A six-month period of relative calm in Israel was shattered on 31 August when suicide bombers detonated explosives on two buses in the southern city of Beersheba. Sixteen passengers were killed and scores wounded by the blasts, which occurred almost simultaneously near the city hall.

‘There were burned bodies on the windows and at the entrances of the bus,’ said Beersheba fire chief Gershon Kalimi. ‘Then we went to the other bus and we saw the same horrible images: burned bodies, a burning bus, trapped people, people lying on the ground, calling for help.’

Almost 100 people were taken to the nearby hospital, suffering from burns and shock. More than 20 were in a serious condition.

It was the first time that Beersheba, a quiet city with a population of 200,000 in the Negev desert, had been hit by suicide bombings since the start of the second intifada four years ago. And it was the first suicide attack in Israel since March, when 10 people were killed in the port city of Ashdod. The two bombers, Ahmed Kawasmeh and Nessim Jabari, came from the West Bank city of Hebron and were members of Hamas, which said that the attacks were in retaliation for the assassination of the group’s leaders Sheikh Yassin and his successor Abdelaziz Rantissi earlier in the year.

Following the attack, Israeli forces immediately moved in and closed off Hebron, and in the Gaza Strip Israeli helicopters fired missiles at houses connected to the bombers. Israeli officials vowed to hit Hamas’ leaders ‘wherever they are’, accusing Syria of complicity in the bombings as it harbours the group’s leader, Khalid Meshaal.

Beersheba lies to the southwest of the West Bank, in an area where the controversial security barrier has yet to be built. The fall in the number of attacks over the last five months has been attributed by many Israelis to the fence, which they claim has prevented suicide bombers from reaching their intended targets. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, advocates of the wall were quick to demand that its construction along the southern borders of the West Bank and Israel be speeded up to prevent further attacks. ‘If there was a fence in that area, it would have been much harder to get into Beersheba from Hebron,’ admitted a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal plan has also come under pressure following the bombings. He has set 3 November for a Knesset vote on the proposal, despite having already been defeated on the policy in a vote among his own Likud party members. The plan’s opponents say that the evacuation of settlements in Gaza would be a surrender to terrorism. Fears are growing that an unoccupied Gaza could become a base for militants to launch further attacks on Israel.

Sharon reiterated his intention to go ahead with the plan despite growing protests. Following the bombings he said the attacks ‘have no connection to disengagement’. However as the spectre of violence once again returns to Israel, he may face an uphill struggle convincing the Israeli public that his roadmap is the right one.