Ending Six-month Lull, Bombers Kill Israelis on Beersheba Buses

The thick clouds of smoke billowing around two bombed buses in Beersheba symbolized how the sense of calm that had settled over Israel this spring and summer could end in a single jolt. At least 16 people died and nearly 100 were injured in two near-simultaneous explosions Tuesday afternoon in the southern Israeli city. Hamas claimed responsibility.

“I heard a blast and I started to run to the site. Within seconds there was another explosion,” said Gil Yehezekel, owner of a business close to the location of the attack, according to Ha’aretz.

“When I got there, there were people on the floor, wounded people, limbs torn off,” he said. “The police and ambulances arrived in seconds.”

Security officials decided Tuesday night to increase military activity in the West Bank city of Hebron, home of the bombers. Shortly after the attack, Israeli troops raided the bombers’ homes.

Security forces decided to isolate Hebron, crack down o! n the terrorist infrastructure there and grant permission for assassinations and house demolitions in the West Bank city, according to the report.

Though suicide bombers constantly try to attack Israel, the West Bank security fence and the efforts of Israeli security forces had foiled every attack in the past six months.

But that lull was only an illusion, Israeli officials and analysts say. The strength of terrorist groups like Hamas may have been temporarily sapped by the Israeli assassinations of its leaders, Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdul Aziz Rantissi, but their motivation to carry out attacks continues to grow.

“The so-called lull was no lull before. The Palestinian terrorists even during the past six months continued to try every opportunity to strike at Israelis in the hearts of our cities, on our buses and in our cafes,” said David Baker, an official in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office.

Sharon, meanwhile, said “the fight against terror will continu! e with full strength,” and pledged to continue with his plan for a uni lateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four northern West Bank settlements by next year.

On Tuesday, Sharon presented his Likud Party’s Knesset faction with a timetable for the withdrawal and tried to quash suspicions that his plan would increase terrorist attacks in Israel.

“There is no connection between” the bombings “and our plan for disengagement,” a somber Sharon told reporters. “We will fight the murderousness of Palestinian terrorists with all our might.”

Baker credits Israel’s security fence and army operations for thwarting most of the recent attempts at attacks.

But others question how effective the fence can be as long as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians remains unresolved.

“The fence can actually increase motivation for attacks because there is motivation on two levels. One is ideological, by the militant groups like Hamas who do not want to live in peace with Israel. The second is that in the past four years especia! lly, the effects of Israel’s actions in its war against terror often hurt not just terrorists but the people who simply live there,” said Yoram Meital, chairman of the Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben Gurion University.

“The bottom line is that the motivation for attacks is one of the main things we need to pay attention to, and the fence does not decrease motivation,” he said. “Israel is in a struggle against Hamas and Islamic Jihad but also against the Palestinian Authority,” and its people “have little motivation to stop terrorists.”

Meanwhile, there are indications that since Israel took out the Hamas leadership, the group’s cells are working more secretly and independently of one another, increasing their ability to carry out attacks like the one in Beersheba.

There is still no security fence separating Israel from the West Bank near Hebron. David Newman, an expert on political geography and borders at Ben Gurion University, said thi! s might lead some to conclude that a fence in the area would have prev ented an attack.

Indeed, Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told reporters after the attack, “where a fence exists, there is no terror; where there is no fence, there is terror.”

But Newman said that to “think the fence will hermetically seal off any fanatical terror bomber — that is a bit of a panacea.”

According to Newman, despite Israel’s expert intelligence network and apparent ability to stop most terrorists, there will always be those that are going to get through because of the reality of life in Palestinian areas.

“You have tens of thousands of people in the occupied territories whose economic situation is worse than in 1967 and they see this as a direct result of the political situation, and blame Israel,” he said. “They have become more radicalized and have been taken with Hamas, and have less belief in the Palestinian Authority and” its president, Yasser Arafat, Newman said.

Some have suggested that with a unilateral withdrawal from the Ga! za Strip looming, militant and mainstream Palestinian political elements are wary.

“There is joint interest by those in the Arafat camp of the Palestinian Authority who have a great interest in not having a unilateral withdrawal of Gaza by Israel,” and Hamas, Lt. Col. Yohanan Soref, the former head of the army’s civilian administration in Gaza, told Israel Television.

Gila Finkelstein, a legislator from the National Religious Party, said the disengagement plan is only providing Palestinians with greater motivation to carry out terror attacks.

“Today they are beginning to count the fatalities of disengagement,” she said. “The Palestinians will use everything they can to prove to the entire world that disengagement is a direct product of the deadly terror attacks, and the Gaza Strip is only the beginning.”

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