Thursday, October 10, 2002

20, 000 Palestinians March in Gaza
Twenty-thousand police and militiamen marched in a funeral procession for a police colonel Thursday in the biggest Palestinian display force in years and a clear warning to the slain officer's Hamas killers to end their challenge to Yasser Arafat's government.

The funeral was a show of force by Arafat's police and security after a flare-up of violence that started when members of a Hamas militia kidnapped and killed a senior Palestinian police officer on Monday.

It came at a time when Arafat's power was already greatly eroded by Israeli military incursions into Palestinian areas. Hamas is regarded as the second strongest Palestinian political faction after Arafat's dominant Fatah movement. Hamas leaders distanced themselves from the killing, calling it an individual act of vengeance, but many Fatah activists blame Hamas itself.

A light blue flatbed police truck adorned with three floral wreaths and packed with armed security officers in military-style uniforms led the funeral procession of Col. Rajeh Abu Lehiya, head of Palestinian riot police. Abu Lehiya's coffin, draped with a Palestinian flag, lay on a second police truck.

Thousands of men followed, many of them armed, representing all the secular Palestinian factions and security units, a demonstration that Arafat's backers still have much more firepower than does Hamas.

Among the banners carried by the crowd was one that read: ``All factions have to respect the Palestinian Authority, the only legitimate authority,'' referring to Arafat's government.

The family of Hamas activist Emad Akel has said that he killed Abu Lehia in revenge for his brother's death at the hands of police during a Gaza City demonstration against the U.S. attack on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan last year.

On Monday, Palestinian gunmen disguised as police officers set up a fake roadblock and abducted Abu Lehiya when his car stopped, later killing him with 10 gunshots.

In clashes that followed, police killed two Hamas members while trying to arrest the killers in Gaza City. Two other people died when police fired on a pro-Hamas protest in the Nusseirat refugee camp, where the Akel family lives. It was the bloodiest flare-up between the two rival forces in years.

Hamas does not accept the concept of a Jewish state in the Middle East and opposes Arafat's attempts to make peace with Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Arab section of Jerusalem.

Hamas has rejected Arafat's repeated calls to stop attacks, including suicide bombings, against Israeli civilians. However, Arafat, fearing a civil war, has never sent his forces to crush Hamas. Israel charges that he is not doing enough to rein in the militants.