Inside Hamas: What drives young Palestinians in Gaza to kill six ‘informers’?

Feature – The London Evening Standard - 24 November 2012

Among the disturbing images coming out of Gaza this week, there is a matter-of-fact horror in the lynching of an alleged Israeli spy.

The young men seen in this picture dragging his mutilated body through pot-holed streets behind a motorbike look almost nonchalant in their cruelty, as if they could be on their way to a football match. The corpse was pulled ignominiously past wrecked homes and empty shops as an example of what happens to collaborators.

One or two shout slogans or point their fingers skywards but only one brandishes a pistol — perhaps a member of the armed gang who brought six “informers” to an intersection in the north of Gaza City on Tuesday and executed them one by one while others videoed the killings on their smartphones.

The men were accused of providing the “human intelligence” necessary for the Israeli military machine to pinpoint targets in its unrelenting bombardment which — following Wednesday’s ceasefire — had left than 160 Palestinian men, women and children dead.

Six Israelis also died in the eight days of the latest conflict, all via rockets launched by the group which ultimately gives many of the orders within wartorn Gaza: Hamas.

The name is one that has entered international parlance but which — beyond its literal English translation of “zeal” and the Arabic acronym for “Islamic Resistance Movement” — means very different things to very different people.

To many of the nearly two million people crammed into Gaza, the blighted 25 mile-long strip of land on the edge of Israel, it represents hope — hope of escaping from oppression, fear and a crippled economy.

Some 75 per cent of the population of Gaza City, the largest city in the Palestinian Territories, are under 25. Many are disaffected young men like those pictured on the motorbikes — the kind who have known nothing but unemployment, poverty and subjugation to an enormously powerful, American-backed enemy.

It was during the 1987 Intifada — the first rebellion against Israel by Palestinians — that Hamas was founded.

Recruiting from cramped streets and shell-holed tower blocks, it was easily able to mould impressionable youths into those who would not flinch at the sight of a dead enemy being dragged along a road. Committed to the liberation of Palestine and an end to Israeli occupation, Hamas originally aimed to establish an Islamic state in Israel itself, later refining this to “a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict to a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders”.

There were good works — fundraising for the poor, the old and the ill within a territory described as a “prison camp” by Prime Minister David Cameron as recently as 2010. In this sense Hamas was an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the moderate Islamic political and social movement that now runs Egypt following last year’s Arab Spring revolutions. But in response to a growing hatred of what was widely viewed as Israeli colonialism, a ruthless Hamas security apparatus grew in the early Nineties — including the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades — which carried out bombings and shootings.

As the violence by small groups of activists intensified, some were hijacked by extremists who believed that the kind of targeting of Arab civilians seen in Gaza this week had to be met with further bloodshed. It was no coincidence that funding poured in from radical Islamic states, as well as from organisations and individuals committed to the achievement of political goals by violence.

Spies began to be recruited by Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service, which offers money and other incentives, including work permits for Palestinians willing to betray their fellow citizens. Others are blackmailed into co-operating.

Information from spies is often passed on via the most basic means, including mobile phones and email, which can make the sender relatively easy to track down. Informers can also be betrayed through simple word of mouth within close-knit communities living in the most limited of spaces.

More moderate voices have pleaded for conciliation, however, with the political wing of Hamas achieving success in democratic elections in 2006 — it won 74 seats in the 132-seat parliament. Fatah, the largest faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and seen by Israel as being less militant than Hamas, won 45.

Hamas formed the Palestinian Authority administration a year later, and over the past half-decade has strengthened its influence over almost every aspect of day-to-day life in Gaza.

“Hamas is viewed as an efficient, progressive organisation which can get things done amid the horror of the situation we find ourselves in,” said Eman Shakir, a 24-year-old law student who grew up in Gaza City and now studies in Paris.

“Extreme situations produce extreme groups — expecting Hamas to respond to Israeli expansion and aggression with anything but ruthlessness is ridiculous. You only have to look at the pictures taken this week of young children lying on slabs in makeshift morgues to realise what Hamas is responding to. As Israel carries on with its killing, and continues to ignore demands for a proper Palestinian homeland, people have no option but to turn to Hamas.”

Israelis and their supporters in the West would, of course, disagree — they point to Hamas’s commitment to an “armed struggle”, to terrorist activity, to rocket attacks and, more generally, to the kind of Islamic extremism encapsulated in the terms jihad, or “holy war”.

In short, many of the Israeli communities based on land once filled with Palestinian houses just 20 miles from Gaza City nowadays define Hamas as meaning nothing less than the proposed destruction of the state of Israel.

They are aware that Hamas declared a public holiday yesterday, marking a perceived victory over Israel. People returned to the streets of Gaza City as repair work and the removal of rubble began.

A brief sense of euphoria among the chaos will be used by Hamas to win supporters from the increasingly discredited Palestinian Authority leadership in Ramallah.

As far as the victims of the latest eight days of fighting are concerned, there are theories that Ahmed Jabari, the Hamas commander of the Qassam Brigades whose death by a targeted Israeli air strike on November 14 started the bombardment, may have been exchanging information with his eventual murderers.

Conspiracy theorists say that the region’s massively complicated nexus of competing groups makes double-crossings routine, along with the inevitable executions of those who fall foul of the hazy rules of espionage.

In an illustration of the increasingly disturbing nature of modern warfare, and the clinical brutality of the Israeli Defense Forces, Jabari’s death in a car alongside another Hamas colleague was filmed and posted on YouTube.

Like the macabre motorcycle parade captured by smartphones in Gaza this week, and also widely available on the internet, it is another testament to one of the Middle East’s greatest human tragedies.

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