Qassam execution: crime, punishment and accountability in Gaza

Qassam execution: crime, punishment and accountability in Gaza
The extrajudicial execution of a commander of Hamas' al-Qassam Brigades has sparked a backlash showing Gazans' ability to hold their leaders to account.
6 min read
12 February, 2016
The Qassam Brigade is the armed wing of the Hamas movement which governs Gaza [AFP]
A video, no longer online, has emerged of Boufayla Eshtawi, the sister of a prominent member of the al-Qassam Brigades, yelling out, demanding punishment for those responsible for her brother's death.

The image is one of tragic familiarity in Gaza, who have seen thousands killed by Israel.

However, in this case, she was screaming the names of other members of the brigade, the military wing of the Hamas movement.

The young woman's brother was Mahmoud Eshtawi, a prominent member of the Qassam brigades, and leader of the "Gaza bridge" regiment - who was killed in what Human Rights Watch deemed "an extra-judicial execution" by militants linked to Hamas.

The incident is thought to be the first time that the movement court martialed and executed one of their own.

And not everyone in the movement agreed with it. "The recent actions by the al-Qassam Brigades are distorting the image of the resistance," Hamas leader Youssef Farhan posted on Facebook.

"What right do they have to execute people? Are they the government? Where are the legal authorities? Where are the judges?" he asked.

Qassam did not provide details on the accusations against it, other than to say that "the Brigades' military and Islamic judicial committee issued the sentence because he violated rules and ethics". 

Sources say that he was executed for spying for Israel by giving away the position of Muhammed Deif's home, subsequently targeted by Israel in 2014, in an attack which killed the prominent leader's wife and children.

Yet both scenarios seem unlikely and pose questions concerning crime and punishment in Gaza, considering the presence and strength of armed groups such as Qassam.

Spying for Israel?

As for executing collaborators, the practice has moved on from the haphazard executions of hundreds of alleged spies that took place during the days of the "security anarchy" that ruled Gaza before Hamas won elections in 2006.

Back then, such executions happened without any evidence presented, and were often greeted with popular protest, as many believed they were covers for political and personal vendettas.

Yet the internal stability of Gaza that Hamas has cemented is reliant upon the tacit consensus of the population, and stable relationships with other political factions; the organisation cannot simply kill people without proper cause for fear of upsetting this delicate power balance.
In some cases, alleged spies have been executed and another reason given for the killing

These executions - although they must still be condemned - are now less frequent, and are usually greeted with muted protest from families who have been presented with evidence of collaboration.

In some cases, alleged spies have been executed and another reason given for the killing in order to spare families "the shame" of having a collaborator in the family.  Accordingly, the families also remain quiet.

However, in this case, the family of Eshtawi were extremely vocal; clearly they do not believe Eshtawi was a spy or that there is any evidence to that effect.

In an open letter addressed to Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal, the family members accuse influential figures within Hamas and the al-Qassam Brigades of being behind their son’s death, due to personal differences.

Eshtawi's mother also sent Meshaal and Hamas military commander Muhammed Deif a video, which has not been made public, pleading for her son's life during the year-long captivity that preceded his death.

Inter-factional differences?

Assassinations in Gaza may also be carried out due to internal differences between political factions.  

Aymen Taha, the former Hamas spokesperson, was killed during the 2014 war in Gaza. Although the movement said he was killed by Israel, many suspect otherwise.

Taha had been secretly meeting with Fatah's Mohammed Dahlan and the head of preventative security, Samir Masharawi, in Cairo in 2011, sources told The New Arab.

Yet Taha was also accused of rampant theft and corruption.

Could a similar inter-factional dispute be central to Eshtawi's killing?

According to the sources, he was in charge of a large unit and was previously a close associate of Mohammed Deif - the Qassam commander whose family was killed after an informant revealed his address. 

His duties included overseeing tunnels that had previously been used to store weapons and carry out attacks against Israel, sources said.

Qassam fighters have a strict behavioural code

imposed upon them [AFP]

It is rumoured in Gaza that Eshtawi was under investigation for rockets missing from Qassam's inventory that ended up in the hands of Sorya al-Quds, the armed wing of rival militant faction Islamic Jihad.

But again, this is speculation, and many are questioning whether such an incident could lead to his death.  

The ethics of al-Qassam

Considering the Qassam statement that Eshtawi was executed because "he violated rules and ethics", could this simply be the real cause?

Qassam imposes rigorous rules of social conduct on its members.

Many say that the strict nature of Qassam has even led some its members to radical Salafi splinter groups for want of more freedom and individuality outside the group, or to compensate for the shame the group enforces on those who violate rules.    

Additionally, Qassam expels those who violate societal taboos, which could include drug use or "inappropriate relationships".

However, these violations tend to be met with rebukes, shaming, expulsion or internal disciplining within the group - not by execution, especially of such a senior figure.

As the group now faces a backlash among Palestinian society in Gaza, it's worth noting that this reaction emphasises the usually cordial relationship between the militant wing of Hamas and Gaza's besieged population.

Whereas the Hamas political wing has made attempts to get the young Gazan population to adhere to their strict Islamic ideology - which has triggered some backlash among Gazan youth - Qassam is frequently more pragmatic.
Although much of Gaza criticises Hamas, many make a distinction between the political movement and its armed wing

The Brigade needs the population's general backing in order to practically carry out operations against Israel and ensure protection from the danger of informants. 

The group understands if it harasses residents, it will only be putting itself in a more precarious position.

Consequently, although much of Gaza criticises Hamas, many make a distinction between the political movement and its armed wing.  

There is a story widely told here that Qassam fighters once dug a tunnel under a Fatah member's house, causing some damage to the property. Later, balaclavered militants turned up, apologised to the house's owner and handed over $10,000.

Whether such stories are exaggerated or simply untrue, the telling of such tales - even by Hamas opponents - points to a certain attitude towards the Qassam Brigade among Gazans.

The organisation sets strict rules for its own members while tending to respect the private lives of residents - as long as transgressions do not come into the public sphere.

Switching allegiance of families - particularly large "clans" - between factions, including even between militant and political wings, requires negotiation between multiple different forces in Gaza.  

This means that, despite the blockaded strip's horrific situation, organisations cannot simply act with impunity or without a strong backlash, as Qassam and Hamas are now witnessing. 

Therefore, to go some way to answer Farhan's question "where is the authortity?" although Gaza has established laws from the Egyptian mandate period and the Palestinian Authority, traditions, established social norms and the power of families are also predominant.

Gaza's society has strong social rules, ethics and procedures, which is partly what makes the case of Eshtawi's execution newsworthy, and has led to such a strong reaction from his family, other Gazans and local media.

But the outrage at the killing also shows that Qassam has a certain level of accountability, both within its own wider organisation and to the rest of Gazan society.

Whether this exists simply due to the face of a clearly defined external enemy - Israel - can only be answered when the occupation of Palestinian lands is finally ended.