Gaza fury at death of Hamas leader

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THREE weeks before Israel is to begin its withdrawal from the occupied Gaza Strip, the area yesterday erupted in violent protest after Israeli soldiers killed Imad Aqel, a leading military commander of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement.

Palestinian demonstrators poured on to the streets, blocking roads with burning tyres and throwing stones. The Israeli army retaliated by shooting into the crowds, killing at least one Palestinian and wounding at least 36. Later in the day, Palestinian sources said three Arabs were shot in their car by soldiers. Israeli radio reports said the three, including a Saudi, had tried to run an army roadblock.

The clashes in Gaza were the worst since the peace accord was signed on 13 September. Throughout the occupied territories Palestinians observed a strike in memory of Aqel, 24, a commander with Hamas's military wing. The group says Aqel had taken part in the killing of 11 Israeli soldiers.

Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's Prime Minister, described Aqel's death as 'an impressive and important achievement' in the 'war against terror'. For the government, facing increasing criticism from Jewish settlers for failing to prevent Palestinian violence, Aqel's assassination was a coup.

Celebrations in the Israeli camp may be premature, however. In Gaza City more than 5,000 young men marched behind Aqel's funeral cortege, demonstrating to Mr Rabin that the creation of another martyr is unlikely to stem the organisation's support. Israel will also be keen to avoid spiralling attacks in the wake of the killing. In a comminque to Ehud Barak, Israel's Chief of Staff, Hamas's military wing warned yesterday of new assaults on Israeli targets.

The Israeli government knows it must take care not to create the conditions in which Hamas wins new support on the streets. There are already signs that the Aqel killing could strengthen the unity between Hamas, which opposes the peace agreement, and Fatah, the mainstream faction of the secular Palestine Liberation Organisation, which backs the deal.