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Hamas takes hard line against suspected spies in Gaza

The militant group has been accused of carrying out arbitrary detentions and torture, and using the pretext of collaboration to remove rivals.

GAZA CITY // The campaign in the Gaza Strip to purge Israel's alleged snitches and spies officially began with two blindfolded men and a firing squad. 

Hamas used their execution in April to announce a stark choice for those Gazans carrying out espionage for Israel: turn yourselves in during the next two months and attend a rehabilitation programme or face arrest and a possible death sentence handed down in a military court.

Using information obtained from Gazans who surrendered, Hamas is rooting out suspected collaborators with the help of a mysterious committee, whose members and activities have not been revealed. The Islamist movement that has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007 has spoken publicly of the courses it sponsors at schools on how to detect Israeli surveillance devices, but it has made few other details on its counter-espionage measures available.

It says outsiders cannot be allowed to observe the amnesty and re-education programmes because the identity of their participants would be compromised. As a result, speculation about witch-hunts and disappearances has raged throughout this already claustrophobic Palestinian enclave, which for years has been placed under a stifling Israeli blockade. 

"There's an element of fear here now," said Hamdi Shaqqura, an official at the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.

Rights observers say it is difficult to know if the amnesty and rehabilitation programmes violate international humanitarian law, since it is unclear whether the participants are being detained against their will. They say there is reason for concern, however. The Hamas-run military courts that hand down death sentences for collaborators, for instance, are widely accused of denying defendants access to legal representation. 

And although local law permits capital punishment for those convicted of collaborating with Israel, April's executions were technically illegal. Under Palestinian law, death sentences must be ratified by the president of the Palestinian Authority, but that authority is not recognised by Hamas.

"We are not sure about anything right now," Mr Shaqqura said. "This is of great concern, and the lack of information leaves it to the public's imagination to interpret what's happening to them." 

At least one of Gaza's jails has filled in the past two months with what an official there described as an unusually large number of accused and convicted collaborators. One man at a jail in downtown Gaza City dangled scarred feet in front of this reporter, the result, he said, of Hamas men who used pliers to yank out his toenails.

"They tortured me into confessing," said the man, a father of six, who is accused of meeting Israeli intelligence officers in Egypt. Families are also discreetly approaching human-rights organisations in increasing numbers about arbitrary detentions and missing loved ones, said Mustafa Ibrahim, who has written extensively on the issue of collaboration with Israel. "These families don't want to be associated with the stigma of having a family member seen as a being a collaborator," he said. "If they come forward, they think that could bring shame."

Hamas has been accused of carrying out arbitrary arrests and torture, and of using the pretext of collaboration to remove rivals. Human Rights Watch, the monitor based in New York, has accused Hamas in several reports of committing 32 extrajudicial killings during Israel's three-week war on Gaza that started in December 2008. Some of the victims, it said, were members of rival Palestinian factions.

Hamas officials, however, deny these accusations and describe the campaign against suspected collaborators as a necessary tool to fight Israel's supposed spy network in Gaza. "Since Hamas took control here, one of our priorities, especially for internal security, is to work hard to combat this phenomenon," Ihab al Ghusain, a spokesman for the ministry of interior in Gaza City. The ministry is behind the arrests.

Mr al Ghusain said some participants of the amnesty and rehabilitation programmes had been set free, although he declined to give details. He also had a warning for those who did not take advantage of the amnesty offer: "The message we wanted to send - you will be arrested or killed." 

He emphasised that Hamas has public support for its counter-espionage efforts in the form of free advertising about the campaign in local newspapers and on radio. Schools and professional associations also are taking part in Hamas-led seminars on how to look for sophisticated spying gadgets, such as hidden cameras fitted on tissue boxes, as well as how to avoid blackmail by Israeli spies.

The roots of the anti-collaboration campaign are unclear. Speculation here ranges from Hamas preparing for another war with Israel to an attempt by the group to consolidate its intelligence ranks since taking over the Gaza Strip in 2007. 

Much of its leadership was decimated in Israel's three-week war on Gaza because, many here believe, of Palestinians who spied for Israel. Some Hamas rivals in Gaza, though, see it as a continuation of a witch-hunt against them since the group overthrew Fatah and other rival factions three years ago.

This kind of campaign is a ploy to shift blame and avoid accountability, said a former intelligence officer in the Gaza Strip, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He was removed from his position after the Hamas takeover. He recalled a similar amnesty programme sponsored by Fatah in Gaza in 2001, one year after the second intifada started. "The problem is, it creates hysteria; it turns Palestinians on each other."

hnaylor@thenational.ae

Updated: October 10, 2010 04:00 AM

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