One day after an intelligence coup enabled Israel to kill three top commanders of Hamas’ armed wing, as many as 18 Palestinians suspected of collaboration with Israel were fatally shot in public Friday, in what was seen as a warning to the people of the Gaza Strip.
In Israel, a 4-year-old boy was killed by a mortar shell on a kibbutz just outside Gaza on Friday during the third consecutive day of steady barrages fired by Palestinian militants, according to an Israeli police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld. The boy was the first child and the fourth civilian on the Israeli side to be killed in the conflict, which also has left 64 Israeli soldiers dead as well as about 2,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, including more than 460 children.
“Hamas will pay a dear price for this severe terror attack,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said in a statement offering condolences to the boy’s family. He said Israeli forces would “intensify their activity against Hamas and the terror organizations in Gaza” until the operation’s objective - to restore quiet - had been met.
The Palestinians killed Friday were not identified, but were reported to have been arrested or convicted of collaboration, a crime punishable by death under Palestinian law, before this summer’s bloody battles between Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamist movement that dominates Gaza. Gaza’s Interior Ministry, which handles judicial and security matters, declined to address the reported executions. But a statement published on many Palestinian websites - including some affiliated with Hamas - said a “revolutionary court” had been formed “in agreement with the war’s circumstances.”
Al Majd, a website run by the Internal Security Service of the Hamas government that ran Gaza until June, quoted an unidentified official as saying, “The judiciary procedures and measures were completed against the accused,” and future collaborators would be dealt with in the field, not in courthouses, to create deterrence.
The executions, by masked gunmen, were the most public and numerous since the 47-day-old conflict began. They echoed executions Hamas had carried out during two previous Israeli military operations in Gaza. Palestinian news agencies had reported Thursday that three other suspected collaborators were killed.
The timing of the public executions - after Thursday’s airstrike by Israel that killed the three leaders of Hamas’ armed wing, and after Tuesday night’s attempted assassination of its boss, Mohammed Deif, whose fate remains unknown - suggested that Hamas wanted to send a harsh public message against informing on the locations of militants.
“I think this has provoked, and let’s say triggered, this process,” said Hamdi Shaqqura, deputy director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, a Gaza group that has long tracked and condemned such extrajudicial killings. “If you speak to any regular citizen in Gaza, nobody is looking with mercy on these people. Why? Because people are being bombarded. A lot of the blame for bombardment of specific places is being put on collaborators.”
The executions came during renewed violence after Tuesday’s collapse of cease-fire talks in Cairo that had halted hostilities for nine days. A steady stream of 75 rockets from Gaza soared into Israel on Friday, with sirens sounding as far north as Tel Aviv and several suburbs, Ramat Gan, Bat Yam, Bnei Brak and Holon. Two men and a woman were wounded by shrapnel when one rocket exploded at a synagogue in the southern city of Ashdod, and another Israeli was hurt by a mortar barrage in Beersheva.
Israeli airstrikes on Gaza were far more limited than in previous days, though Palestinian officials reported two men killed in the Nusseirat refugee camp on Friday morning.
Journalists, human rights workers and a witness said that either nine or 11 people, including two women, were killed Friday morning in a public park and at a bus stop near Al Azhar University in Gaza City, not far from the central prison where they were believed to have been held. Seven others, hands tied behind their backs, were killed outside Al Omri mosque downtown after noon prayer, another witness said, leaving bloodstains on the ground that bystanders photographed with mobile phones.
“The spies had their heads covered and were sitting by the wall outside the mosque,” said the witness at the mosque, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “There were about 20 masked gunmen in the area. One of them said loudly that the death sentence is going to be carried out against seven collaborators.”
“They did not mention their names,” he added. “They shot them after that and then the militants left. People were shouting, ‘God is great.’?”
Shaqqura of the human rights center said his group was investigating reports that five other suspected collaborators were killed more than two weeks ago. Its director, Raji Sourani, wrote urgent letters to Palestinian leaders Friday “demanding that they immediately and decisively intervene to stop such extrajudicial executions,” according to a news release.
“In the middle of this onslaught on Gaza, we are in need to respect the rule of law and to respect human rights,” Shaqqura said in an interview. “More than any other time, it’s a challenge for us.”
During Israel’s last Gaza offensive, in 2012, masked gunmen shot a handcuffed man identified as Ashraf Ouaida and left his bloodied body beneath a billboard, placing a poster around his neck that accused him of helping Israel kill 15 Palestinian leaders. A few days later, six more suspected collaborators were killed vigilante-style, and the body of one was dragged through a Gaza City neighborhood by motorcycle.
At least a dozen collaborators who escaped from Hamas jails during Israel’s invasion of 2008-09 were summarily executed in the street.
Collaboration has been considered a heinous crime in Palestinian society since before Israel became a state. During its seven-year rule of Gaza, Hamas used vigorous prosecution and the occasional lynchings of suspected spies to enforce loyalty. But rights groups that document such cases said the number had been radically reduced from the period from 1987 to 1994, when an estimated 1,000 people were executed as collaborators.
Hagai el-Ad, director of the Israeli human rights group B’tselem, declined to speculate about why Hamas might have chosen Friday to kill the collaborators.
“This is something that cannot be justified, full stop,”
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