THOUSANDS of angry mourners marched through Gaza yesterday to bury the son of the Strip's most senior Hamas leader, killed alongside 18 other Palestinians in an Israeli incursion on the single worst day of fighting in the territory since 2006.
It was a devastating personal blow for Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas strongman and founder who masterminded the Islamic movement's takeover of Gaza last year.
Hamas sources said that his son, Hussam Zahar, 24, was killed after an Israeli missile struck his car. Hussam Zahar served as an armed bodyguard for his father, but the Israeli army said he was not deliberately targeted and that it learned only afterwards of his death.
Zahar's eldest son, Khaled, was killed in a botched assassination attempt five years ago when Israeli jets bombed the family residence.
At the morgue at Shifa hospital in Gaza City, Zahar held his lifeless son's bloodied head in his hands and closed his eyes, then kissed him three times on the forehead and recited verses from the Koran.
Zahar was accompanied by his brother Yousef Zafar – a police commander – and his sole remaining son, Mohammed.
Hamas, he vowed, will respond to Tuesday's raid "in the appropriate way – we will defend ourselves by all means".
Hamas immediately stepped up its involvement in the daily barrage of rocket and mortar fire on southern Israel. While allowing other militant factions to attack southern Israeli communities with impunity, the Islamic militant group has not taken the lead in the assaults in recent months.
As fighting raged in Gaza, a Hamas sniper shot and killed an Ecuadorian volunteer working in the potato fields of an Israeli border farm.
Major Avital Leibovitz, an Israeli army spokeswoman, described the incursion as a "routine operation" to thwart cross-border rocket fire and infiltration attempts. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said that five civilians were among the dead and accused the army of using "excessive lethal force without regard for the lives of Palestinian civilians in the affected areas".
In Gaza City, more than 20,000 mourners crowded a mosque to pray for the dead.
Speaking of the Israeli incursions, Salah Bardawil, a Hamas MP, said: "We link this to Bush's visit," referring to last week's attempt by the US president to push forward negotiations between Israel and the moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank.
"Bush gave the green light to the Israelis not only for this incursion but also to inflict losses and carry out bloodletting against the Palestinian people and the resistance."
FURY OF HAMAS MASTERMIND
MAHMOUD Zahar, a physician trained in Egypt, masterminded Hamas's armed takeover of Gaza from president Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement in June, and previously served as foreign minister in the government Hamas formed after it won parliamentary elections in 2006.
Mr Zahar has described the creation of "Hamastan" as a goal of Hamas.
He is known to agree with the hardest of Hamas hardliners, who refuse to accept the existence of Israel. On 14 June, 2006, Palestinian officials reported that Mr Zahar – who was then serving as foreign minister – brought 12 suitcases stuffed with $26.7 million in cash into Gaza through its border with Egypt.
Mr Zahar yesterday accused the moderate Mr Abbas of complicity in his son's death for negotiating with Israel.
"This is the hope of Abu Mazen and his colleagues, the collaborators with Israel and the spies of America," Mr Zahar said, using Mr Abbas's nickname.