By Haaretz Staff
A day after 16 people were killed in a double suicide bombing in the southern city of Be’er Sheva, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff wearned that Israel would “take care of those who support terror,” singling out the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Hezbollah. “We will take care of those who support terror,” Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon told a meeting of the Knesset House Committee.
“That is those in the Palestinian Authority, the Hezbollah organization in Lebanon, in the terrorist command in Damascus, which operate with Syrian approval and those who provide funding and weapons to terrorist organizations.”
The IDF chief refused to comment on Syrian involvement in terrorism, primarily the attacks in Be’er Sheva, but said that, “I don’t want to get into the question of what we will do, but everyone who is responsible for terrorism against us will not sleep soundly.”
IDF troops surrounded Hebron on Wednesday morning, preventing anyone from entering or leaving. The West Bank city was the home of the two Hamas suicide bombers who blew themselves up on Be’er Sheva buses Tuesday afternoon, killing 16 people.
A senior military official told Haaretz on Tuesday that the Syrians continue to sponsor terror organizations operating out of Damascus, providing both logistical and financial backing.
A high-placed source said, “it is not the PR departments of these organizations sitting in Damascus. It is their operational commands.”
In October 2003, Israel Air Force warplanes struck targets close to Damascus several days after a suicide bomber killed more than 20 people in a Haifa restaurant. Israel at the time blamed Syria for its support for Islamic Jihad, which had dispatched the female bomber.
A 3-year-old boy was among those killed Tuesday, when two suicide bombers blew themselves up almost simultaneously on buses in the southern city; about 100 other people were wounded.
Hamas claimed the attacks, the first suicide bombings inside Israel in five months.
Of those killed in the attacks, 14 have been identified.
In response to the attack, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz decided in a Tuesday night meeting with top security officials, security officials will launch a military offensive in Hebron, the home of the suicide bombers Ahmed Kawasma and Nisim Jabri.
Following the attack, Hebron was placed under closure, and Israel Defense Forces soldiers arrested 12 Palestinians in the city overnight. Shortly after the bombing, IDF troops in the West Bank raided the bombers’ homes.
Security forces were also to bolster security along the seam line between the southern Hebron Hills and the Negev, the area which the suicide bombers apparently passed on their way to carrying out the attack.
Israel has also imposed a full closure on the Gaza Strip, in the wake of Tuesday’s attempt by a Palestinian to enter the Erez Crossing with an explosives device concealed in his trousers.
Palestinian workers have been banned from working in Israel or in the Erez industrial zone until further notice. Assassinations of senior Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip are also expected to increase.
The initial investigation of the Be’er Sheva attack showed that both buses departed from the central bus station in the city, and two suicide bombers – one on each bus – blew themselves up at 2:50 P.M., about 100 meters apart.
“I heard a blast and I started to run to the site. Within seconds there was another explosion,” said Gil Yehezekel, the owner of a business close to the location of the attack.
“When I got there, there were people on the floor, wounded people, limbs torn off,” he said. “The police and ambulances arrived in seconds.”
The driver of the second bus that blew up, Yaakov Cohen, said that when he saw the bus ahead of his explode in a ball of flame he had a premonition his own vehicle would soon be next.
“I saw the first explosion and thought, my God, I’ve got to get out of here. I drove [my bus] about 10 meters and then opened the doors,” he said from his hospital bed, where he was being treated for leg wounds.
“I believe that between 10 to 15 people got off my bus. Suddenly I heard a huge explosion. I can’t explain it but it was almost as if I knew it was going to happen. It was terrible, terrible … I don’t want to describe what I saw.”
Cohen said there had been 20 to 30 people still waiting to leave his vehicle when the bomb went off, and that none of the passengers who boarded his bus earlier had looked suspicious.
“Believe me, I look and check,” Cohen said. “It is very hard to identify a bomber … I don’t know how anyone can.”
Sharon vowed in the wake of the attacks that “the fight against terror will continue with full strength.” Sharon will continue with the disengagement plan, his aides said.
The Palestinian Authority condemned “any attacks that target civilians, whether Israelis or Palestinian,” Palestinian Minister Saeb Erekat said. The United States and European Union also condemned the attack.
In the Gaza Strip, Muslim leaders praised the “heroic operation” over mosque loudspeakers.
About 20,000 Hamas supporters sang and threw candy in the streets of Gaza City in celebration of the bombings.
Hamas claimed responsibility through a leaflet that surfaced in Hebron, 50 km from Be’er Sheva, saying the attacks were revenge for Israel’s assassination of its two top leaders in helicopter missile strikes in March and April.
“This is but one of a series of responses in which the Iz a Din al-Kassam Brigades have vowed to carry out in response to the martyrdom of the leaders of our movement, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi,” it said.
“Revenge is so sweet,” said one celebrator, hoisting high a poster of Rantisi.
Hamas supporters said they were pleased the group’s repeated attempts to launch attacks had finally caused Israeli casualties.
“Our religion orders us to respond in kind to aggression against us. You [Israeli people] are the ones who choose your leaders and choose to be their shields. Therefore your shields will suffer more blows,” the leaflet said.
“This is a gift to the newcomers who arrived recently to our land,” it added in a reference to recent wave of Jewish immigration to Israel. “We say to you: ‘This is your fate, so wait.'”
This was the first suicide bombing inside Israel since March 14, when 11 people were killed in the port city of Ashdod.
Copyright 2004 Haaretz