NABLUS, West Bank (AP) _ Out on a furlough from a Palestinian prison, Ibrahim Bani Odeh borrowed a cousin’s car to take his five young children on an outing. The Islamic militant bombmaker was on the road for less than 10 minutes when the car exploded, killing him instantly.
Palestinian police investigators have blamed Israeli agents for Thursday’s mysterious death, saying they planted a bomb in the car’s headrest with the help of a collaborator _ the cousin, Alam Bani Odeh, 25, now believed to be a fugitive.
Some Israeli officials have denied involvement and others have refused comment, but Palestinians remained skeptical, noting that earlier this week Israeli issued a new warning that it would hunt down those who attack its citizens.
And even if it turns out that Bani Odeh, 35, was killed in a ``work accident,″ as some Israelis speculated, it will make little difference to Hamas, the militant group he had served.
Hamas is set on revenge.
``Our response will be more car bombs and they (the Israelis) will pay a high price,″ said the Hamas leader in Nablus, Sheik Hamed Bitawi, addressing more than 5,000 people in Bani Odeh’s funeral procession Friday.
On Wednesday, a car bomb in Israel killed two people and wounded more than 60, though there were rival, unconfirmed claims of responsibility, including by Hamas.
``The only language the occupation understands is that of bullets,″ Bitawi said, before repeatedly firing a pistol into the air, to the raucous cheers of the crowd.
Hamas has shown in the past that its threats must be taken seriously.
In 1996, its chief bombmaker, Yehiyeh Ayyash, also known as ``The Engineer,″ was killed when a booby-trapped mobile phone blew up in his hand. Hamas responded with four deadly suicide bombings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that killed dozens of Israelis and brought down moderate Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
Israel never acknowledged that it assassinated Ayyash, but has a long tradition of tracking down those who attack Israelis.
Earlier this month, Israeli helicopters fired rockets at Hussein Abayat, a regional Palestinian militia commander, as he was driving a pickup truck in the West Bank town of Beit Sahour. Abayat was killed on the spot.
The deaths of Abayat and Bani Odeh have sent many armed militants into hiding. In the West Bank town of Nablus, where Bani Odeh lived, masked gunmen used to take a lead in funeral processions in recent weeks, riding in the front trucks and firing into the air. At Bani Odeh’s funeral, no gunmen were to be seen.
Bani Odeh, whose family comes from the West Bank village of Tamoun near Nablus, was born in exile in Kuwait, and spent the first 18 years of his life there, before moving to Jordan where he joined the army.
In Jordan, Bani Odeh was recruited by Hamas, a group dedicated to establishing an Islamic state in Israel’s place. A decade ago, Bani Odeh married a cousin, Roqaya. The couple have five children _ two boys and three girls.
After Palestinians won control of West Bank towns in 1995, Bani Odeh, by now a leading figure in Hamas’ military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, was sent to Nablus to establish underground cells and direct chemical labs, said a Hamas activist who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Two years ago, Bani Odeh was arrested by the Palestinian Authority. Interrogators tortured and beat him for several weeks, hanging him from his arms for long periods, to extract information about Hamas plots, his friends said.
After his interrogation in the West Bank town of Jericho, Bani Odeh was sent to Jneid Prison in Nablus, where he lived in relative comfort with dozens of other Hamas prisoners, who were allowed to socialize and move from cell to cell.
``He was known as the bombmaker,″ said the Hamas activist, who also served time at Jneid Prison. ``He had no friends, he never used to talk to anybody. Whenever he was free, he would spend his time with his children.″
Bani Odeh was let out of prison on Tuesday evening, and was due to report back Friday afternoon _ a typical furlough during his two years in custody.
As in the past, his cousin Alam provided the transportation for Bani Odeh’s time outside the prison, Hamas activists said.
On Thursday morning, Bani Odeh picked up Alam’s car at a garage in eastern Nablus, so he could take his children out for a drive.
Bani Odeh was on the road for less than 10 minutes when the explosion went off, blowing off the roof and turning the car into a scorched pile of metal.
The governor of Nablus, Mahmoud Aloul, accused Israel of killing Bani Odeh. Suspicion quickly fell on Alam, though four of Bani Odeh’s brothers and another relative were also picked up for questioning.
Palestinian police set up roadblocks around Tamoun, Alam’s home village, but said he had already slipped away.