Palestinians bury chief Hamas bomb-maker

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THE SCORCHED face of Muhyideen al-Sharif, 32, peered from the top of a striped green and white blanket, which concealed the rest of his mutilated body, as he was carried to his grave yesterday amid the pine trees of el-Bireh cemetery.

As he was being buried, the 6,000 mourners could already hear the crack of Israeli soldiers firing rubber bullets - in fact, half-inch steel balls with a thin coating of rubber - and eyes began to sting from clouds of tear-gas.

"They are using some special gas," said one of the Palestinian boys hurling stones at Israeli troops as he choked and held a piece of onion to his nose, the antidote used by rioters on the West Bank. It does not always work. Palestinian ambulances, sirens blaring, carried a dozen casualties away from the fighting.

The clash at el-Bireh cemetery is unlikely to be the last violence provoked by the mysterious death of Mr Sharif, chief bomb maker for the last two years to Izz el-Deen al-Qassem, the military wing of Hamas, the militant Islamic organisation. Some members of his funeral procession yesterday chanted: "Dear, dear Qassem, hit Tel Aviv."

Hamas is all too likely to do just that and there were soldiers posted yesterday at every street corner in Jerusalem. Guards at the main shopping mall in the city, housing several cinemas and many restaurants, were making almost frantic body searches of customers.

There are still two versions of how and why Mr Sharif died. The Palestinian police say he was shot three times, twice in the chest and once in the leg, some three hours before his body was placed near a garage in the West Bank town of Ramallah. A large bomb, containing some 110lb of explosives, was then detonated by remote control, destroying the garage and a Fiat Uno car.

The police do not say so, but the implication is that only Israeli security could be behind such an elaborate plot.

The Israeli version is that they did not kill Mr Sharif. They say the bullets in his body could have been blown there from an accidental explosion in a Hamas arsenal. They say that the explosive Hamas uses - tri-acetone - is very, very volatile. They hint that the Palestinian police might have have been responsible themselves.

The truth may never be established, but Palestinians universally believe that Mr Sharif was assassinated by Israeli agents. First of all, he was the Hamas member most wanted by Israel as the man behind two bombings in Jerusalem last year. Second, his killing and the attempt to conceal it is like the attempt on the life of Khalid Meshal (a Hamas official) by Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service, with poison gas in Amman last year. In each case great ingenuity went into covering the tracks of the killers, presumably in order to prevent revenge attacks.

Palestinians and Israelis are giving Mr Sharif an importance in death that he may never had in life. Trained as an electrical engineer at al- Quds University in Jerusalem, he was in jail for three years up to 1995. He is said to have supplied the explosives which killed 62 people in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ashkelon in 1996. But the expertise needed to equip suicide bombers is not extensive. Israeli security says Hamas has the means to make attacks any time it wants to.

At Mr Sharif's family house at Beit Hanina, his brother Ibrahim said: "We believe he was assassinated by Israel." The family served sweet orange juice rather than the usual bitter coffee on the grounds that he had died a martyr.