GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Thousands of Palestinians joined a mass funeral on Thursday for a Hamas scientist who was gunned down in Malaysia last week, as Hamas’ leader accused Israel of killing him and vowed revenge.
Fadi al-Batsh was laid to rest shortly after his body was returned to Gaza through the Egyptian border.
Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh led the funeral prayers at a mosque in Jabaliya, the town in northern Gaza where al-Batsh grew up.
“The hand that assassinated the scientist will be severed,” he said, as the crowd responded with chants of “God is great.”
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Al-Batsh’s body was brought to Gaza after crossing the Egyptian border earlier on Thursday, after Malaysia and Egypt arranged the return.
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman had urged Egypt to reject the request to help repatriate the body and put pressure on Hamas to return two captive Israeli civilians and the remains of two Israeli soldiers the militant group is believed to be holding.
Haniyeh thanked Malaysia and Egypt for allowing al-Batsh’s repatriation “against the will of” Lieberman.
Al-Batsh, an electrical engineering lecturer in Malaysia, was killed last week by two assailants on a motorcycle as he was walking to a mosque in Kuala Lumpur.
Hamas identified him as a commander in its military wing and quickly accused Israel’s Mossad spy agency of being behind the hit. Israeli media reported that al-Batsh was a key player in a military drone program being developed by Hamas.
Israel has a long history of assassinating wanted militants, though it rarely acknowledges responsibility. But in a published interview on Thursday, Lieberman said Israel did not do it.
“We did not assassinate him,” Lieberman told the Arabic news site Elaph. “Ask James Bond,” he added. “Maybe James Bond killed him like in the movies.”
Family members, Hamas leaders and other Palestinian dignitaries greeted the body, wrapped in a Palestinian flag, as it arrived at the Rafah border terminal.
“You are returning back to us … paving the way for our return to Palestine,” said Khalil al-Hayya, a top Hamas leader, at a small ceremony.
“To the occupation, we say the debt to us has become heavy,” he said. “The day of punishment is coming.”
Israel and Hamas, a militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction, are bitter enemies that have fought three wars since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007.
Tensions have heightened recently as Hamas has organized mass protests along the Israeli border.
Earlier on Thursday in Gaza, hundreds of Palestinians took part in the funeral of a Gaza journalist who died after being shot by Israeli troops while covering a protest on April 13.
Ahmed Abu Hussein, 24, died from his wounds on Wednesday at an Israeli hospital, where he had been transferred.
Amateur video taken at the time shows him wearing a blue vest and helmet with the word “TV” on it. He appeared to be standing far from the Israeli border in a group of bystanders when he was shot.
In a statement Thursday, the Israeli military said “the circumstances regarding the injury of Ahmed Abu Hussein will be examined.”
During the weekly demonstrations so far, 35 protesters, including two journalists, have been killed by Israeli live fire.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said 21 of those wounded by Israeli fire in the protests have since had to undergo amputations due to their wounds. It said 17 lost legs and four lost fingers or parts of their upper limbs.
Rights groups, the United Nations and the European Union have all criticized Israel’s use of live fire against unarmed protesters.
Israel says it is defending its border and accuses Hamas of using the demonstrations as cover to plan and carry out attacks.