BEERSHEBA, Israel (Reuters) – Palestinian suicide bombers killed at least 16 people in simultaneous attacks on two Israeli buses on Tuesday, breaking a long lull in such violence and threatening to disrupt an Israeli plan to pull out of Gaza.
The bombings by the militant Islamic group Hamas in the southern city of Beersheba were the first in Israel since March and the deadliest since last October. They showed that Hamas was not a spent force, even after repeated Israeli assassinations of its leaders and the building of a West Bank barrier.
Thousands of Hamas supporters celebrated in Gaza, singing and throwing sweets in the air after bombings which the group said were to avenge Israel’s assassination of two top leaders after the last suicide bombing nearly 6 months ago.
The bombers boarded buses at the same stop near Beersheba’s central bus station and detonated hidden explosive belts when the vehicles were just a few dozen yards apart, gutting the buses and scattering bloody remains.
“The bus simply blew up. It just blew up in front of my eyes,” said motorist Joey Harel.
The bombers had come from the nearby West Bank city of Hebron, in an area where Israel’s West Bank barrier is not yet complete. Israeli officials said that underlined the urgency of finishing its construction to keep out attackers.
Palestinians denounce the barrier as a means of seizing land they want for a state, because it loops around large Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The World Court has ruled the barrier illegal.
Israeli troops sealed off Hebron after the bombing.
BOMBS COULD HAMPER GAZA PLAN
The Beersheba bloodshed could make it harder for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to overcome resistance in his right-wing camp to his plan for evacuating occupied Gaza and bits of the West Bank to “disengage” from conflict with Palestinians.
Anti-pullout protesters quickly descended on the scene of the bombing, waving banners that condemned the withdrawal plan.
Rightist hawks powerful in Sharon’s Likud party contend that quitting Gaza would “reward Palestinian terrorism.”
But Sharon dismissed an Israel Radio report quoting a senior government official as saying the fresh assault by Hamas, sworn to destroy Israel itself, was designed to sabotage his plan.
“Israel will keep fighting terror with all its might. This attack has nothing to do with disengagement but only the murderous nature of Palestinian terrorists,” he told reporters.
Earlier in the day, Sharon had set out a timetable for steps toward pulling 8,000 Jewish settlers out of Gaza. He said a draft bill establishing rules for compensating uprooted Jewish settlers would be put to his cabinet by Sept. 26.
Sharon’s plan has destabilized his coalition. But he is counting on majority support in opinion polls, and the reluctance of rightists to risk parliamentary seats at early elections, to achieve the withdrawal.
“Disengagement will be carried out. Period,” Sharon said before the Beersheba attack.
Medics said at least 16 people were killed and 86 were wounded, some critically. Rescue workers carried the dead off the buses and put them straight into body bags.
“I saw horrible sights. Two bodies were hanging from a window,” rescue worker Moshe Zikstein told Reuters.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie, visiting Egypt, bemoaned the bombings. “Killing civilians, whether from the Palestinian side or Israeli side, will achieve nothing except hatred and more enmity and therefore we condemn that strongly.”
The European Union and Washington echoed Qurie, saying such violence undermined efforts to resolve the Middle East conflict.
Shortly before the Beersheba bombings, Palestinian militants renewed their vow to continue fighting Israel until it quit all territories it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.
Israeli soldiers at a Gaza border terminal captured a would-be suicide bomber on Tuesday who was wearing a new form of explosives belt hidden in his underwear, the army said. Israel says the 120 miles of its barrier erected so far have thwarted dozens of would-be bomber infiltrations into its densely populated north and coastal regions.
But sections between Jerusalem and Hebron have been held up by an Israeli court order that they be rerouted to avoid cutting off Palestinians from their farmland.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul and Bernhard Warner in Beersheba, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Haitham Tamimi in Hebron, Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah, Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem, Edmund Blair in Cairo)