KALANDIA CHECKPOINT, West Bank -- A West Bank assailant detonated a large bomb near a busy Israeli military checkpoint yesterday, killing two Palestinian men and wounding 16 people, mostly civilians, in an attack that prompted rare Palestinian complaints about militants responsible for scores of bombings over the past four years.
The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent group that has carried out scores of attacks on Israelis, claimed responsibility for the attack, but apologized for the Palestinian casualties. The 16 wounded included 10 Palestinians and six Israeli border policemen.
Al Aqsa said the intended target was Jerusalem and the assailant hastily set off the 44 pounds of explosives by remote control near the Kalandia checkpoint north of the city when he felt Israeli security forces were closing in on him.
The blast went off between two cars, as a large crowd of Palestinians was waiting to cross Kalandia. Thousands cross the checkpoint every day, and the bomber's apparent disregard for Palestinian civilians touched off a confrontation in a West Bank emergency room where some of the wounded were being treated.
Zakiyah Abu Sneineh, whose 60-year-old husband, Salah, died in the blast, refused to acknowledge that he was killed by Palestinians. ''Arabs couldn't have killed him, only Israelis," she said, sobbing in the emergency room of a Ramallah hospital. In an adjacent room, her 6-year-old grandson Mahdi, who was wounded in the blast, was fighting for his life.
The Abu Sneinehs were in their car, waiting in a line of vehicles, when the blast went off.
Palestinian Abu Fkhaideh, 47, who injured his leg in the attack, said he didn't blame the militants. His comments angered several Palestinians in the emergency room. ''Why are you defending them [the militants]?" 35-year-old Nader Omar asked Abu Fkhaideh. ''They are wrong. We should raise our voice against them. These guys don't use their minds."
In four years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, support for the militants in Palestinian society has remained high, despite the hardships from Israeli retaliation for scores of bombings and shootings. From time to time, criticism of the militants is voiced. However, while Palestinians may complain in private, they rarely express their misgivings openly.
Since the outbreak of fighting, 3,049 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 970 on the Israeli side. Several Palestinians have been killed and scores wounded in attacks by militants, often while spending time in Israeli malls, cafes, or while riding on buses.
Palestinian officials were reserved in their criticism of Al Aqsa, which has ties to Yasser Arafat's ruling Fatah movement. ''These groups must avoid every spot where there is a possibility that a Palestinian will be there," said Hassan Abu Libdeh, the Palestinian Cabinet secretary.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the United States condemned the bombing.
Zakariye Zubeydi, 29, a leader of Al Aqsa in the West Bank town of Jenin, said the assailant had been instructed to attack Israelis in Jerusalem. A tightening Israeli security cordon forced him to detonate the explosives near Kalandia, Zubeydi said, adding that the bomber got away.
Later yesterday, Israeli troops sealed off Jenin and two tanks deployed on the outskirts of the town -- possible preparations for a military raid.
In recent months, the pace of Palestinian bombing attacks has slowed considerably, compared to the first three years of the current round of fighting, which began in September 2000.
Israeli security officials have attributed the change to a greater success in fighting the militants, including mass arrests, better intelligence information, and a contentious separation barrier Israel is building along the West Bank.
Also yesterday, Israeli troops shot and killed a 17-year-old Palestinian in the Balata refugee camp near the West Bank city of Nablus, local residents said. The army said soldiers fired at a Palestinian who hurled a firebomb at them.