JERUSALEM -- A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at a busy intersection in central Israel yesterday, killing three Israelis and wounding about 30 in just the second such attack since the two sides declared a truce in February.
The attack raised concerns Prime Minister Ariel Sharon might put off a planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank next month, but analysts said a delay was unlikely.
Early today, Israeli forces raided the Palestinian town of Tulkarem on the West Bank, firing on police officers who they said had shot at troops hunting down the Islamic Jihad militants who were believed to be responsible for the suicide bombing, the Associated Press reported. One officer was killed, and the other wounded.
Troops declared a curfew on Tulkarem, effectively taking back control of the area, which Israel handed over to the Palestinians in March under terms of a cease-fire declared a month earlier.
The suicide bomber, identified as an 18-year-old from Tulkarem, struck yesterday at about 7 p.m. near a group of teenagers outside a shopping mall in Netanya, a seaside town about 40 minutes north of Tel Aviv that has been targeted repeatedly by suicide bombers since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.
Two women were killed instantly, and a third woman died several hours later of her wounds, according to Israel Radio.
Witnesses said most people at the intersection were hurt either by the blast or by nails and steel pellets packed into the bomb. A medic at the scene said several victims suffered severe burns.
The Islamic Jihad, a tiny militant group that did not commit itself to the cease-fire reached nearly five months ago, claimed responsibility for the attack and described it as retaliation for the arrest of its members by Israel and for the Israeli government's construction of a barrier in and around the West Bank.
Minutes before the bombing, another militant drove a car bomb into a Jewish settlement in the West Bank but detonated it prematurely, wounding only himself. It was not immediately clear whether the two incidents were related.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the violence and vowed to punish the perpetrators, who he said behaved ''idiotically." Israel accused him of not doing enough to prevent such attacks.
Netanya Mayor Miriam Fierberg said she witnessed the bomb attack while making her way to a sporting event of the Maccabiah Games, competitions that draw Jewish participants from all over the world every four years. She said the games would be held as planned.
''We shall continue with our routine. The mall is open and our city is bustling with life. No terrorist shall succeed in disrupting life in Netanya," Fierberg said. Three years ago, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 29 Israelis in Netanya on the eve of Passover in one of the worst suicide attacks of the Palestinian intifadah.
Sharon convened security officials and advisers late yesterday, but gave no indication then how Israel would react.
In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said: ''There is no justification for the murder of innocent civilians." But State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the United States was hoping Israel would be cautious about not ratcheting up the violence. ''We ask them to consider the consequences of any action they might take," Casey said.
After Israeli forces entered Tulkarem today, the West Bank division leader, Brigadier General Yair Golan said the operation would continue for ''as long as necessary" to ''destroy the Palestinian Islamic Jihad infrastructure" in the area, the Associated Press reported. Israeli officials acknowledged the bomber came out of a village under their control. The army's ability to prevent attacks decreased after the Palestinians took over the area, Golan said.
Abbas, speaking to reporters in Ramallah, had harsh words yesterday for those who launch suicide attacks. ''Those who were behind it must be working against our people's interest and must be punished," he said, adding that no ''rational Palestinian" could plan such an attack while Israel was preparing to leave settlements.
Suicide bombings have often prompted Israeli reprisals, including airstrikes on the West Bank and Gaza. But the only other suicide attack carried out since the truce was declared, a bombing that killed five people at a Tel Aviv nightclub in February, elicited a more measured response -- a wave of arrests in the West Bank and a warning to Palestinian officials.
''I would be surprised if Sharon reacts aggressively to this one," said Yossi Alpher, a Israeli political analyst who co-directs the website Bitterlemons, which promotes Palestinian-Israeli dialogue.
''In this case, I think he seeks to avoid an escalation one month before the disengagement from Gaza. From his standpoint, this isn't the time," he said.
The disengagement, which will involve the forceful eviction of up to 10,000 settlers from the West Bank and Gaza, is Sharon's most significant policy move since he came to office 4 1/2 years ago.
Talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials on coordinating the withdrawal have accelerated lately, and Sharon hopes Abbas will deploy enough troops around the settlements in Gaza to prevent Palestinian gunmen from firing rockets on troops and settlers during the operation.
Abbas has had mixed results in his effort to contain armed groups since his election in January. His main Islamic rival, the terrorist group Hamas, has largely stuck to the truce. But members of the Islamic Jihad continue trying to strike at Israel, sometimes in conjunction with gunmen from Abbas's own Fatah group.
Correspondents Alon Tuval, Sa'id Ghazali, and Gal Wenger contributed to this report.