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Only the hatred remains as a 'martyr' is mourned: Wasteland funeral of a Muslim gunman during Gaza's curfew

PALESTINIAN guerrillas made off with Zakaria Sharbaji's head yesterday, or what was left of it after the Israelis fired a light anti-armour weapon at his hideout in the Tofah district of Gaza City. For their part, the Israelis kept his body. Which created problems for Sharbaji's family in the Jabaliya refugee camp.

Yesterday morning, the gunman's blood still lay across the smashed breeze-block hut in which he was killed, along with some remarkably undamaged pages of the Koran which - so his sympathisers unconvincingly claimed - had fallen from his pocket at the moment of death. 'They picked up the bones from his head and the brains and took them away,' a young visitor to the newly established shrine remarked. 'But the Israelis had already taken the corpse.'

The Israelis would say nothing about the torso. Long ago, they developed the habit of releasing such human remains at night, ordering the families of dead men to bury their relatives before dawn without any public demonstration - and thus without the predictable Palestinian ceremony of stone-throwing and tyre-burning.

No one denied that the 30-year-old 'martyr' - his baby is only six months old - was a member of the Qassem Brigade of the Islamic Hamas movement. For three months, so they said in Tofah, he had been on the run from the Israelis, hiding in Jabaliya and then in Tofah. Which is presumably why, with their usual penchant for a little collective justice, the Israelis cleared the surrounding streets and blew up no fewer than 17 Palestinian houses - homes to perhaps 200 people - within the space of just 12 hours. Where, one wondered, did punishment end and vandalism begin?

It was not a matter which Sharbaji's parents were likely to debate. Unable to retrieve either part of their son's body, they decided to mourn his death at their home in Jabaliya camp, a step to which the Israelis had their own unique response. Jabaliya, they decided, was under curfew. Jabaliya would become - and the phrase is already part of the lexicon of Gaza - a 'closed military area'.

In Gaza, a 'curfew' exists whenever an Israeli officer produces a piece of paper and scribbles a name, date and hour on it. It happened to us yesterday when we tried to visit Sharbaji's parents. A border police patrol stopped our car with that imperishable command: 'No pictures.' Where, I asked, was the law which prevented us taking photographs?

Quick as a flash, out came a printed sheet from the pocket of the green-uniformed policeman, an Israeli Arab in dark glasses who swiftly filled in the words 'Jabaliya', '21 April' and '0600 hours' beneath the title 'closed military area'. Would we like to take a picture of him signing the piece of paper? Of course we would. Kafka had nothing on this.

Predictably, the whole charade had little effect on the streets of Gaza City. No sooner were the first stones thrown at the Israelis from behind the smoke of burning tyres than the first wounded were carried into al-Ahli hospital. One man arrived with a plastic-coated bullet buried deep in his thigh, another with blood streaming from a bullet wound to his ankle. By midday, 14 youths had been brought into the hospital, two of them struck in the chest, after throwing stones or - as they preferred to claim - 'walking in the streets'. A dangerous pastime in Gaza City these days.

Before dark last night, uniformed and hooded men appeared at the corpse-less funeral rites for Zakaria Sharbaji in a wasteland of sand in the very centre of Gaza City. But there were mourners present who wanted to share a grisly secret. They took us to a shabby street where a cheap concrete breeze-block was lying in a square foot of newly smoothed sand below the wall of a tenement.

'Here we buried our martyr's brains,' a Hamas official confided, then pointed to a tree. 'Over there, we buried some pieces of his jaw.' There was a pause. 'Would you like us to dig them up to show you?' In Gaza, such offers are best refused.

(Photograph omitted)