20,000 march in slain officer's funeral in show of force

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- 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.

In violence Thursday, two Palestinian youths died in Gaza clashes and an Israeli woman and Palestinian attacker were killed in a Tel Aviv suicide bombing.

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 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.

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.

The family of Hamas activist Emad Akel has said that he killed Abu Lehiya 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.

Fake roadblock

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.

Deny involvement

Hamas leaders insisted the group was not directly involved. "The colonel's killing is a revenge killing, and Hamas has nothing to do with this," said Hamas official Ismail Abu Shanab. He said there were efforts to mediate a settlement between Hamas and Arafat's forces.

In Tel Aviv, meanwhile, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at a bus stop, also killing a 71-year-old Israeli woman. The bomber tried to board a bus but fell to the ground. The bus driver and a doctor pinned him down until bystanders ran away and then fled themselves. Then the bomber ran toward a group of people and set off his explosives. Among those present were soldiers, but most were unarmed, witnesses said.

The bomber was Rafik Hamad, 30, a Hamas member and father of four from the West Bank town of Qalqiliya, a relative said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility from the group.

In the Gaza Strip, two Palestinian teenagers were killed after a night-long clash between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers near Rafah on the border with Egypt.