Palestinians vow revenge as they bury Hamas leader

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The funeral of Ismail Abu Shanab, the Hamas leader assassinated by Israel on Thursday, turned into a massive show of Palestinian solidarity in Gaza yesterday. All the Palestinian militias, in battle fatigues, masks and martyrs' headbands, paraded their rifles and rocket launchers, brandishing their flags and vowing revenge.

With tens of thousands of angry mourners thronging the streets, it was like a carnival of death. About 200 al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades fighters, loyal to Yasser Arafat, marched behind 1,000 Hamas gunmen along a 9km route to the cemetery. "We are one voice and one position," said a fighter carrying the yellow banner of the militant group. "We all support jihad, holy war."

The bodies of Abu Shanab and his two guards were carried on the mourners' shoulders after Friday prayers at the Omari mosque. "If the Zionists knew they would see a volcano erupting in Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, Haifa and Hadera, they would never have thought of killing you, our hero," shouted a masked man from a loudspeaker van. The crowd roared back, "Ezzideen, Ezzideen'', the name of the Hamas military wing. The loudspeaker man responded: "We are all fighting martyrs now."

Palestinian police were ordered to stay away from the funeral. All of the senior Hamas leaders were present, including the wheelchair-bound preacher Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, in a Land Rover. Two others, Abdelaziz al-Rantisi and Sheikh Mahmoud al-Zahar, potential Israeli targets, were hidden in the crowd and surrounded by bodyguards. Mr Zahar pledged: "The armed struggle will continue. We will use all the means of struggle, including the martyrdom operations. There is no ceasefire. There is only revenge."

Muhmmad Awad, 21, a building worker, was ready to take the consequences. "Hamas should avenge Abu Shanab, even if it means that Israel will destroy us," he said. Rami Khalil, 21, who owns a cleaning materials factory, said: "The vicious circle of violence will not help us or the Israeli people. But if there is no revenge, the Palestinian people will feel humiliated."

Tensions in the occupied territories worsened yesterday when Israeli troops killed three Palestinian fighters in a hospital in the West Bank.

Witnesses said Israeli forces surrounded Rafidya hospital in Nablus and a shoot-out ensued. Three members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades sheltering in a rooftop room were killed. An army statement said the three were wanted for involvement in a suicide bombing in Israel on 12 August and some ambush shootings in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, Israeli troops and tanks massed along the boundary with northern Gaza last night in what security sources said was preparation for a possible incursion after Hamas fired Qassam rockets into Israel following Abu Shanab's killing.

Israel had ordered a 24-hour lull to give the Palestinian security forces another chance to crack down on the militants responsible for a suicide bombing in Jerusalem on Tuesday, which killed 20 passengers returning from prayers at the Western Wall. If not, Ariel Sharon's forces would resume their own campaign of "targeted killings".

Since the start of the present intifada in September 2000, Hamas has used a potent mix of suicide bombings in Israel and charity work in the Palestinian territories to emerge as the most influential militant group. After reluctantly agreeing to a ceasefire in June, Hamas declared the truce over after Thursday's assassination of Abu Shanab, seen as a moderate.

Brigadier Mohammed al-Masri, head of the political department of the Palestinian intelligence service, shrugged off Israel's ultimatum. "All we can do during the first three days is offer condolences to the family of Abu Shanab, according to the Muslim tradition," he said. "Does Sharon want us to arrest the mourners?"

With chilling frankness, he added that the security services could not act against Hamas or Islamic Jihad until they made another attack on Israel. "I am not calling for bloodshed, but I am saying all the people have been united now against Israel. The street backs Hamas and the calls for revenge."

Kayed al-Ghoul, a member of the central committee of the left-wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, agreed. "Hamas is now the strongest faction in the Gaza Strip," he said. "If the Palestinian Authority starts cracking down, it will commit suicide. Hamas has more than a third of the Palestinian people as supporters or members."

¿ President George Bush yesterday froze the assets of six Hamas leaders and five organisations accused of financially supporting the group.