Hamas is accused of turning its weapons on rivals in Gaza

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 30, 2009 

WORLD NEWS MIDEAST-HAMAS MCT

Abdul Karim, a 30-year-old Fatah supporter in Gaza, displays bruises he says he suffered when he was beaten by Hamas security forces in the Gaza Strip.

SHASHANK BENGALI — Shashank Bengali / MCT

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Despite the destruction caused by Israel's 22-day assault, Hamas still runs the Gaza Strip. The militant Islamist group has put uniformed police back on the streets, deployed bulldozers to remove the rubble and distributed compensation to war victims.

The sinister side of Hamas also is re-emerging.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights said it had credible reports that Hamas operatives killed six members of Fatah, Hamas's secular Palestinian rival, in Gaza in recent weeks. Another 35 were shot in the knees or beaten, the group said.

"It seems to be a kind of collective punishment because of their political beliefs," said Khalil Shaheen, a senior researcher at the Palestinian center, an independent advocacy group.

Many members of Hamas accuse the more moderate Fatah of collaborating with Israel, or at least sitting on the sidelines during the conflict in Gaza. It isn't just an inter-Palestinian feud: Many experts believe that unless the two factions mend their rift, there never will be a Palestinian state or peace with Israel.

One of the victims is Abdul Karim, who asked for his safety to be identified only by his first name. The 30-year-old, who used to help run Fatah youth camps, said Hamas operatives beat him with sticks and a length of hose for two hours last week in a basement next to Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.

Abdul Karim said he was approaching the hospital to visit friends who were injured in the Israeli offensive when five men in civilian clothes grabbed him. At one point one of the men pointed a gun at him and cocked a bullet into the chamber, he said.

Last fall, Abdul Karim said, Hamas security officials repeatedly interrogated him and accused him of working with the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank, which is dominated by Fatah. This time, however, the men didn't ask questions. They were just out to punish him, he said.

"I started to ask them, 'Why are you beating me? Why am I here?'" he said. "But every time I started to ask a question they just said, 'Don't ask, don't say anything, shut your mouth.' And (they) beat me more and more with each question."

Now he walks with a crutch. His right hand is in a cast, and deep, red bruises are spread across his shoulders and legs.

"People are seeing the other face of Hamas," he said, seated gingerly in the living room of a relative's house in a southern Gaza village, where he and his pregnant wife fled following the attack.

Hamas and Fatah have long been rivals, but their estrangement has intensified since June 2007, when Hamas expelled Fatah from Gaza in a violent coup after winning democratic elections the year before. This left the party that rose to prominence under Yasser Arafat controlling only the other Palestinian mini-state, the West Bank, between Israel and Jordan. There, Fatah security forces suppressed anti-Israeli protests and reportedly have jailed dozens of Hamas members.

Hamas officials in Gaza dismissed allegations of systematic abuse as Fatah propaganda, and suggested that some of the killings were the result of family feuds or spats among small-time criminals.

They acknowledged perhaps "one or two cases" where Hamas forces took action against people suspected of being Israeli collaborators — a favorite sobriquet for Fatah members.

"I do believe that when it comes to taking action against anybody there is some proof that this guy is guilty of something," said Ahmed Yousef, the deputy foreign minister in Hamas's Gaza government.

"This is a time of war so you have to be careful."

Ihab al Ghusain, a spokesman for the interior ministry, said that Hamas supporters were angered to see some people celebrating when Israeli forces killed Iman Siam, the head of Hamas's rocket-launching unit, in the northern Gaza neighborhood of Jabaliya on Jan. 6.

"Fatah people were giving out sweets. It made young people angry, so there was some conflict between them," Ghusain said. "But there is no policy like that. Taking the law into their own hands is not allowed."

When Hamas opponents organized a rally in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis on the second day of the war, a Hamas man opened fire and killed two people. The families of the victims were offered $100,000 as compensation, but instead they demanded that the shooter be executed. Hamas did so, Yousef said.

Shaheen, the human rights researcher, said that security forces in Gaza and the West Bank are cracking down on their rivals.

"It's action-and-reaction," he said. "This is part of the internal conflict. It is interfering with the national dialogue and we condemn it."

Even Gazans who support Hamas's resistance against Israel voiced outrage at the targeting of opponents.

"The most painful thing is that Hamas attacked its own people," said a woman who asked to be identified as Umm Ibrahim. "I like that Hamas fights Israel. I like that they are clean. But not that they turn on their own people."

Umm Ibrahim said that her son-in-law, Abu Diana, a security officer for the Palestinian Authority before it was ousted from Gaza, was targeted by Hamas forces, who accused him of holding a Fatah meeting at his home. On Jan. 2, as Abu Diana was driving home on an empty road, men wearing masks shined flashlights into his face and opened fire on his car.

His wife found him and took him to Shifa Hospital, where they were questioned by Hamas security. A doctor warned him not to stay there, so his wife went to their car and told hospital security that she had something to drop off. She pulled into the front entrance, where Abu Diana climbed into the car and they drove away.

They haven't returned to their home since.

In a darkened apartment in Gaza City, Abu Diana, 37, lay on a couch under a blanket with a long cast covering most of his right leg. He had a bandage around his left leg and showed scabs where he had been shot through the left arm. He and his relatives were angry that Hamas had turned its weapons on fellow Palestinians during the war.

"It used half its forces to deal with the internal situation rather than to fight Israel," he said.

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