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Half an hour after mother-of-two Reem Riashi - the first female suicide to come from Hamas, the seventh female suicide bomber of the current intifada, and the first female suicide bomber to come from Gaza - carried out the attack at the Erez crossing, Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin told reporters that "jihad [holy war] is an imperative for Muslim men and women."

Yassin has come a long way since January 2002, after Wafa Idris, Fatah's first female suicide bomber blew up in downtown Jerusalem. Back then, he categorically renounced the use of women as suicide bombers or assailants.

In March 2002, when another female bomber from Fatah carried out an attack in a Jerusalem supermarket, Yassin said that Hamas was far from enthusiastic about the inclusion of women in warfare, for reasons of modesty. Unlike other organizations, Hamas has refrained throughout the intifada from using women in front-line roles, but has not hesitated to use them as conduits for money, suicide bombers and ammunition.

Yassin's comments yesterday are part of an extensive Hamas campaign to launch its line of female suicide bombers. Yesterday's bombing comes after a four-month hiatus, during which Hamas has not carried out any suicide attacks.

`Her soul will reach paradise'

While Yassin pointed out that it was Hamas' armed wing that decided where and when attacks would take place, his comments included quotes from a videotape that Riashi recorded before carrying out the attack, about how she hoped her "organs would be scattered in the air and her soul would reach paradise."

Shortly after yesterday's bombing, the military wings of Hamas and Fatah issued a joint statement, claming responsibility for the attack. The Fatah group involved - the Jihad Amarin cell, named after a militant killed by the Israel Defense Forces in the early days of the Intifada - is one of the most fundamentalist groups operating in the Gaza Strip, and is considered ideologically close to Islamic Jihad. According to the statement, the attack was revenge for "the army of occupation's crimes in Nablus, Jenin and Rafah."

Yassin said, "The fact that a woman took part for the first time in a Hamas operation marks a significant evolution for the Iz a Din al-Kassam brigades. The male fighters face many obstacles on their way to operations, and this is a new development in our fight against the enemy. The holy war is an imperative for all Muslim men and women; and this operation proves that the armed resistance will continue until the enemy is driven from our land. This is revenge for all the fatalities sustained by the armed resistance."

The videotape of the bomber shows Riashi saying she "hoped in the past to carry out a suicide bombing inside Israel, but I am pleased to accept the mission handed to me."

Despite the claim that the bombing was a joint operation, the tape was recorded and published by Hamas, and only Hamas flags can are hanging from the wall in the background.

Riashi's family left its home in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City yesterday afternoon, fearing that it would be bombed or demolished. In a nearby street, Hamas erected a mourners' tent.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia declined to condemn the attack, saying that continued Israeli attacks and restrictions on the Palestinians were leading "to more escalation on both sides."