- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 1, 2004

TEL AVIV — Palestinian suicide bombers detonated explosives on two municipal buses in the city of Beersheba yesterday, killing at least 16 persons and wounding dozens in the worst terrorist attack in an Israeli city in almost six months.

The twin explosions, which were the first to rock the largest city in southern Israel and which left about 80 people injured, shattered the longest period of calm in Israel since the start of the four-year-old intifada.

The city’s location near the southern edge of the West Bank — which hasn’t been closed off by Israel’s security barrier yet — raised questions about whether the militants had shifted their target to exploit the opening. The attack is likely to spur Israeli calls to speed up work on the fence, which the International Court of Justice in July declared to be a violation of international law.

“We were afraid that the construction of the fence in northern and central Israel would provide motivation to the terrorists to carry out attacks in southern Israel,” said Moshe Karady, chief of Israel’s national police.

The bombing came just hours after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told members of his Likud Party that he planned to speed up preparations for a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

The Beersheba attacks “have no connection to the disengagement, but rather one thing — the murderous nature of Palestinian terrorists,” Mr. Sharon said in response to the bombings.

A leaflet taking responsibility for the attack was released by the Hamas military wing in the West Bank city of Hebron, just 30 miles from Beersheba.

The Islamic fundamentalist group said the attack was made in retaliation for Israel’s assassination of Hamas’ top two leaders in March.

The bombers boarded consecutive buses on routes running through the center of Beersheba, which lies on the northern edge of the Negev desert. The terrorists detonated their explosives almost simultaneously just before 3 p.m. on buses about 100 yards apart.

The inferno left the inside of one bus a charred tangle of debris with clouds of black smoke billowing from the rooftop.

“I didn’t see anything. I suddenly felt a huge force,” said Hadas, a 17-year old high-school student who told Israel’s Channel 10 news she had been sitting near the middle of one of the buses. “Then I saw all of the other people running to get out. That’s when I realized it was a bombing attack.”

On Wednesday, Israel’s Channel 1 television news showed residents complaining of being left exposed by the incomplete barrier. That leaves a direct “path” between Beersheba and terrorist bases in Hebron, they said.

Despite the proximity to Hebron and the Gaza Strip, Beersheba has been largely ignored by Palestinian militants during the past decade of terrorist bombings. Larger cities in central Israel such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have been easier and more desirable targets for terrorists, experts said.

“I look out my window, and I can see the hills of the West Bank,” said David Newman, who lives in a suburb between Beersheba and the Palestinian territory.

“The cars go back and forth. I have no doubt that there’s going to be a whole group of people saying, ‘We’ve got to put up our fence.’”

Amit Rheingold, the head of Beersheba’s emergency services, predicted that the attack would stir mistrust between the city’s Jewish residents and Bedouin Arabs who live in surrounding villages and the few Palestinian workers employed in the region.

“The naivete is over,” he said.

In recent months, military officials and politicians have credited the security barrier for a sharp drop in fatal attacks inside Israel.

But after completing construction on about one third of the planned 356-mile matrix of walls, barbed wire and fences, progress on the project has been bogged down by legal challenges to its route.

“What we’ve learned in the last half year is that where there is a fence, there’s no terror, and where there isn’t a fence, there is terror,” said Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi. “That is the equation.”

Arguing that the snaking path of the fence inside the West Bank constitutes a land grab and creates unnecessary hardship, the Palestinians won a nonbinding ruling from the World Court in July that raised the specter of international sanctions against Israel.

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