GAZA CITY, July 5: Tens of thousands of Palestinians marched here on Friday at the funeral for the local chief of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed offshoot of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, who was killed in a car blast blamed on Israel.

In one of the largest funerals since the Palestinian uprising began 21 months ago, about 30,000 people carried the coffins of Brigades chief Jihad Al-Omarayn, a colonel in the Palestinian security forces, and Wael Al-Nimra, his nephew and bodyguard, who were killed in Thursday’s explosion.

The mourners, around 50 of them Fatah men wearing masks, vowed to take revenge against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who they said was behind the explosion that ripped apart their car as they drove through a Gaza City residential neighbourhood.

The 200 armed men in the procession unleashed a hail of gunfire into the air.

The Brigades “will avenge the blood of the martyr, the leader of the Brigades in Gaza ... and his nephew’s”, whom Israel “assassinated”, said a statement distributed by the armed group at the funeral.

A Fatah official said earlier the deaths were “an assassination plotted by Israel”.

An eyewitness described it as a very strong explosion, saying the car was swallowed by flames.

The blast ripped off the head, arms and legs of one of the victims, the witness said. It appeared to have been detonated on the passenger’s side of the car, he added.

Since the intifada erupted in Sept 2000, Israel has carried out at least 60 targeted killings of Palestinian fighters, whether by helicopter attacks, bombings or shootings.

The Brigades, created during the intifada, have orchestrated wave after wave of deadly suicide bombings and shooting sprees inside Israel and the occupied territories.

Israel has accused Arafat of directly funding the group’s attacks.

20 ARRESTED: The Israeli army arrested more than 20 Palestinians during operations in the West Bank on Thursday night, Israeli military sources and Palestinian witnesses said on Friday.

The Israeli sources said 17 Palestinians were arrested, including five in Al-Shiyuh, near the southern town of Al Khalil, five in Nablus, three around Bethlehem, three others in Jericho and one near Tulkarem.

Another four Palestinians were arrested in Daharyeh, also near Al Khalil, Palestinian witnesses said.

MOROCCAN JOUNALISTS HELD: The International Federation of Journalists denounced the detention of two Moroccan reporters by Israeli forces in the West Bank on Thursday.

The journalists, identified as Anas ben Salah and Hassan Boucheni of Morocco’s state television, were held for six hours before being released without an explanation, the Brussels-based federation said. They were detained after interviewing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah.—AFP\Reuters