Delayed attack likely to backfireHamas' choice of such a soft target demonstrates position of weakness
The Palestinian armed response was a long time coming. When the Hamas founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, was killed in an Israeli rocket attack in Gaza in March, the organisation responsible for most of the suicide bombings in Israel vowed that it would "open the gates of hell".
Yesterday, the Palestinians finally succeeded in getting two suicide bombers through, blowing up two buses. Hamas sympathisers will be relieved that the organisation has at last managed a revenge attack and many Palestinians will have been celebrating last night in Gaza, the West Bank and the refugee camps in neighbouring countries.
In reality, yesterday's bombing is a demonstration of the weakness of Hamas and the other Palestinian groups engaged in violence. Israelis had been braced for a revenge attack within 24 hours or at least a week or two of the assassination of Sheik Yassin. That never came, even when the Israeli army also killed his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantissi, in April.
Hamas, the al-Aqsa Brigades and Islamic Jihad have been failing for more than five months to mount an attack in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or one of the coastal towns and failed. In the end, they had to opt for one of the softest targets possible, a frontier town in the Negev desert.
Jad Isaac, director of independent Palestinian think-tank the Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem, yesterday offered one explanation: "You have to realise that since the death of Sheik Yassin, the Israelis have all the time been keeping the pressure on the Palestinians, making lots of arrests daily, not allowing these groups to think, strategise or plan."
Palestinian morale remains high, with plenty of young men volunteering to take the fight to the Israelis. But it is becoming harder for Hamas and other groups to find targets for them. Since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000, it has been difficult for Palestinian suicide bombers and gunmen to get out of Gaza, which the Israelis have totally surrounded. The more recent construction of the Israeli barrier along its border with the West Bank has made it harder for Palestinians to mount attacks from there.
Mr Isaac said that yesterday's attack would provide Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, with the excuse to extend the wall south, as a barrier against Hebron, the city that is the base of the Ahmed Kwasame, the Hamas leader blamed by Israel for the Beersheba attack.
Palestinian frustration at the extent to which its armed groups have been cooped up since the deaths of the Hamas leadership has contributed to internal divisions over the last few months.
There has been the continuing dispute over strategy between the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, a moderate, and the Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat. Contributing even more to the instability is the rift between Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority and the armed groups in protest over corruption.
The extent of the rift was reinforced yesterday when the Palestinian foreign minister, Nabil Shaath, received a death threat from the Popular Resistance Committee, an umbrella organisation for the armed groups.
Mr Qureia, in a statement condemning the bombing, shared Mr Isaac's assessement that Israel will benefit from it. His office said such attacks gave Israel a pretext to assassinate Palestinian militants, step up raids into Palestinian cities, and speed up expansion of Jewish settlements in occupied territories.
Mr Sharon seemed ready to fulfil this prediction yesterday, when he said the Israeli army would continue the fight at "full strength" and held a meeting of the security cabinet, often a precursor to military action, with Hebron a likely target.
The bombings reinforced the views of those in his Likud party who oppose Gaza withdrawal, fearful the Palestinians will claim it as a victory, just as Hizbollah did when the Israelis pulled out of the Lebanon in 2000. Yaron Ezrahi, professor of political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said yesterday: "Sharon imposed on his party a timetable which is meant to disempower the opposition, but terrorists may today have done the opposite, empowering the opposition."
According to polls, more than 70% of Israelis favour withdrawal, but the hard core of Likud are opposed. Mr Sharon will pursue it because his strategy for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rests on leaving Gaza. In return for settlements in Gaza that were hard to defend militarily, his aim is to extend Israeli territory in the West Bank. The public security minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, said the attack indicated the need for a fence in the south of the country.
The impact of yesterday's bombings depends on whether the Palestinians are capable of mounting more attacks over the next few weeks. Prof Ezrahi said: "The effect of terror is usually short term. If there is none next week or the week after, the impact will not be as great as it could be."