A pair of Palestinian suicide bombers detonated explosives on two municipal buses in the city of Beersheba Monday, killing at least 16 and wounding dozens in the worst terrorist attack in an Israeli city in almost six months.
The twin explosions - the first ever to rock the largest city in southern Israel - left about 90 injured and shattered one of the longest periods of calm inside Israel since the start of the four-year cycle of violence.
The city's location near the southern edge of the West Bank - which hasn't yet been closed off by Israel's security barrier - raises questions about whether Palestinian militants have shifted their target focus 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 a "breach 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, Israel's national police chief.
The bombing came just hours after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told members of his Likud Party he planned to speed up preparations for a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, stirring concern about a new wave of violence that could undermine support for the pullout.
"This has no connection to the disengagement, but only murderous Palestinian terror,'' Mr. Sharon said in response to the bombing.
Israeli news media reported that a leaflet claiming responsibility for the attack was released by the Hamas military wing in the West Bank city of Hebron, just 30 miles away from Beersheba. But Israeli police officials said shortly after the attack said they were still investigating the origin for the attack.
The two bombers boarded consecutive buses on routes running through Beersheba, which lies on the northern edge of the Negev desert. The terrorists detonated their explosives almost simultaneously just before 3 p.m. local time, with the buses about 100 meters away from each other and a block away from the Beersheba municipality.
The inferno left the inside of one bus a charred tangle of debris as clouds of black smoke billowed 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 was sitting near the middle of one of the buses close to center of the explosion. "Then I saw all of the other people running to get out. That's when I realized it was a bombing attack."
In recent months, Israeli military officials and politicians have credited the security barrier with playing a key role in the dramatic drop in fatal attacks inside Israel this year. 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 amid a wave of Palestinian legal challenges over the route of the barrier.
"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,'' says Israeli Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi.
Arguing that the snaking path of the fence inside the West Bank constitutes a de facto land grab and creates unnecessary hardship, the Palestinians won a nonbinding ruling from the United Nation's world court in July that raised the specter of international sanctions against Israel.
Both Israel's Supreme Court and the attorney general have reportedly said that the government will have to reexamine the fence construction in light of the UN court ruling.
The case for the security barrier will be strengthened if Israeli security authorities confirm that the terrorists reached Beersheba from Hebron, experts said. In the last year, Israeli officials say that attacks on northern Israeli cities such as Haifa and Afula have been halted because of the fence closing off the frontier with the northern West Bank military stronghold of Jenin.
Shmuel Bar, a terrorist expert at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, says a Hebron-based attack would also bolster supporters of Sharon's unilateral Gaza evacuation. "The fence and disengagement are two sides of the same coin,'' he says. "The disengagement is an extrapolation of the idea that brought us the fence. It says that we're on one side and they're on the other side.''
If Hamas was responsible, it would be the group's first major terrorist strike since Israel assassinated its top two leaders in March - Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Azziz Rantisi. The Islamic fundamentalist group promised an unprecedented wave of retaliation, but the blow to its leadership weakened the military wing, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials.