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Hamas threatens new attacks in rally that draws tens of thousands


KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Hamas marked the 15th anniversary of its founding Friday with threats to keep attacking Israel, delivered at a rally led by dozens of armed men and would-be suicide bombers in white robes.

Gathered at a stadium, at least 30,000 supporters chanted ``God is great'' to cheer Hamas founder, Ahmed Nimer Hamdan, who said fighters of the Islamic militant group ``will not lay down their weapons and will not stop firing their bullets until the end of this battle.''

Elsewhere in the town of Khan Younis, Palestinians buried five laborers killed by Israeli tank fire. The five, all relatives, had tried to sneak into Israel to find work, and were killed near Gaza's security fence. Soldiers suspected the laborers were militants but found no weapons on the bodies.

In the West Bank town of Hebron, Israeli troops bulldozed three Palestinian homes after a sniper killed two Israeli soldiers, including the first woman slain in combat in the past two years of fighting.

Also Friday, an Israeli official said it was unlikely Israeli troops would pull out of Bethlehem before Christmas, as requested by Pope John Paul II in a meeting Thursday with Israel's president in Rome. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said Israel was inclined to bar Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from Christmas observances in Bethlehem for a second straight year.

At the Hamas rally, marching music played as 60 members of the group's military wing walked onto a stage. Several were armed with assault rifles, hand grenades, mortar launchers and anti-tank rockets. They were followed by 15 men in white robes, symbolizing the death shrouds of suicide bombers.

Hamas has held talks with Arafat's Fatah movement on halting attacks in Israel, so far without result. Arafat aides say the Islamic militants have signaled willingness to observe a truce in exchange for greater political representation.

A Palestinian splinter group, the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, claimed responsibility for Thursday's attack on soldiers in Hebron.

The soldiers were ambushed along Worshippers Way, a path connecting the large Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba with a fortress-like shrine in Hebron believed to be built above the biblical Abraham's burial cave, holy to Jews and Muslims. Last month, gunmen killed 12 soldiers and guards in the same area.

Cpl. Keren Yakobi, 19, died instantly as the gunman fired at the army post at the bottom of a hill around 8 p.m. Thursday. Her bloodied body lay on the floor of an army ambulance. Medics pumped the chest of the other soldier, Maor Kalfon, 19, but he died on the way to a Jerusalem hospital.

The military said Yakobi was the first female soldier killed in battle since women were reincorporated into combat units five years ago. Other women doing military service have been killed in suicide bombings in Israel.

Inside the house where the gunman was, bullet casings littered the floor and windowsill of an upstairs room. A small square, big enough for the muzzle of a rifle, was cut from the window screen.

The military said it was unclear if the sniper acted alone or with other shooters. The shots came quick, and soldiers failed to find suspects. Just before dawn Friday, Israeli troops bulldozed the house and apparently vacant homes on either side.

About 450 Jewish settlers live in Hebron, a town of 130,000 Palestinians. Israeli troops patrol downtown to protect settlers who live in heavily fortified enclaves. In the past 26 months, tens of thousands of Palestinians living nearby have been placed under round-the-clock curfews.

The slain Gaza laborers, ages 21 to 35, had been unable to feed their families and had been desperate for work, relatives said.

Wafa Astal, 27, with four small children, said she had urged her husband Ahmed _ one of those killed _ not to risk sneaking into Israel. She said she assured him they would get by, somehow. ``He told me, `God willing, he (God) will save my life. If not, I have nothing to lose,''' Astal said.

In Gaza's Bureij refugee camp, meanwhile, two Palestinians were seriously wounded Friday in an explosion in a shack. It was not clear what caused the blast, but witnesses said the two might have been handling explosives.

In the West Bank, a suspected Islamic militant was killed Friday near Bethlehem when he tried to escape arrest, the army said. Israeli troops have reoccupied most West Bank towns, including Bethlehem, to keep suspected militants out of Israel.

In his meeting with the pope, Israeli President Moshe Katsav said troops could withdraw from Bethlehem before Christmas if there were no warnings about terror attacks. But the government official said Friday terror warnings have increased. He said Israel would ease curfews and try to allow access to Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, but would have to remain in charge of security.

``The last thing we want is a suicide attack on Christmas Eve,'' the official said.

The official also said Israel was inclined to ban Arafat from observances, as it did last year.

Arafat, a Muslim, had attended Bethlehem celebrations starting in 1995, when Israeli troops withdrew from the town under interim peace accords. Since last December, Israel has confined Arafat to his West Bank headquarters in the town of Ramallah.
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