Dimona, Israel — Shalom Pariantes had pulled over his taxi next to Dimona’s shopping center to let some passengers out when an explosion just a few feet away rocked his car.
“I heard the boom and then saw body parts all over the ground,” he said. “The whole car moved. Being in the car saved me.”
In the wake of Monday’s suicide bombing — the first in the country in more than a year — Israeli politicians and commentators bemoaned that the writing had been on the wall ever since Palestinian militants in Gaza exploited the week-long open border at Rafah to move into the Sinai desert. Once in Egypt, they could sneak into Israel through a border that is routinely infiltrated by traffickers of drugs, prostitutes and African refugees.
Hamas claimed responsibility for Dimona attack, an apparent signal that it is ending its self-imposed moratorium on attacks inside Israel.
Residents of Dimona never dreamed that the violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would strike at the heart of their sleepy, dust-blown town of about 40,000. Lying just a few miles from Israel’s nuclear reactor, locals considered themselves better protected than the average city because of the proximity to the strategic site.
“This is a very sensitive city,” Pariantes said, gesturing up to an observation zeppelin he said was a permanent fixture in the skies above the city rather than a onetime appearance for the bombing.
During the Lebanon war, a battery of Patriot missiles were positioned at the outskirts of the city while Air Force helicopters patrolled the skies, he said. “An attack in Dimona — I never dreamed of something like this. I feel like they’re trying to protect me.”
Indeed, few locals who were in the immediate vicinity of the attack recognized the explosion as a terrorist bombing. Some thought it was a gas balloon bursting. Others guessed it was exploding tank shell from a military training base nearby.
As bomb squads picked through the debris of the explosion site and the mangled remains of the attackers’ bodies, Dimona Mayor Meir Cohen was consoled by residents and government ministers who made a rare appearance in the city to survey the damage. One woman, Lyubov Razdolskaya, 73, who worked in the physics department at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva, was killed in the attack. Eleven people were injured.
“We’ll get back to the routine, but it will be a more tense routine,” said Cohen. When Israeli security officials warned of the terrorist threat following the Rafah border break, Cohen said that residents in the South assumed that Israeli towns and cities closer to the border faced the most immediate threat. “We thought it would stop before reaching Dimona.”
To be sure, by Wednesday morning there were indications that the Palestinian bombers had reached Dimona from Hebron rather than the Sinai. But that hasn’t stopped the debate in Israel about what should be done about the 150-mile-long border with Egypt.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak pledged a fence by the end of 2010, while the Israeli news media said that the construction of a border fence could run into the billions of shekels.
“We need to take care of the border with Egypt,” Mayor Cohen said. “Where there is a fence, there is security. It may take billions but it’s an issue of life and death.”
On the day after the bombing, Israeli security forces beefed up their presence around the country. Gidi Grinstein, president of the Reut Institute, said he expects a security fence along the border within two to three years, along with beefed-up military positions on the Sinai frontier.
Grinstein said it was ironic that the police officer who killed the second would-be suicide bomber was a part of a unit assigned to stop illegal smuggling at the border.
“So far it’s mainly been a law enforcement issue,” he said. “But now it’s a national security issue to be dealt with by the military.”
Likud Knesset member Yuval Steinitz said the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that he chaired recommended building a fence along the border back in 2005. He estimated that the project would cost about $250 million, about one-tenth of the cost of the security barrier in the West Bank. The construction job would be easier technically and politically because it’s an internationally recognized border.
So why was the recommendation never acted on?
“People in Israel always believed that Egypt would behave itself, and if it did so, there’s no reason for a fence,” he said. “But this did not happen. Egypt has become an ally of Hamas.”
Even though only one person was killed in the attack, the bombing was a rude awakening to Israelis who had gotten used to rocket attacks as the primary security risk, while forgetting the bombing fears of the height of the Palestinian uprising.
Meir Javedanfar, a Tel Aviv-based Middle East analyst, said the attack was symbolic because Dimona had never been struck before.
“We thought that terror was confined to Sderot, but now it’s coming to places we never expected,” he said. “By attacking Dimona, the terrorists were saying, ‘We can reach anywhere. No one is immune from us.’”
On Wednesday, eight Kassam rockets slammed into Sderot. One struck a home directly, leaving six people lightly wounded, according to Haaretz. Israel’s army responded by hitting a Hamas office in the southern Gaza Strip, killing at least seven people.
Back in Dimona, a town known more for its double-digit unemployment than as a terrorist target, residents were still having difficulty digesting the attack.
Irena Rabinovich, a 20-year-old unemployed mother of one, at first said she thought the explosion might have been the result of a fight between gangs in the city.
“There’s a lot of crime here, like drugs and stabbings, but that’s play stuff compared to a suicide bombing,” she said. Rabonivich only realized the explosion was a terrorist attack when she saw police cars speeding to the scene. “People were running and screaming. I was horrified. I didn’t have any units left on my phone so I couldn’t call anyone.”
Residents blamed the city’s population of illegal workers from the West Bank as accomplices in the killings. The attack spurred angry complaints that the police had not done enough to crack down on illegal laborers prior to the bombing.
“There they are, do you see them standing next to the wall?” said taxi driver Pariantes, pointing to a group of Arab men. “I’ll never take another Bedouin in my car,” he said. “I’m just not taking any chances any more.”
Watching TV crews file by outside his snack kiosk, Yair Hamoo, 32, remarked that he had seldom seen so many people in Dimona’s shopping district. “You never seen this many people here, not even on Independence Day.”
The morning shift worker had gone home for the day, shaken by the trauma of the explosion, he explained.
“We were enjoying the pastoral weather this morning,” he explained. “Then all of our lives changed in a moment.”