The man whom Hamas suspects assassinated one of its terror chiefs in March was identified Friday as Ashraf Abu Layla, a 37-year-old former Hamas member from the central Gaza Strip.
Family members of the slain Mazen Faqha revealed Abu Layla’s identity, a day after the terror group announced his arrest.
They said Abu Layla was a member of Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, but was thrown out years ago over “moral transgressions.”
Reports in the Palestinian media claimed Abu Layla then joined a radical Salafist group before eventually being recruited by the Mossad to carry out the killing.
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On Thursday, Hamas announced the arrest of the man who, it said, assassinated Faqha in March. The Islamist terror group claimed he confessed to acting on orders from Israel, and indicated he would face execution.
“We hereby announce to our people and nation the discovery and arrest of the killer,” newly elected Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said at a press conference — also attended by Hamas Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar — outside Faqha’s home in Gaza.
The murderer “admitted clearly and in detail… that he carried out orders of officers from the Zionist security services,” Haniyeh said.
Faqha was killed in the garage of his apartment building on March 24.
Hamas said the gun used to shoot Faqha had a silencer, which allowed the killer to escape unnoticed. It added that the professionalism of the shooting indicated that Israel was behind the hit.
“What the enemy did was a painful strike in terms of strategy and security,” Haniyeh said.
Faqha, 38, originally from the West Bank, was serving nine life terms in Israeli prison — for directing deadly suicide-bombing attacks in which nine people were killed and 52 were wounded — when he was freed with more than 1,000 other Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011. Under the release, Faqha was sent to Gaza.
There, Faqha headed the Hamas office tasked with launching terror attacks against Israel from inside the West Bank. His subordinates in the branch specialized in recruiting suicide attackers, collecting weapons and preparing explosive devices.
“Punishment will be carried out against the murderer,” Haniyeh added. Hamas recently executed three men it accused of collaboration with Israel.
Following Faqha’s death, Hamas imposed a lockdown in Gaza, setting up military-style checkpoints throughout the territory, sealing its border crossings and rounding up dozens of people for questioning.
Haniyeh thanked the people of Gaza for “understanding” the measures taken by security services over the past month and a half. He also dedicated the “strategic achievement” of finding the alleged shooter to the wife of Faqha — who stood next to him — to the Palestinian people and to the hundreds of Palestinian prisoners who are staging a hunger strike in Israeli prisons.
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has said that Hamas was responsible for the killing and that it came about as a result of an internal dispute.
“Today, we can say with certainty that this was an internal assassination,” he told the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth in April.
Since Faqha’s killing, Hamas leaders have threatened to carry out a revenge attack against Israel.
On Wednesday, the Hebrew daily Israel Hayom quoted defense officials as saying that Hamas is increasing its efforts to carry out a big terrorist attack in the West Bank to avenge the killing of Faqha.
Dov Lieber and agencies contributed to this report.