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What it was like at the burial of senior Hamas official and fighters in Beirut

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Beirut, thousands of mourners turned out for the burial of a senior Hamas official and two Hamas fighters today. They were assassinated in what Lebanon and Hamas say was an Israeli drone strike in Lebanon earlier this week. NPR's Jane Arraf was at the funeral and reports that most of the mourners insisted it was a celebration - one that would help liberate their homeland.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in non-English language).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: The chants are in honor of the Hamas fighters, but the procession includes Palestinian factions from across the spectrum. They've come to pay tribute to Saleh al-Arouri, one of the founders of the Hamas military wing, and to two other Hamas fighters among the seven people killed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in non-English language).

ARRAF: In a sea of Hamas flags, while a speaker calls for the destruction of Tel Aviv, Hassan Mahmoud waves the flag of another major group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

HASSAN MAHMOUD: (Through interpreter) The loss of al-Arouri is a loss for all the factions, not just Hamas, in the end. We all hope to be like him.

ARRAF: Lebanon blames the attack on an office building in a suburb of the capital on Israel. Israel has not claimed responsibility. Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Lebanese militia, which is the biggest armed force here, has vowed retaliation. But with fears the war in Gaza could widen to engulf Lebanon, the group hasn't said how it plans to retaliate. On this afternoon, under drizzle and gray skies, celebratory gunfire punctuates the chants.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

ARRAF: The minds of the mourners are on paradise, where they believe the dead men are now, and on Palestine, their parents' and grandparents' homeland lost 76 years ago - a homeland they believe will be reclaimed.

Just inside the gates of the Palestinian cemetery, the pallbearers are staggering under the weight of one of the coffins. They carried it here for more than 40 minutes from the mosque, along with what's left of the bodies of two other Hamas commanders. This is a eulogy right now. But before this, there were celebrations - celebratory gunfire in the air, women throwing rice as they would at a wedding - 'cause the people who have come here believe that this is an occasion to celebrate. And they're convinced that these deaths, ones that they know are still to come, will help them regain their homeland.

The bodies are taken out of the coffins to be buried in white shrouds.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVEL DIGGING)

ARRAF: Gravediggers shovel in dirt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVEL DIGGING)

ARRAF: Off to the side, a man peels a photocopied photo of one of the men, Mohammad al-Reyyes, from a discarded casket. He holds it tenderly. He turns out to be Reyyes' brother, Izzat. In the U.S. and some European countries, Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization. Here and in other Arab countries, its members are often friends and family.

IZZAT REYYES: (Non-English language spoken).

AHMED: (Non-English language spoken).

REYYES: (Non-English language spoken).

AHMED: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: Izzat Reyyes and another brother, Ahmed, say they're happy that their younger brother, a Hamas fighter killed at 34, became a martyr. Izzat says they don't want Lebanon to be engulfed in war. He says there's only one thing they want from the Lebanese government - to let them go and fight.

REYYES: (Through interpreter) What we wish for is that they would open the borders for us and let us enter Palestine.

ARRAF: Either paradise or Palestine - for most at this funeral, those are the only options worth choosing.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.