JERUSALEM – Israeli officials pointed an accusing finger at Syria on Wednesday after two Palestinian suicide bombers killed 16 people and wounded scores more in the first such attack in Israel in more than five months.

The bombings of two buses in the southern city of Beersheba on Tuesday were claimed by Hamas, whose leadership abroad is based in Damascus.

Israel has so far responded to the attack with punitive measures that have become routine in the past four years of violence.

The West Bank town of Hebron, where the suicide bombers lived, has been sealed off with army roadblocks. Suspects were rounded up in the city, and the family home of one of the bombers was demolished. Officials suggested that the army would resume targeted killings of Hamas leaders, a tactic that has been used extensively in the past. But there were also indications that Israeli officials were looking beyond a limited response in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to possible moves against Hamas targets abroad.

“The fact that Hamas is operating from Syria will not grant it immunity,” said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, said in comments broadcast on Israel Radio that action must be taken against “those who support terrorism, whether it be elements of the Palestinian Authority, elements from Hezbollah in Lebanon, or terror headquarters in Damascus with Syrian approval.”

“Whoever is responsible for operating terror against us will not sleep quietly,” Yaalon warned.

Israel launched its deepest airstrike into Syria in 30 years last October after a suicide bomber from Islamic Jihad killed 23 people in a restaurant in the port city of Haifa. The strike targeted what Israel said was a militant training base.

The bus bombings in Beersheba were the deadliest since the Haifa attack.

Funerals for the victims Wednesday, one of them a 3-year-old boy, reinforced a sense among Israelis that an interlude of quiet in recent months has ended.

“The double attack in Beersheba shattered the sweet illusion of a calm summer, of a decline in terror, of a relatively safe home front after four bloody years,” wrote Alex Fishman in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper.

The bombings also boosted the standing of Hamas among Palestinians, showing that despite heavy blows from the Israeli army, the group was still capable of launching devastating attacks. News of the attack in Beersheba triggered celebrations among Hamas supporters in Gaza City.

Hamas said that the bombings were revenge for the killings of the founding leader of the group, Sheik Ahmad Yassin, and his successor, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, in Israeli airstrikes in March and April. The killings threw the group off-balance and forced its local leadership underground.

As weeks and then months went by without a Hamas retaliation in Israel, doubts were raised about whether the group still had the ability to carry out such attacks.

Israeli officials pointed to a sharp drop in attacks from areas of the northern West Bank, where a barrier Israel is building has been completed.

The officials said that better intelligence and relentless army raids on militant strongholds had led to the thwarting of dozens of planned bombings.

Israelis flocked again to cafes and restaurants and foreign tourism rebounded, reflecting a general sense of improved security.

But the Beersheba bombing, launched from an area of the West Bank where the barrier has not yet been built, demonstrated that Israel remained vulnerable and that Hamas was still a potent force.

The Hebron cell that carried out the attack operated in tight secrecy, undiscovered by Israeli intelligence. Israeli security officials say that the group was led by Imad Kawasmeh, whose cousin was one of the bombers, and that it had made an unsuccessful attempt to bomb a Jerusalem cafe several weeks ago.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Wednesday promised efforts to speed up construction of the West Bank barrier in the Hebron area, but there seemed to be little hope among Israelis that such measures would bring the attacks to an end.

A headline in Yediot Ahronot above a picture of a burning bus in Beersheba summed up the mood of the day. “The nightmare has returned,” it said.


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