TEL AVIV — A 16-year-old Palestinian boy blew himself up in the middle of a sprawling, open-air market Monday, killing three other people and injuring 32 in the first such attack since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was airlifted to France last week for urgent medical treatment.
The midday blast at the landmark Carmel market near Tel Aviv's downtown seafront tore through a narrow, enclosed lane lined with produce stalls, sending shoppers fleeing in panic. Blood pooled on the pavement, which was strewn with olives, bunches of parsley and packets of brightly colored spices. Officials said many of the wounded were elderly people.
"The earth shook, and I felt a big shock wave, but I just stood stock-still, frozen," apple seller Yossi Mizrahi said. "Everyone around me was hysterical."
Vendors grabbed water hoses that are used to clean the sticky alleyways at day's end and doused passersby whose hair and clothing had caught fire.
"I saw two bodies, one of them burned and convulsing," said butcher Baruch Cohen, whose stall was a few yards from the site of the explosion.
Arafat, being treated at a military hospital outside Paris for an as-yet-undisclosed ailment, condemned the attack in a telephone call from his sickbed, according to an aide, but coupled the rebuke with his customary call for Israel to refrain from harming Palestinian civilians.
The small and relatively inactive Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility for the bombing. The group said the young attacker was from the Askar refugee camp outside the northern West Bank city of Nablus.
During four years of the current conflict, the PFLP, a radical faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, has been responsible for only a handful of attacks against Israelis. Most suicide bombings have been carried out by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
The larger militant groups have expressed solidarity with the 75-year-old Palestinian leader during his illness, and Arafat's Palestinian Authority has been doing its best to project an image of calm and normalcy while he is hospitalized. His prime minister, Ahmed Korei, also condemned the bombing.
Some analysts said the attack could mark the start of a scramble for influence by lesser-known Palestinian factions seeking to capitalize on the crisis caused by Arafat's illness.
"I believe there's a message here to the Palestinian public: 'We, the PFLP, are a small organization that isn't so well known, but we are capable of perpetrating a mass attack, so don't discount us,' " said Boaz Ganor, an Israeli terrorism expert at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, speaking to lawmakers from his Likud Party, vowed to pursue those responsible for the bombing. "Israel hasn't and won't stop its war against murderous terror," he said.
Sharon won approval last week in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, to withdraw Jewish settlers and Israeli troops next year from the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank settlements. He faces a new test this week as lawmakers weigh a measure setting compensation for the uprooted settlers. The prime minister has said the withdrawal won't be affected by Arafat's illness.
Monday's attack was the first suicide bombing in Tel Aviv this year, although an Israeli soldier was killed in July by a parcel bomb left at a city bus stop. Suicide attacks have fallen off dramatically in the last 18 months as Israel has pressed ahead with construction of a separation barrier in the West Bank.
Palestinians have denounced land seizures and many other hardships stemming from the highly fortified barrier. But Israel insists that the project, which is about one-third completed, will go ahead.
"The fence has proven itself as lifesaving in its completed northern section, where not even one single terrorist crossed into Israel for more than a year," said Zeev Boim, Israel's deputy defense minister.
Nonetheless, there are constant warnings of potential attacks. At the time of the Tel Aviv bombing, security forces were already investigating nearly four dozen active intelligence alerts, according to Israeli authorities.
In the Askar camp outside Nablus, the family of the bomber identified him as Amer Abdullah, a high-school dropout who was working as a laborer. His brother, Ahmed Abdullah, 25, said he had never known the 16-year-old to have an affiliation with any Palestinian group.
"He didn't talk much about the intifada, or the resistance, or any of that," he said.
Palestinian human rights groups and Israeli officials condemned the militant factions for recruiting someone so young for such a mission.
"The use of children in such attacks, as well as the attacks themselves, are morally unacceptable," said Said Zaidani, a former director of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens' Rights.
The boy's mother, Samira Abdullah, told the Reuters news agency that the militants "should have sent an adult who understands the meaning of his deeds."
Israeli troops moved into the Askar camp shortly after the Tel Aviv bombing, and residents said a 12-year-old boy was killed when soldiers fired on young stone throwers.
The army had no immediate comment.