Mourners vent rage during funeral rites for Hamas militant Tens of thousands vow vengeance for bomber

GAZA — GAZA -- Tens of thousands of Palestinians chanted vows of vengeance yesterday at the funeral of Yahya Ayyash, the organizer of bomb attacks inside Israel who was killed Friday by a booby-trapped cellular phone.

Residents described the funeral as one of the largest ever held in the Gaza Strip, and it shifted attention among Palestinians, at least for the moment, from the campaign for the Jan. 20 elections to the question of what Hamas, the main Islamic opposition movement, would do next.


It is widely believed that Mr. Ayyash's death was the work of Israeli secret agents.

Hamas officials said Mr. Ayyash was given the booby-trapped mobile phone three days ago by a prominent Gaza entrepreneur, who has since vanished.


According to Israeli officials, the 30-year-old Mr. Ayyash, known as the Engineer, was a Hamas militant who masterminded the campaign of suicide bombings and other terror attacks inside Israel that killed at least 60 people over the past three years.

To the Palestinians who packed the cavernous Palestine Mosque and the muddy square outside, he was a "martyr" and a hero whose death demanded vengeance.

Long before Mr. Ayyash's coffin was carried in, a succession of Hamas leaders pumped up passions with fiery slogans and chants.

"The Engineer did not die -- he left behind him a newborn as if he wants to tell us that the struggle has begun anew," shouted one speaker, referring to the son born to Mr. Ayyash and his wife two days ago.

The arrival of the coffin threw the crowd into a frenzy, and men with bullhorns inside the mosque pleaded with the mourners to cease their efforts to touch it. When Mr. Ayyash's father arrived, he was borne into the mosque on the shoulders of mourners.

After a brief funeral service, the coffin was placed on a flatbed truck and driven slowly to a cemetery at the edge of Gaza City, followed by tens of thousands. There the fiery speeches continued in the same vein until Mr. Ayyash was laid in the ground.

A speaker for Hamas, Mahmoud Zakhar, demanded that Yasser Arafat, the head of the Palestinian Authority, return confiscated weapons to the Islamic militants.

A leader of the smaller Islamic Holy War, Sheik Nafez Azzam, declared, "There is blood in our mouths which we want to spit in the face of this unjust world."


Mr. Zakhar said that the killing ends a moratorium on armed attacks against Israel and urged Mr. Arafat to return weapons that had been confiscated from its armed wing.

"Even as we have given some a chance to try another approach, the march of half a million people today asserts that jihad is the only option," Mr. Zakhar said.

There was no new Israeli comment on the assassination through the Sabbath, but the presumption remained that the killing was the work of the Israeli secret services. Mr. Ayyash was the target of an intensive hunt by the Israelis for three years, and when his death was first reported Friday, Israeli officials made no secret of their satisfaction.

Coming 15 days before the first election for a Palestinian legislature, the bold hit created a potentially serious problem for Mr. Arafat by raising the profile of the Hamas opposition and the expectation of retaliation.

Though Hamas has refused Mr. Arafat's entreaties to compete in the election, the expatriate leaders of the movement agreed not to call for a boycott of the vote and not to stage any terror attacks during the campaign.

both Mr. Arafat and local Hamas leaders seemed intent on keeping the truce intact. But many Palestinians and Israelis feared that Hamas would feel bound to retaliate quickly and that a revived cycle of violence would disrupt the voting.


"This is going to harm the credibility of the elections as a whole, which are already shaky," said Fateh Azzam, the former director of the human rights organization Al Haq.