Gaza in grip of suicide bombers: Two Hamas martyrs died this week, while two others were disarmed. Robert Fisk reports

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The Independent Online
OSSAMA HAMID set off to blow himself to pieces on Tuesday morning, just after prayers at the Bilal mosque. All his friends claimed he was an unlikely car bomber, but Hamdi Hamid was not surprised when he was told of his son's death.

'He talked a lot about martyrdom, about dying in battle against the Israelis,' the old man said as he sat by the wall of the mosque where he had last seen his son. 'He told me that if he became a martyr in this cause, he would attain a higher place in paradise.'

Every few seconds, a weeping relative or friend would interrupt Mr Hamid's remarks to embrace the father of the second Palestinian 'martyr' in 48 hours. Just a day earlier, Anwar Aziz had driven a bomb- laden ambulance into a jeep- load of Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip, wounding three of them; for six hours after the explosion his blackened and shrivelled corpse lay on the roadside while his friends recalled his preparation for death - a ritual washing and praying at his local mosque - and their pride in his departure.

For the Israelis, it has been a frightening week; the suicide bomber - the fearful instrument of mass destruction which helped Hizbollah to drive Israel's army out of Lebanon a decade ago - has arrived in Gaza. Two other would-be suicide bombers were captured this week and their explosives defused.

Even Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, is warning of the new danger. 'Since Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) became strong a year or more ago, we have witnessed suicide attacks for the first time,' he told the Knesset in Jerusalem on Monday. 'Palestinians, until Hamas, did not do it - just as the Lebanese did not do it before Hizbollah.'

He did not, of course, remind his audience that it was Israel that originally encouraged the creation of Hamas as an opponent of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Nor could he have known that only hours after his prescient warning, Ossama Hamid, a 25-year old pharmacist at Gaza's Islamic University, would have set off - his bomb in the boot of his car and a Kalashnikov automatic rifle on the passenger seat - on his suicide mission.

The relatives comforting his father afterwards all spoke of Ossama's growing interest in religion. Walid Hamid tried to describe his dead cousin. 'He read the Koran all the time and he gave speeches in the mosque about the need to die in the war against Israel,' he said. 'The Israelis kept arresting him. He spent four years in jail as a Hamas member and he was always being beaten.'

The Hamas posters announcing the death of their latest martyr - the seventh Palestinian suicide bomber to have attacked the Israelis - did not hint at the failure of his mission. For, far from killing his enemies, Ossama headed to the Sejaya area of Gaza in the hope of ramming his car into an army truck, only to find himself being chased by an Israeli border patrol which noticed he was driving a stolen car. He tried to shoot his way out but was killed instantly by two Israeli bullets.

'Ossama was against the Arafat peace,' his father said. 'He said it would never be implemented, but he had talked of dying for the liberation of Palestine weeks before that. The last time I saw him he asked me if there was anything I and his mother wanted. He didn't spend the night at home and next day I heard what he did.' The man paused, aware that his son was - in Israeli eyes - just another dead 'terrorist'. 'I am proud of him,' Hamid Hamdi said.

But why do such young men set off so blithely for their deaths? On the day of Ossama's funeral, I found five Palestinian men in the Shifa hospital, covered in blood from stomach and leg wounds. The Israelis shot them but provided no explanation.

Half an hour later, on the road out of Gaza, I was stopped by soldiers who were screaming at a group of youths. Beside the soldiers was the corpse of a Palestinian. 'The Israelis tried to arrest him,' one of the youths told me. 'The Palestinian pulled out an axe and attacked them. The Israelis shot him dead.' The army later confirmed that they had killed 18-year-old Ashraf Khalil when he attacked a soldier with a hatchet.