Executed Hamas commander may have been accused of gay sex
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Executed Hamas commander may have been accused of gay sex

Rumors surfaced that Mahmud Eshtawi collaborated with Israel in exchange for keeping his sexuality secret, The New York Times reports

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Hamas fighters take part in an anti-Israel rally in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, February 26, 2016. (AFP/Said Khatib)
Hamas fighters take part in an anti-Israel rally in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, February 26, 2016. (AFP/Said Khatib)

A top Hamas commander, who was publicly denounced as an Israeli spy and executed, was also convicted of theft and homosexuality, the New York Times reported Tuesday.

The execution of Mahmud Eshtawi was announced by Hamas on February 7 with sources familiar to the case calling him a senior official accused of spying for Israel. Since then the terror group that rules the Gaza Strip has not provided any further details.

Eshtawi’s duties included overseeing tunnels that have previously been used to store weapons and carry out attacks against Israel. He was responsible for some 1,000 fighters in Hamas’s armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, and was previously a close associate of Muhammad Deif, the Hamas commander who has been a frequent target of Israeli assassination attempts.

However, according to the New York Times, Eshtawi, 34, who was survived by his two wives and three children, was also accused of moral turpitude, a Hamas euphemism for homosexuality. His family claim the charges against him were a set up by rival al-Qassam commanders and that he was tortured into confessing to crimes he never committed, even carving the Arabic word zulum — wronged — into his body as a silent protest.

After interviewing Eshtawi’s mother and 11 of his siblings as well as others familiar with the case, the report pieced together the final months of his detention.

In January 2015, just four months after the end of a 50-day war with Israel, dubbed by the IDF Operation Protective Edge, Eshtawi was summoned for an interrogation by al-Qassam officials on suspicion that he had pocketed funds that were supposed to spent on his unit.

Eshtawi quickly admitted to keeping the money, arousing suspicion that he was covering something more significant.

Further investigation found a man who claimed he had sex with Eshtawi and who provided specific times and locations for the alleged trysts. Al-Qassam investigators came to the conclusion that the cash Eshtawi took was used to pay the man for sex, or to buy his silence. Another possibility raised was that Israeli intelligence knew of his gay activities and he provided them with information to prevent them outing him in society that is violently intolerant of homosexuality.

Rumors have spread that Eshtawi had provided the IDF with the location of Deif’s hideout during Operation Protective Edge, leading to a failed assassination attempt by Israel, though there is no proof to back up the story, the report said.

On February 15, 2015, two of his siblings were able to visit him in his Hamas detention cell. During the visit his sister, Samia, asked him if the rumors they were hearing about him were true and he nodded his head. When Samia accused his guards of beating the confessions out of him they responded that he had confessed without a single blow. But, according to Samia, Eshtawi raised his hand to her and it had zulum written on it in pen three times.

In a later meeting with relatives on March 1, Eshtawi told his brother, Hussam, that he was repeatedly tortured. Six weeks later his wives managed to smuggle out a handwritten note in which Eshtawi claimed he was nearly killed during torture sessions that included being suspended from the ceiling for hours at a time, day after day, whipped, and deprived of sleep.

Samia, in a visit on June 7, said her brother raised his trouser leg to show the word zulum carved into his leg with a nail. She also said he had two pages of writing from him in which he accused rival al-Qassam commanders of setting him up his arrest and detention. The family declined to show the letter to the Times, but said they had taken it to Hamas Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh on June 15 in a bid for him to intervene.

On July 2 the family protested outside Haniyeh’s home but security forces forcibly dispersed them. They last saw him alive on August 10.

A week after his execution Human Right Watch published a report calling on Hamas authorities to investigate Eshtawi’s torture, which it claimed was known to senior figures within the organization.

Executions have previously been carried out in the Gaza Strip, including in public squares in the Palestinian territory, but it appeared to be the first time al-Qassam sentenced one of its own by court martial and executed him.

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