Hamas support grows after Israelis shoot militant leader

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The green Hamas flags were fluttering from the rooftops against a cold grey sky when they brought the body of the militant Thabet Ayyadeh home yesterday. As the mourners began making their way towards the cemetery they could hear repeated bursts of Israeli gunfire - directed into the air as a warning - to deter the teenagers throwing stones at the waiting police jeeps.

Mohammed Abu Tir, number two on Hamas's national list of parliamentary candidates, had arrived in good time to pay his condolences to the dead 24-year-old's tearful brother Ziad. As the January rain began to fall, they kissed three times before Ziad Ayyadeh, 36, declared: "It is a positive thing because people now will vote for Hamas."

The Israeli army said Thabet Ayyadeh, a leader of Hamas's military wing, was shot dead in the early hours of yesterday when he opened fire, slightly wounding a soldier, as he ran out of a house which the army had been surrounding in Tulkarem with the intention of arresting him.

His older brother reminded the Hamas leader that the dead man had not been the family's first "martyr". For in November 2001, another brother, Moayed, who at the age of 16 had met Mohammed Abu Tir in jail during the latter's 20 year imprisonment, had blown himself up injuring two Israeli commandos. "You were his teacher," he told the candidate respectfully. "You were responsible for forming his character."

Mr Abu Tir replied that he saw the two dead brothers as "sons" and added: "They did their duty. The blood of martyrs is precious to us." He was quick to add: "We have not come here to use the incident for the election. I participate in events like this without elections."

Nevertheless Mr Abu Tir's presence at this West Bank funeral was a reminder that for all Hamas's appeal to voters who were fed up with the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority and its reputation for inefficiency and corruption, its leading candidates, fighting under the banner of "Change and Reform", were making no effort to distance themselves from the faction's past record of armed militancy.

Two rival candidates also attending the funeral in Thabet Ayyadeh's impoverished home village of Hizma, encircled by the separation barrier and the settlements to the north-east of Jerusalem, made clear their fears that the killing would help Hamas when voters elected a new Palestinian Legislative Council for the first time in nearly a decade next Wednesday.

Hatem Abbas, a prominent local Fatah activist who is standing as an independent, said it would have an "indirect" impact on the election. "People will show solidarity with the martyrs and the organisation they belong to."

And Hassan Ispeh, a candidate for Mustafa Barghouti's Independent Palestine party, which is against the use of arms, said: "This will be negative for me. This man is from Hizma and the vote will be higher now for Hamas in Hizma and Tulkarem."

But with 50 per cent unemployment it may be other issues that finally decide how the people of Hizma vote. Hamdan Nimr, 52, who used to run a construction company which did work as far way as Tel Aviv but now has no work, said he would not vote at all. As long as Israel is here it's useless to vote. What can the PA do? Even the President needs a permit from Israel. We are in a prison here."

As he spoke at the side of the lane descending from the Ayyadeh family house, the young men brought down the body, draped with a green Hamas banner, chanting in unison: "We sacrifice our blood and soul for the martyr. There is no God but only one God and the martyr is the one blessed by God."

Watching the procession Mr Nimr added reflectively: "Most people here will vote for Hamas because the peace process has failed. If you don't have hope, you vote for Hamas."