Shaken Hamas urged to avenge bomber's death

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The Independent Online


The landlady of Yahya Ayyash, the Hamas bomber blown up in her house by a booby-trapped mobile phone last Friday, has a quick way with reporters' notebooks: she rips them up. Everything we wanted to know about how Ayyash died would be "revealed in a leaflet tomorrow". The one point she wanted to make, she said, as she tore up another page of notes, was that her son Osama Hamad "had nothing to do with it".

Mrs Hamad has reason to feel nervous. It was in her house, a three-storey building walled off from the street in Beit Lahiya refugee camp in the north of the Gaza strip, that Ayyash, the mastermind of the suicide bombing campaign against Israel, had sought refuge in the days before he died. Israeli television reported that Osama Hamad had given the phone to Ayyash, while Palestinians said it was Mrs Hamad's brother Kamal, a local building contractor. In either case nobody doubted that Israeli security was behind the assassination.

Our initial reception at Mrs Hamad's house, undamaged by the 2oz bomb, was friendly. A man who refused to reveal his name said the small explosion did not make much noise "but neighbours thought they heard something and called the police". But Mrs Hamad interrupted him to say: "We have orders not to say anything." We asked who had given the orders. "You don't even have the right to ask that," she said, as she made a grab for the nearest notebook.

In Israel the Shin Bet security agency could barely contain its delight. It badly needed a success to divert people's minds from its failure to protect Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated on 4 November. The Israeli papers ran a quote from Leah Rabin saying she wished her husband was alive to learn that Yahya Ayyash had been killed. But the jubilation may be short- lived. Hamas, the Islamic militant organisation to which Ayyash belonged, probably cannot afford to respond passively to the death of its best known hero.

Earlier, at the Martyrs' Cemetery a few miles from Beit Lahiya, the 100,000 men who tramped through the mud behind a truck carrying Ayyash's coffin appeared to leave no doubt. "We want buses, we want cars," they chanted, referring to suicide bomb attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad against Israeli buses and other vehicles. Another slogan was: "Prepare your coffin Peres: the ghost of Ayyash will haunt you."

This should not be taken too literally. Hamas suspended its suicide bombing campaign in midsummer because of its growing unpopularity. It had led to repeated border closures, preventing tens of thousands of Palestinians from working in Israel. It was also seen by Palestinians as delaying agreement on the Israeli withdrawal from six West Bank towns and the implementation of the second stage of the Oslo agreement.

Dr Mahmoud Zahar, the senior Hamas leader in Gaza, told the Independent at the end of the Ayyash funeral: "Now people will understand why we retaliate. The Israelis will not stop [killing Palestinians in Gaza] unless it costs them a high price." He said he had no direct knowledge of the plans of the military wing of Hamas: "But our people in the military field will answer - I don't know when or how."

Dr Zahar was careful not to repeat claims made by Hamas immediately after the death of Ayyash, accusing the Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, of collaborating with those who killed him. On the contrary, the Hamas leader said that Mr Arafat had just paid him a condolence call, and Ghazi Jabali, the police chief in Gaza city, had joined the funeral march.

Mr Arafat called the killing a violation of the peace. "We have made the peace of the brave. We are committed to it," he said. "We ask the other side not to violate this peace, to enter Palestinian territory in Gaza and kill and assassinate the struggler, the martyr, Yahya Ayyash."

Hamas could bide its time until after the Palestinian elections on 20 January. The ability of the Shin Bet to find and kill Ayyash will make the militants worry about how far they have been penetrated by Israeli agents.

Dr Zahar said: "We will ask the Palestine Authority for weapons to defend ourselves." But Hamas has always contrasted its own success in retaliating against Israel with the failure of the PLO to do so. The death of Ayyash may produce more rather than fewer bombs.