GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- As many as 18 Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel were fatally shot Friday, according to local news agencies and two witnesses, the largest number of such executions reported since the onset of this summer’s battle between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip.
The victims were not identified but were reported to have been previously arrested or convicted of collaboration, a crime punishable by death under Palestinian law. Gaza’s Interior Ministry, which handles judicial and security matters, declined to address the reported executions.
But a statement signed by the so-called resistance was published on many Palestinian websites - including some affiliated with Hamas, the Islamist movement that dominates Gaza - saying 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 that “the judiciary procedures and measures were completed against the accused.”
Journalists, human-rights workers and a witness said that either nine or 11 people, including two women, were killed Friday in a public park and 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, their 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 their cellphones.
“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.'?”
The executions took place after Israeli airstrikes before dawn Thursday that killed three top commanders of Hamas’ armed wing, and the attempted assassination Tuesday night of its chief, Mohammed Deif, whose fate remains unknown.
The suspected informants who were executed Friday, and three others that Palestinian news agencies reported suffered the same fate Thursday, had apparently been detained for some time. But Israel’s attacks on the Hamas leaders, based on intelligence about their locations, most likely led the militants to want to send a harsh public message to potential informants, experts said.
“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.”
Shaqqura said the center was investigating reports that five other collaborators were killed more than two weeks ago, and added that its director, Raji Sourani, had written urgent letters to Palestinian leaders Friday “demanding that they immediately and decisively intervene to stop such extrajudicial executions.”
“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. “More than any other time, it’s a challenge for us.”
Similar public executions were carried out 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 Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 were also 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 public lynching of suspected spies to enforce loyalty. But rights groups that document such cases said the number had been radically reduced from the period between 1987 and 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,” he said in an interview. “Such actions are severe violations of international humanitarian law, and those involved in such actions are personally, criminally liable.”
Fares Akram reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip, and Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem.