It was the first time since August 2004 that Hamas had said it carried out a suicide attack and torpedoed any prospect that the Islamist group which controls Gaza might be dropped from the terror blacklists of the European Union and the United States.
Hamas claims responsibility
In its statement, Hamas's military wing — the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades — released the names of the two attackers who killed an elderly woman in the southern Israeli town of Dimona on Monday.
Male relatives of both men were picked up by the Israeli army, Palestinian security sources said, while their mothers received the condolences of neighbours in the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron, north of Dimona, who lionised their sons as martyrs.
The mothers of the two men — Mohammed al-Hirbawi and Shadi al-Zaghair — paraded photographs of their sons for the cameras, giving the lie to an earlier claim of responsibility for the deadly bombing from a militant group linked to the Islamists' secular rivals Fatah.
“The Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades claim full responsibility for the martyrdom operation in Dimona,” said a statement from the Hamas military wing.
On Monday, Hamas had limited itself to saying that it regarded the suicide bombing as a “heroic action” against the Israeli occupation.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said that the movement had delayed claiming responsibility for the bombing because of “security considerations linked to the situation in the West Bank”.
“Hamas has never announced that it has stopped or will stop any form of resistance, including martyrdom operations,” he said.
'Wake up call'
Israel swiftly seized on the Hamas claim as proof of its insistence that the international community should have no dealings with the Islamist group which has controlled Gaza since June last year.
“Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip with a rod of iron for some time and it is clear that during this whole period Hamas has been implicated directly or indirectly in rocket fire against southern Israel aimed at taking the lives of innocent civilians,” government spokesman Mark Regev said.
“We hope that this new claim of responsibility is going to dispel any illusions that anyone in the world might have had about the true nature of Hamas and will serve as a wake-up call.”
The Israeli press had never given any credence to the initial claim of responsibility for the Dimona bombing from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and two other militant groups.
Newspapers reported that the two men identified as the attackers in that claim were not those whose bodies were recovered by the Israeli emergency services on Monday.
As security forces remained on high alert, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak vowed: “We are doing all that we can to settle the terrorist problem emanating from Hebron as well as that of the rockets being fired from Gaza.”
Hamas responded to the repeated ground and air raids against its fighters in Gaza with a salvo of a dozen rockets against the southern Israeli town of Sderot, one of which slammed into a house wounding two civilians, security sources said.
Two Hamas militants were killed in an early morning ground incursion by Israeli troops near the Gaza-Egypt border town of Rafah, medics said.
Seven Hamas paramilitaries were killed and two wounded when Israeli aircraft struck a police station in the Gaza Strip's second city of Khan Yunis in late afternoon.
And in the evening, an Israeli air strike wounded three Hamas militants in a northern neighbourhood of Gaza City, medics said.
The renewed violence between Hamas and Israel seriously complicated Egypt's efforts to restore order to its border with the Gaza Strip, which was blown open by the Islamists for much of the past two weeks amid a crippling Israeli blockade of the territory.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit had appealed to Hamas earlier on Tuesday to allow European Union observers to return to the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt so that it could be legally reopened.
“We ask the authorities who control the Gaza Strip to allow the return of EU observers and Palestinian Authority police in order to be able to apply the 2005 agreement,” he said.
Under the 2005 deal reached by moderate Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas with Israel when he still controlled Gaza, the Rafah crossing was to be overseen by EU monitors with cameras enabling round-the-clock surveillance by Israel of those passing through — something Hamas rejects.