Arafat condemns Israel for killing Hamas bomb-maker


THE Palestinian leader, Mr Yasser Arafat, condemned Israel yesterday for Friday's killing of Hamas master bomb-maker, Yihya Ayash. But Israel was too busy celebrating the sophisticated assassination operation to take much notice.

Trying hard to maintain at least a degree of Palestinian unity, with less than two weeks to go before Palestinian elections throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Mr Arafat praised Ayash as "a struggler" and "a martyr" who died for the Palestinian cause. Israel, he said, should not have violated the spirit of the peace process by eliminating Ayash in the Arafat-controlled Gaza Strip.

As so often, Mr Arafat's words reflected the tightrope he is having to walk upon: Ayash, who killed more than 50 Israelis by organising at least half-a-dozen suicide bombings in the past two years, was a bitter enemy of the peace process and of Mr Arafat but the PLO chairman knows his own life would be in even more danger than usual were he to employ anything but the most unequivocal language to condemn the assassination. As the tens of thousands of screaming, shooting Palestinians who attended Ayash's funeral in Gaza on Saturday underlined, "The Engineer" has no shortage of would-be successors.

Israel yesterday instituted an open-ended closure order on the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip, and reinforced police and army patrols, because of the near-certainty that Hamas would try to avenge the killing with an Ayash-style bus bombing or other high- profile attack.

But though braced for the worst, most Israeli leaders and commentators expressed delight that the three-year hunt for Ayash was over.

The 30-year-old, West Bank- born Ayash had been hunted ever-more desperately by the Shin Bet security agency as his campaign of bus bombings, designed to destroy the peace process, continued through 1994 and 1995. Israel blames him for planning all the major bombings that heightened internal Israeli opposition to be self-rule accords with the PLO, and contributed to the climate of division that led ultimately to Yitzhak Rabin's assassination.

Ayash had halted his operations in recent months, aware that Palestinian public opinion would not tolerate bombings that could jeopardise Israel's West bank troop redeployment. He must also have known that the Shin Bet was closing in on him, arresting many of his accomplices. In recent months, he had been hiding out in Gaza, changing address every night, keeping one step ahead of his pursuers.

On Friday he left his latest hideout in the Jebalya refugee camp and travelled to nearby Beit Lahiya, where his friend Osama Hamad had offered him a haven. It seems that Osama's uncle betrayed Ayash to the Israelis, passing on to Ayash a portable phone that had been loaded with a small, high-explosive charge.

Ironically, it was Ayash's father who called him on the mobile phone. As Ayash held the phone to his right ear, the explosives were detonated by an electronic tone.