafat's Fatah faction and Islamic groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have carried out terrorist attacks in the past to sabotage peace efforts.
Palestinian officials have confirmed that committees with representatives of all factions hold daily meetings to direct the month-old Palestinian uprising.
However, Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader, has said the cooperation is limited to organizing rock-throwing confrontations with Israeli troops, and that Palestinian gunmen act on their own.
A leaflet circulated in the West Bank and signed by Fatah called on activists to carry out terrorist attacks in Israel. The West Bank's Fatah leader, Marwan Barghouti, said the leaflet was not authentic.