An Israeli helicopter strike in a Gaza refugee camp Wednesday wounded five Palestinians, including militants, medics said, as military tanks and vehicles rolled into the camp.
The attack on Khan Younis refugee camp, often a target of Israeli raids, occurred a day after militants killed 16 Israelis in twin bus bombings in the southern town of Beersheba.
All four missiles fired hit a street near a hospital in the camp.
A military source said the strike had targeted “an explosive device spotted in an open area” of the camp.
Minutes after the strike, Israeli tanks and military vehicles rolled into the camp and opened heavy fire, witnesses said. The source confirmed there was an ongoing army operation in Khan Younis to target militants.
Warning to Syria
Earlier Wednesday, a senior Israeli official said that his government holds Syria responsible for Tuesday's double suicide bombing because it allows the group that staged the attack to operate there.
The militant Islamic group Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack Tuesday in the desert city of Beersheba, when two bombers from the West Bank city of Hebron blew themselves up seconds apart in two buses.
Raanan Gissin, a senior aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, pointed to neighboring Syria on Wednesday, 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,” Gissin told The Associated Press. Last year Israel attacked targets in Syria after a Palestinian bombing.
Israeli security sources said earlier that Sharon and his military commanders had decided to stage more strikes to eliminate militant Palestinian leaders in response to the bus attack.
The Beersheba bombings shattered hopes in Israel that the period of suicide attacks — more than 100 in four years — was over. “The nightmare is back,” the newspaper Yediot Ahronot said Wednesday in its main headline above a photo of a burning bus.
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 fighting bombers, including a large network of Palestinian informers, mass arrests and an expanding barrier to separate Israel from the West Bank. Sharon pledged Wednesday to speed up construction of the barrier.
Tuesday’s bombers 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.
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.
Sharon also said he is determined to go ahead with a planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements next year. “This (the attack) has no connection to disengagement,” he said, referring to his program.
Israelis have pointed to the barrier as the main factor in the drop-off of attacks in Israel, and residents of Beersheba, a normally quiet city of 200,000 people in the Negev Desert, clamored for completion of the barrier around the West Bank’s southern end to protect them.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday after a meeting with Israel’s president, Sharon pledged to act. “The fence will be completed according to the Cabinet decision, and we are doing all we can to speed up the process as much as possible,” he said.
The barrier has been widely condemned internationally because of the hardships it causes for Palestinians. Completion has been held up by Israel’s own Supreme Court, which ordered route changes to ease conditions of the Palestinians.
The bombs went off just seconds apart on the No. 6 and No. 12 buses, on opposite sides of a busy intersection Tuesday afternoon. The buses lay stricken in the street, their windows blown out, roofs buckled outward, interiors gutted by flames. Forensic workers picked up body parts, including a woman’s severed hand with a silver ring.
Nissim Vaknin, a passenger on the No. 6 bus, said he was sitting behind the driver, next to a man he later realized was the bomber. Vaknin described the bomber as a “young guy, quiet, not tense.” When an elderly woman with shopping bags boarded, Vaknin gave up his seat to her and walked to the back, a gesture that saved his life.
The elderly woman was killed in the blast several seconds later. Vaknin said he was plagued by guilt. “If it weren’t for me she’d still be alive today,” he told Israel Army Radio.
A 3-year-old boy was also among the victims. More than 80 people were wounded, including 19 school-age children.
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.
In Gaza, thousands of Hamas supporters celebrated in the streets, with 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.
U.S. condemns Hamas
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said in a statement that “the Palestinian interest requires a stop to harming all civilians so as not give Israel pretext to continue its aggression against our people.”
The U.S. State Department brushed aside Arafat’s comments and said Hamas must be put out of business.
The delayed Hamas response — Yassin was killed in March and Rantisi in April — was a sign of the group’s increasing difficulties in carrying out attacks.
Along with the partially completed barrier, the military said it had foiled dozens of suicide bomb plots, arrested hundreds of terror suspects and crippled the Hamas leadership with assassinations of Yassin and Rantisi.
Palestinian analyst Hani al-Masri agreed. “But now, the military operations (attacks) are a way for Hamas to increase its popularity among Palestinians,” he said.
Tuesday’s attack was the deadliest since a female suicide bomber killed 21 people on Oct. 4, 2003, in the northern city of Haifa.
The last suicide bombing in Israel was on March 14, when two Palestinian attackers killed 11 Israelis in the southern port of Ashdod. Since then, 338 Palestinians, including militants and civilians, have been killed by Israeli troops. In the same period, 29 Israelis were killed, including soldiers who died in attacks in Gaza and Israeli motorists shot by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
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