A Palestinian suicide bomber detonated an explosive Monday morning in the Red Sea resort town of Eilat, killing three Israelis and shattering one of the longest pauses in militant attacks on Israeli cities since the start of the latest Palestinian uprising.
The bombing was also the first since the outbreak of internal Palestinian fighting, and it underlined the potential of the violent internecine power struggle between Hamas and Fatah to spill over into Israel.
"The attack was an attempt by Palestinian terror organizations to divert attention from the internal fighting in Gaza to Israel," says Avshalom Vilan, a parliament member from the left-wing Meretz Party. "All of the media is focusing on the street battles, and the bombing is supposed be a distraction."
Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant wing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah Party, claimed responsibility for the attack. The bomber, Mohammad al-Saqsaq from Gaza, walked into a bakery in the middle of a shopping center and triggered explosives hidden in a bag.
In a statement published on its website, Islamic Jihad claimed that Mr. al-Saqsaq reached Eilat from the neighboring Jordanian city of Aqaba. The Iranian-backed militant group said that while the bombing was aimed at Israelis, the subtext was domestic. "The operation sends a clear message to Palestinian rivals: stop internal fighting and direct your guns at the Israeli occupation," according to a statement from Islamic Jihad's website.
A spokesman for Hamas, meanwhile, called it a "natural" Palestinian response to Israeli policies in the West Bank.
Located at the edge of a desert with a strip of five-star beachfront hotels, Eilat attracts sun-worshiping tourists in the middle of the winter. The resort was spared until Monday from the wave of attacks that have traumatized the rest of the country because of the city's location hundreds of miles from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
But Eilat's position bracketed between Jordan and Egypt means it is only a short drive away for any militant who can sneak across the border. On Monday, Israeli public security minister Avi Dichter speculated that the bomber reached Eilat from Egypt.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni blamed the Palestinians for failing to rein in militant groups and called on the international community to continue to press the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.
The bombing comes ahead of a Washington meeting of the international Quartet of Arab-Israeli peace process sponsors, the US, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia.
The conference, the first round table since September, is meant to be a strategy session ahead of a planned three-way meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Mr. Abbas, and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The peace process sponsors hope to create a "political horizon" that will generate new momentum on the US-sponsored road map peace plan.
"It's an opportunity to consult with our Quartet partners about the path we're on and what we can do to move things forward," says US Embassy spokesman Stuart Tuttle.