Hamas faithful celebrate the 'good bombing'

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OUTSIDE a new Gaza clinic yesterday young schoolgirls in neat dresses and white veils thrust their fists into the air and screamed: 'Izzidin al Qassem. Izzidin al Qassem. We support you.'

They were not cheering the name of the man inside the clinic, the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat: they were chanting the name of the military wing of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, which carried out Wednesday's bombing of a bus in Tel Aviv that killed 22 people.

Mr Arafat, attending an opening ceremony for the clinic in Gaza's Beach Camp, was trying his best to pretend that life in Gaza was continuing as normal. He had reason to be upbeat. An anticipated Israeli crackdown in Gaza in the wake of the Tel Aviv attack did not materialise. But in his first public appearance since the bombing, the PLO chairman appeared ashen and almost comatose.

As the children's chants echoed all around and an Israeli fighter jet swooped low overhead, Mr Arafat's fingers twitched and his head drooped forward. It was surely a mistake to have ventured into Beach Camp yesterday, home to 5,000 refugees, where the population had openly celebrated the bombing as a just revenge for Palestinian deaths.

'The bombing is good because the Israelis have killed our people and stolen our land,' said Teheri Koha, a bright-eyed girl aged 14, as Mr Arafat's limousine drove away.

Mr Arafat appears entirely at a loss over how to quell the new pro-Hamas fervour in Gaza, spurred by the bombing. The recent arrests of Hamas supporters, carried out by the Palestinian authority in the wake of last week's abduction of an Israeli soldier, Nachshon Waxman, appears to have fuelled a sense of solidarity on the streets. Of the 200 locked up by the PLO, 82 are still in jail.

While the Hamas leadership in Gaza had gone underground yesterday, no doubt fearing new arrests, the young bearded men of Beach Camp openly proclaimed that Saleh Abdel Rahim al-Souwi, the purported suicide bomber who died along with 21 Israelis, was a martyr.

Cheered on by a crowd of friends, a young student who was arrested last week in the Palestinian round-up, spoke of his 'happiness and joy' at the bombing. That civilians were killed was of no consequence, he said. 'Look at all our civilians who have died. We encourage these actions.' Other Gazans spoke more soberly of the attack, clearly shocked by the carnage.

Hadia Yonis, 50, a mother of 10, said the bombing was 'not good', as it would cause Arabs more problems. 'We just want to be quiet.' But then she pointed towards a crowd of children. Two of her sons, she said, had been arrested by the PLO last week and now there was no money to feed their children.

'The peace just brings more prisoners in Arab and Jewish jails.' Then, clutching her neck in anger, she added: 'You see why it is that when we see the Jews we want to strangle them.'

During the night after the bomb attack, Gaza was in state of heightened fear, anticipating massive Israeli retaliation for the Tel Aviv attack.

Hints from Ehud Barak, Israel's chief of staff, that the Israeli army might re-enter the Palestinian controlled areas had led to talk of a new 'Israeli invasion'.

Nobody in Gaza was in any doubt about what such an invasion might lead to.

When Mr Arafat was asked on Wednesday night by United Nations officials what the consequence would be he uttered one word: 'War.'

As of last night, however, the Israeli Prime Minster, Yitzhak Rabin, appeared to be holding his fire.

The Israeli cabinet yesterday did announce 'new measures' against the militants - an indefinite closure of the occupied territories, more police, and 'additional means' for the security services. But the measures were relatively mild. Mr Rabin's main concern for now is to ensure that his peace treaty with Jordan, due to be signed next week, is not torn to shreds by the escalating conflict.

(Photographs omitted)