- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

JERUSALEM — Israel warned yesterday it holds Syria responsible for a double suicide bombing Tuesday that killed 16 persons because the Arab state allows Hamas, the group that staged the attacks, to operate there. The warning by a senior Israeli official implied retaliation.

Early today, Israel retaliated with force against Palestinians as Israeli tanks and bulldozers rolled into a Gaza refugee camp, pushing hundreds of Palestinians out of their homes.

The raid on Khan Younis refugee camp, a frequent scene of Israeli incursions, was one of the biggest Israel has launched in weeks.

Raanan Gissin, a senior aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, pointed to neighboring Syria yesterday, saying Hamas leaders are permitted to work out of the Syrian capital, Damascus.

“The fact that Hamas is operating from Syria will not grant it immunity,” Mr. Gissin said. Last year Israel attacked targets in Syria after a Palestinian bombing.

Israeli security sources said earlier that Mr. Sharon and his military commanders had decided to stage more strikes to eliminate militant Palestinian leaders in response to the bus attacks.

The twin bombings in Beersheba shattered hopes in Israel that the period of suicide attacks — more than 100 in four years — was over. The last suicide attack was in March, and many Israelis believed the militants had been defeated, or at least suffered a serious blow.

Israeli leaders had boasted of increasingly effective means in thwarting bomb attacks, including a large network of Palestinian informers, mass arrests and an expanding barrier to separate Israel from the West Bank. Mr. Sharon pledged yesterday to speed up construction of the barrier.

The suicide bombers Tuesday came from the West Bank city of Hebron, about 15 miles north of Beersheba. Ahmed Kawasmeh, 26, and Nassim Jabari, 22, had known each other for years and were members of a secretive Hamas cell led by Kawasmeh’s cousin, Imad, a top fugitive.

The Kawasmeh clan is one of the largest in Hebron, and had dispatched five suicide bombers in recent years. Israeli troops destroyed Ahmed Kawasmeh’s family apartment, arrested three of his brothers and sealed off Hebron.

Mr. Sharon consulted with his defense minister and army commanders late Tuesday and decided to step up military raids in Hebron, including targeted killings of militant leaders, security sources said. No large-scale military operation was planned, the sources said.

Hamas said the attack was retaliation for Israel’s assassination of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin and his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, earlier this year. The delayed Hamas response — Sheik Yassin was killed in March and Mr. Rantisi in April — was considered a sign of the group’s increasing difficulties in carrying out attacks.

In Gaza, thousands of Hamas supporters celebrated in the streets, with Mr. Rantisi’s widow, Rasha, calling the attack “heroic” and saying her husband’s soul was “happy in heaven.” She threw candies to the cheering crowd around her house.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said that “the Palestinian interest requires a stop to harming all civilians so as not to give Israel pretext to continue its aggression against our people.”

The U.S. State Department brushed aside Mr. Arafat’s comments and said Hamas must be put out of business.

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