PETACH TIKVAH, Israel A suicide bomber blew himself up at an ice cream parlor in an outdoor mall near Tel Aviv on Monday, also killing two others including a 2-year-old girl whose bloodstained carriage lay on its side after the blast amid a tangle of white plastic chairs. About 20 were wounded.
The attack, which came as Israeli troops continued operations against Palestinian militants in several West Bank towns, demonstrated how exposed Israel's heartland remains to attackers who appear able to cross into its territory with virtual impunity, despite a high-security alert.
Earlier Monday, Israel's army declared a curfew in Bethlehem, where troops arrested militants and searched for arms and explosives as part of a policy of quick raids on Palestinian towns. Troops also conducted sweeps of two other West Bank towns, Tulkarem and Qalqilya.
According to police, the bomber set off his explosive in the early evening outside the Espresso Bar, an ice cream parlor and coffee shop in the outdoor section of the Em Hamoshavot mall in Petach Tikvah, a town just east of Tel Aviv and six miles from the West Bank.
"I saw a baby that had half a regular face, and half a face that was just blood and flesh," said Shai Gat, a 19-year-old soldier who arrived at the scene a few minutes after the attack. "The owner of the nearby photo shop was vomiting and crying. ... There was blood all over the floor."
Police and hospital officials said the explosion killed a woman and the 2-year-old girl and wounded about 20 people, including several infants.
The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the attack in a message to The Associated Press. The statement said, "We will not stop our operation as long as the occupation continues in our land."
In the Balata refugee camp next to Nablus, several Al Aqsa gunmen fired in the air and said the operation was retaliation for Israel's killing of Al Aqsa leader Mahmoud Titi in a shelling last week.
Palestinians said the bomber was Jihad Titi, 18, a cousin of the dead leader. However, the Al Aqsa leaflet did not mention his name. It would illustrate the increasing involvement of teen-agers in suicide bomb attacks. On Wednesday, a 16-year-old bomber blew himself up in Rishon Letzion, city nine miles south of Tel Aviv, also killing two Israelis.
The Palestinian Authority condemned the bombing attack. A statement said the leadership "considers this operation as harmful to our legal resistance and to the image of the Palestinian people before international opinion."
Many of the recent attacks were carried out by the Al Aqsa Brigades and then condemned and disavowed by Arafat and his Palestinian Authority. The tendency in Israel has been to dismiss the condemnations and blame Arafat either for being directly responsible or in any case doing nothing to prevent the attacks.
"We have a strategic problem with the Palestinian Authority with its power structure (and) with its educational system that sends young children to blow up among us," Internal Security Minister Uzi Landau told reporters at the scene. He said the 8-year-old Palestinian Authority should be "completely disarmed."
Under the glare of floodlights, rescue workers carried a stretcher filled with black plastic bags containing body parts, as colleagues continued to scour the area under blood-splattered white awnings. Plastic chairs lay on a patch of grass nearby, where they had been hurled by the explosion, and three twisted baby carriages stood nearby.
Earlier, police in Jerusalem defused a bomb discovered by a gardener outside an apartment building. The explosives had been hidden in a plastic bag.
"Palestinian terror continues to strike out at Israeli women and children," said David Baker, an official in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office. Israel, he said, would use "all the resources at its disposal" to stop terror attacks. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Israel would use "military means and also political means" to prevent attacks.
However, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said that despite warnings of more attacks, Israel was not on the verge of another major military operation on a par with the six-week "Operation Defensive Shield," which ended earlier this month.
Thousands of Palestinians were arrested and hundreds killed in that offensive, which was launched after a series of deadly bombing and shooting attacks against Israelis in March.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have since been largely confined to their villages and towns, ringed by Israeli armor. Still, attackers have been able to get out and several recent ones have come from the Al Aqsa Brigades, thought to have been badly battered by the Israeli offensive.
Israel's emerging response strategy has been to stage pinpoint arrest sweeps and brief incursions into Palestinian towns.
"The large number of warnings ... requires us to be wound up as tightly as a spring, to be alert everywhere," said the military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey. "The method is to go to precise locations which we have earmarked."
Dozens of armored vehicles and jeeps drove into Bethlehem and nearby towns and refugee camps before dawn Monday and imposed a curfew on tens of thousands of Palestinians in the second incursion into the area two days. The city had been under Israeli control for nearly six weeks during the previous offensive.
Israeli troops blocked access to Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus' traditional birth grotto, to prevent another standoff at the shrine with Palestinian gunmen. During "Defensive Shield," armed Palestinians fleeing advancing Israeli troops were holed up inside the shrine for 39 days.
In the Dheisheh refugee camp, Israeli troops arrested Ahmed Mughrabi, a local leader of the Al Aqsa militia, residents said. Mughrabi is suspected by Israel of having recruiting two suicide bombers in Dheisheh, camp residents said.
In the adjacent town of Beit Sahour, troops commandeered a high-rise building and shut down a local radio station located inside, residents said.
Israeli troops also entered the outskirts of Ramallah in the West Bank, blocking off a road and searching buildings, Palestinians said. Military sources confirmed soldiers were operating in the area.
In downtown Ramallah, about 2,000 Fatah supporters demonstrated for the release of Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader in the West Bank who was taken into Israeli custody last month. Some protesters wore shirts with Barghouti's picture on it, while others waved Palestinian flags and posters. A recent poll indicated that Barghouti is the most popular Palestinian leader after Arafat.