The blasts, 100 yards from each other, in the largest city in southern Israel and 10 miles from the West Bank, were revenge for the assassination last spring of Hamas’ two spiritual leaders, according to a leaflet distributed in the West Bank city of Hebron by Hamas.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responded swiftly, telling reporters that “the fight against terror will continue with full strength.”
The Palestinian Authority also responded to the bombings, urging international supporters of the roadmap peace plan “to intervene immediately.”
“The Palestinian Authority condemns any attacks that target civilians, whether Israelis or Palestinian,” Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said.
This was the first attack by Palestinians inside Israel since March when 11 people were killed in the port of Ashdod. Following that attack, Israel assassinated two Hamas spiritual leaders — Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi.
Muslim leaders in the Gaza Strip called the bombings a “heroic operation” over mosque loudspeakers.
“There will be no security for Israel as long as the occupation stands,” one leader said, according to the Associated Press.
It was unclear whether the two suicide bombers were included in the death toll. According to Israel’s Magen David Adom rescue service, 30 wounded people were in serious or moderate condition.
Yaacov Cohen, the driver of the second bus, escaped with minor injuries.
“I was at the junction and suddenly I heard a huge blast and saw smoke everywhere,” Cohen told the BBC.
“I realized it was an explosion on a bus near me, so I stopped my bus and opened all the doors thinking, ‘We should just flee.’ Suddenly there was another blast inside my bus.
“When I opened the doors, a lot of people managed to get out – it’s difficult to describe what I saw outside,” he said.
An ambulance worker told the BBC that parents and children were aboard the buses shopping for school supplies.
The explosions came hours after Sharon addressed his Likud party with a timetable for withdrawing Jewish settlers from Gaza, saying the “disengagement plan will be implemented, period.” Aside from the resistance in his own party, other opponents say the plan would reward “Palestinian terrorism.” Palestinians criticize the prime minister for moving forward unilaterally without consulting the Palestinian leadership and not including key settlements in the West Bank.
Sharon wants to offer early advance payments to encourage the 8,000 Gaza settlers to voluntarily leave, according to Sharon officials.