Cafe rumours raise bomber from the dead

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The Independent Online
Is Yahya Ayyash, the Palestinian bomb-maker thought to have been killed three weeks ago by a booby-trapped mobile phone, alive and well and living in Gaza, Egypt or Sudan? Many Palestinians believe he is. In the coffee shops of the West Bank they talk as much about how he may have survived assassination as they do about the results of the Palestinian general election.

''He knew they were coming,'' said Sami Rashe, an accountant, sitting in a cafe in Ramallah, just north of Jerusalem. ''He got a look-alike to stay in the house where he was hiding - and he got away.'' The body buried in the Martyrs' Cemetery in Gaza was not his, he added.

The story seemed to gather a little substance last week when the Jordanian newspaper Al-Bilad quoted an unidentified official of Hamas, the Islamic organisation to which Ayyash belonged, as saying the bomb-maker had known that an Israeli attack was imminent. A Hamas colleague, eager for martyrdom, took the fatal phone call. This enabled Ayyash to evade his Israeli pursuers again and escape out of the back door.

It is not surprising that Palestinians want to believe that Ayyash is still alive. The expertise required to send a suicide bomber to blow up a civilian bus is not very great, but Palestinians liked the idea that here was a Palestinian the Israelis feared. ''They have the atomic bomb and we have Ayyash,'' said one.

Some Hamas leaders want to quash the rumours. At a memorial rally for Ayyash in Gaza, their spokesman, Mahmoud Zahhar, made a special reference to the stories of the bomber being alive: ''Despite what you hear, I saw him myself and he was dead.''

But Mr Rashe in Ramallah said: ''Sure, they saw somebody who was dead. But if the bomb blew his head apart, how can they know it was Yahya?''

There is another, more substantial, reason why Palestinians think there was something peculiar about the assassination. For a man who must have known he was No 1 target for Israel's Shin Bet security agency, he took very few precautions and had been staying in the same house in Beit Lahiya refugee camp for months. If the legend of Ayyash's ability to avoid detection was true, he must have known the Israelis would find him. Could he, therefore, have used the assassination plot to escape Israeli retribution by pretending it had succeeded?

A more likely explanation is that Ayyash's reputation as ''the Engineer,'' first promoted by the Israeli media and then picked up by the Palestinians, was inflated, but in West Bank coffee shops this theory will find few takers.