JERUSALEM – Israeli leaders warned Syria on Wednesday that it bears the blame for a double homicide bombing by Hamas (search) militants because it harbors the group's leadership, and they hinted at possible retaliation.
In a first response to Tuesday's attack that killed 16 people in a southern Israeli city, Israeli troops blew up the home of one of the bombers and isolated the West Bank (search) city of Hebron, where the attackers lived. However, Israel was looking farther afield to assign the blame.
"The fact that Hamas is operating from Syria will not grant it immunity," Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search), told The Associated Press.
The overall leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, and his deputies are based in Syria. Earlier this year Israel assassinated Hamas' founder and his successor in Gaza, throwing the militant Islamic group into temporary disarray. But major decisions are made by Mashaal, not by Hamas leaders in Gaza.
The Israeli army chief, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, said Wednesday that those who support terrorism "cannot sleep quietly at night," mentioning Palestinian leaders, Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, Syria and Iran.
Sharon added his own implied threat: "Israel's struggle against terrorism will continue unabated. We will apparently need to decide on additional steps to stop terrorism." He did not elaborate.
Last Oct. 5, Israeli planes attacked the training camp of another militant group, Islamic Jihad, outside Damascus, the Syrian capital, a day after a female bomber blew up a restaurant in the Israeli port city of Haifa, killing 21 people.
But while Israel and Syria are bitter enemies, the air strike was a rare act of violence. Israel has held Syria's government partly responsible for years of Hezbollah raids from southern Lebanon and has often threatened Syria. In practice, however, the Israelis hesitate to provoke a conflict with Syria, and their border has been calm for decades.
Security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel would go after local Hamas leaders and step up military patrols in the sparsely populated, barren southern part of the West Bank. The target of Tuesday's bombings was Beer Sheba (search), 15 miles south of the West Bank.
Sharon also pledged to finish the West Bank security barrier, which is aimed at keeping Palestinian bombers from getting into Israel but has drawn international criticism. Palestinians object that it cuts into their territory and separates tens of thousands from farmland, hospitals and services.
"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," Sharon said.
Israel did not impose travel bans across the West Bank in response to the bombings, as it has after previous attacks. Such blanket restrictions proved relatively ineffective in preventing attacks and mostly fueled more resentment against Israel. Israeli security forces are relying increasingly on pinpoint attacks on militant leaders, mass arrests and a network of informers.
Security officials said there was concern that a rash of Palestinian attacks could sabotage Sharon's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank in 2005. Hard-liners have argued a pullback would make it easier for Palestinians to attack Israel.
Israeli military analysts said Beer Sheba became a target of bombers for the first time because their paths to Israeli cities in the north have been blocked by the separation barrier.
About one-quarter of the complex of fences, walls, trenches and barbed wire has been completed, along the northern part of the West Bank. Work has not progressed in the southern section opposite Beer Sheba, a normally quiet Negev Desert city of 200,000 people.
Appeals by Palestinians have held up the work in several locations, and Israel's Supreme Court ordered the government to reroute the barrier closer to the line between Israel and the West Bank to reduce hardships on Palestinians villages and towns.
A Hamas cell in the West Bank city of Hebron claimed responsibility for Tuesday's bombings, identifying the bombers as Ahmed Kawasmeh, 26, and Nassim Jabari, 22. They 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 has dispatched five bombers in recent years. Israeli troops destroyed Ahmed Kawasmeh's family apartment, arrested three of his brothers and sealed off Hebron.
In separate violence Wednesday, an Israeli helicopter fired three missiles into a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Gaza, wounding at least five people, residents and hospital officials said.
The residents said the aircraft targeted militant Palestinians at the edge of the Khan Younis camp who were planting a land mine as Israeli soldiers advanced.
Israeli military officials said on condition of anonymity that the army was conducting an operation to crack down on Palestinian militants in the area. The Israeli army frequently carries out such operations to prevent bombings or the firing of rockets into Israeli areas.