BEERSHEBA, Israel (AP) – It looked suspicious to a wary taxi driver – a man, nervous, perspiring profusely, carrying a heavy bag toward the bus terminal, lowering it to the ground several times. In violence-worn Israel, the driver thought “bomber.” He was right.

At the same moment, two security guards rushed the man, and he detonated the bomb he was carrying, killing himself. The guards, critically wounded, saved dozens of others from death and injury – they kept the Palestinian suicide bomber out of the crowded bus station during Sunday morning rush hour.

Israeli media said in addition to the two guards, 46 people were treated for shock.

The bombing was the most serious Palestinian attack since Israel removed settlers from Gaza and part of the West Bank last week – but Palestinians linked the bombing to Israel’s deadly arrest raid in a West Bank refugee camp last week.

Nearly 12 hours after the attack, an Islamic Jihad official claimed responsibility and said the bomber came from Beit Umar, a village near the southern West Bank city of Hebron, but no official announcement was made.

The bomber crossed into Israel from the southern Hebron hills, the section of the West Bank across from Beersheba. After a double suicide bombing killed 16 in the city a year ago, work on a separation barrier along the West Bank in that area was to be sped up, but the line there remains largely unfortified.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas denounced the bombing as a “terror attack” and called on Israel to show restraint. “We condemn such attacks. We don’t accept them, and we call on everyone to refrain from retaliation,” he said.

In a statement, the official WAFA news agency quoted Abbas as linking the bombing to Israel’s arrest raid in the Tulkarem refugee camp last week, killing five Palestinians. Abbas said a February truce must be maintained “despite all the Israeli provocations.”

Israel demanded action from Abbas.

“Israel has taken the necessary steps to further the prospects of peace with the Palestinians,” said David Baker, an official in Sharon’s office. “This bombing … is another indication that the Palestinian Authority must take proper steps against terror, and without these steps, there will be no progress between both sides.”

Sunday’s explosion was in a dirt parking lot about 100 yards from the bus station, which was crowded with morning rush hour travelers. Witnesses said two security guards halted the bomber, preventing a much larger attack. The guards were critically injured and Israeli media reported that 46 people were treated for shock.

Taxi driver Itzik Ohana said he was waiting for customers in the lot when he saw the bomber, a man about 20, who had short hair and was dragging a heavy bag and sweating.

Ohana said he told a security guard about the suspicious-looking man and called the police. “While I was talking to the police there was an explosion,” he said. The bomber was killed.

After the attack, police raised the alert level across the country.

During Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the West Bank is becoming the focus for Israel’s war against militants. He said Israel has made it clear that the Palestinians must fulfill their pledges to act against violent groups.

Despite the bombing, Israel pushed ahead with arrangements to complete its pullout from Gaza.

Israel’s Cabinet approved an agreement with Egypt to post 750 Egyptian border guards along the frontier between Gaza and Egypt. Israel’s parliament votes on the accord on Wednesday.

Israel has been patrolling the border, trying to prevent Palestinians from smuggling weapons and other contraband through tunnels under the border into Gaza. Deployment of the Egyptian force would allow for an Israeli pullout, expected by the end of the year.

The Cabinet vote in favor of the arrangement was 20-2. Besides warning that Palestinians could import long-range weapons that could threaten Israel, critics charge that the deal counters terms of the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty demilitarizing Egypt’s Sinai desert.

Also Sunday, Israel began transferring 48 graves from the now-empty Gaza settlement bloc to Israel. All the graves were to be moved by the end of the week, the army said.

“This is very difficult for us,” said Rivka Vinter as she escorted the body of her late husband, Nehemia, who drowned in the Mediterranean 10 years ago, to his reburial at a new cemetery the military built in Nitzan, a new community to house some of the settlers evacuated from Gaza.

“Suddenly we have a rerun of the funeral,” she told Israel Radio. “It is surreal and I don’t know how we will get through this.”

AP-ES-08-28-05 1654EDT


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