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Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Sunday that a 'miracle' had prevented a huge bomb attack from taking place on the preceding day in the northern city of Haifa.

The prime minister also said Hamas was seeking to establish itself in the West Bank and to launch terror attacks from there against Israel.

"We are treating the attempted attack in Haifa with great gravity. A huge disaster was prevented by a miracle," said Olmert, speaking at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.


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Late Saturday, police sappers disarmed a bomb in a car outside the coastal city's Lev Hamifratz shopping mall, thwarting a potential terror attack. In the wake of the attempted bombing, police declared on Sunday a high alert across Israel.

"We won't pass over this onto today's agenda," Olmert added. "The security forces are already operating on the matter. This was a terror attack for all intents and purposes."

"We shouldn't delude ourselves - attempts at terror attacks have continued and will continue," he said.

After the bomb was disarmed, security forces set up roadblocks, searching cars for suspects and forcing traffic in the area to a near standstill.

Police said the car holding the explosive, which weighed dozens of kilograms, belonged to an Arab woman from East Jerusalem. But they added it might have been stolen and that they had no prior intelligence on the vehicle.

An Israeli Arab organization calling itself the Galilee Freedom Fighters claimed responsibility, but security forces doubted the claim, saying they were unfamiliar with a group of that name currently operating in Israel.

In a message, the group said that the attack was meant as a response to the destruction of homes in East Jerusalem and the Israeli "massacre" in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The commander of the police's Northern District, Shimon Koren, said after the event that "we are conducting a search for a terrorist, if it is indeed a terrorist. We are searching the entire area from Haifa to Acre and Nahariya."

Security forces were called to the parking lot after the mall's security guards heard a small explosion coming from the direction of a Subaru parked in a parking lot adjacent to the shopping center at around 8 P.M. on Saturday. Sappers said part of the device had gone off prematurely and another had failed to detonate.

"It's important to note that the car was parked in the outer car park and not underground, which means it was not checked by mall security," a police officer said.

Tatiana Daminovitch, an eye witness, said "at first the shoppers were nonchalant, some of them thought that it was a drill, and therefore the evacuation was delayed a bit."

The commander of the Coastal District said following the incident that the police, together with the shopping center's management, will examine the security protocols relating to the security of the mall. "We will assess the situation in this mall and in additional malls in order to gain insight into how to better secure them in the future. Without a doubt this was a large bomb that could have cost a lot of lives and damage," he said.

Police Spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the authorities were still investigating the incident, but they believe Palestinian militants were behind the attempted bombing. He declined to give additional details, citing a gag order on the case.

Five years ago two Israeli Arabs who claimed to be members of a group called Galilee Freedom Fighters were convicted of murdering Israel Defense Forces soldier Oleg Shaichat. But security forces now believe that organization is defunct.