From reprimands of “disproportionate response” to condemnations of civilian casualties, Israel’s military offensive in Gaza has drawn de rigueur denunciations from the international community. Less noticed is that while Israel has taken great pains to avoid innocent deaths in Operation Cast Lead, at great peril to its fighting men and women, Hamas vigilantes have spent recent days deliberately assaulting and killing their fellow Palestinians, just as they have done for years.
According to the Jerusalem Post, since the beginning of the Israeli offensive, more than 75 Gaza Palestinians have been shot in the legs or have had their hands broken; more than 35 have been executed by Hamas operatives who accuse them of being Israeli “collaborators.” Of course, Gaza is not teeming with Israeli spies and most of Hamas’s victims are not only not traitors but likely helped vote the terrorist group into power in the January 2006 legislative elections. Instead, Hamas’s campaign of homegrown terror is the latest example of the terrorists turning on their Palestinian compatriots – a brutal but seldom-discussed cycle of violence in which Palestinians emerge as their own worst enemy.
Hamas’s fratricidal tendencies date back to its 1987 founding. In her 1996 book God Has Ninety-Nine Names, Judith Miller, a former New York Times bureau chief in Cairo, reported that within a few years of its official existence, Hamas had “proved more deadly to Palestinians than to Israelis.” Between 1987 and 1993, the years of the first Palestinian intifada, Hamas killed some 26 Israelis but also many of the 800 Palestinians murdered in those years for being alleged Israeli “collaborators.” In 1992 alone, according to Middle East analyst Mitchell Bard, some 200 Palestinians were killed by other Palestinians – more than double the number of Palestinians killed fighting with Israeli security forces.
Though murdered on the accusation of aiding Israel, most were not collaborators at all. “Rather,” as Judith Miller noted, “they were women who wore slacks and other ‘prostitutes,’ as Hamas called unveiled women; they were alcoholics, drug users, teachers with whom Hamas disagreed, Marxists, atheists, a Darwinist, Freudians, members of the Rotary and Lions Clubs – which Hamas’s charter called Jewish spy organizations – and, in particular, supporters of the PLO, Hamas’s main rival for power among Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories.”
Even among the “guilty,” the definition of collaboration often had more to do with Hamas’s hatred of Jews than any act of betrayal. To have any contact with Jews was to risk being judged a “collaborator.” So it was that, in October 1989, a Palestinian father of seven was reportedly stabbed to death in the West Bank city of Jericho for the unpardonable crime of selling “floral decorations” to Jews building a traditional succah dwelling.
These targeted killings of Palestinians marked not a departure from Hamas’s founding vision but its fulfillment. As an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas has always held the Brotherhood’s position that its jihad will be successful only after its rivals – real or imagined – are eliminated from within. Accordingly, Hamas’s original security branch, Jehaz Aman, was founded by the late Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 1983 with the express purpose of exterminating “heretics” and “collaborators.” Similarly, the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s self-styled “military wing,” terrorized Palestinians before it became a danger to Israelis. In Hamas, his 2007 history of the terrorist group, Matthew Levitt notes that the Qassam Brigades’ first functions were “kidnapping and murdering suspected collaborators.” As the recent spate of executions in Gaza suggests, Hamas continues that tradition.
Hamas, of course, has no monopoly on killing fellow Palestinians. The death toll amassed by the rival Palestinian Authority (PA) more than matches that of its Islamist counterparts, as demonstrated by the second Palestinian intifada that broke out in 2000. Obscured by the popular preoccupation with alleged Israeli abuses was that the greatest threat to Palestinian life was once again internal. In a single week in March 2002, for example, PA gunmen killed seven Palestinians accused of being Israeli agents. The corpse of one murdered “collaborator” was dragged through the streets of Bethlehem, after which the killers tried to hang the remains from a rooftop above Manger Square. The body of another unlucky victim was strung up by its heels at a Ramallah traffic circle. Still others were abducted from a West Bank road and executed in a deserted slaughterhouse.
Revealingly, the PA made no effort to deny responsibility for the killings. Abu Mujahid, a spokesman for the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the PA’s terrorist faction, insisted that on the contrary, they were justified because these accused “collaborators” are “more dangerous than the Israelis.”
Still another source of internal strife is the deadly rivalry between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. As recently as 2007, the two sides were engaged in a bloody civil war that saw both commit daily atrocities. In one particularly sadistic incident in June 2007, Hamas militants kidnapped one Mohammed Sweirki, a 25-year-old officer in a PA-allied security force, and then threw him off the roof of a 15-story apartment building to his death. Fatah responded in kind with its own terror campaign, raiding Hamas-linked mosques and abducting Hamas members in the West Bank.
The cost in Palestinian lives was high. By June 2007, an estimated 616 Palestinians had been killed in the factional battles, prompting PA president Mahmoud Abbas to lament that the threat that Palestinians posed to themselves exceeded the "danger of occupation" by Israel. That reality, however, was of little interest to most media, which chose instead to dwell on those subjects – such as the impact of Israel’s economic blockade on Gaza’s “strawberry farmers” – that accorded with their conception of the Jewish state as the true aggressor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Grim ironies abound in this history of internecine violence. For all the Palestinians’ hatred of Israel, it is Israeli forces who labor to spare civilians and who have in the past come to the rescue of unjustly punished Palestinians – as when a 2002 incursion into Gaza by the Israeli military freed accused Palestinian “collaborators” from prison. Moreover, despite the widely held belief among Palestinians that Israel is to blame for their grievances – the closest that Palestinians have come to a unifying national ethos – it is Palestinians themselves who have done the greatest violence to their cause. One need look no further than Gaza, where Hamas’s popular support comes even as it has become the main threat to Palestinian lives, both by inviting Israeli reprisals into crowded civilian areas with its rocket attacks and by terrorizing Gaza residents who run afoul of its despotic rule.
The great tragedy of the Palestinians is that they have been the authors of their own suffering. And so, while Israel may yet succeed in eliminating the threat of Hamas-fired rockets, one question will remain unanswered: Who will save the Palestinians from themselves?