Hamas executes accused informants after Israel kills commanders

TEL AVIV, Israel — Hamas executed 18 Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel, a day after military strikes by the Jewish state killed three top commanders in the Gaza-based Islamist militant group.

The killings by firing squad follow a vow by Israel's defense minister Thursday to hunt down more of the militants' leaders. Israeli airstrikes Thursday killed three senior members of the Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's military wing that has killed more soldiers in the past six weeks than in any of Israel's military conflicts since the 2006 war in Lebanon. A wife and young son of the Brigades' commander died in an earlier attack.

The 18 men died "after an investigation of several days was completed and they confessed they had collaborated with Israel," pro-Hamas news service al-Rai said. Al-Majd security website, run by the Gaza Interior Ministry, said the killings were part of a new campaign: "There will be no mercy for collaborators who are caught," the website said.

The raids against Hamas's leadership have triggered volleys of rockets against Israel and a wave of Israeli aerial attacks on the Palestinian territory. The resurgent violence threatens to overwhelm Egyptian efforts to halt six weeks of hostilities in the Gaza strip. At least 2,090 Palestinians have died, according to Gaza officials, and 67 on the Israeli side. The last in a series of Egypt-brokered truces unraveled Aug. 19.

The militants killed 11 accused informants Friday morning by firing squad in downtown Gaza near police headquarters. Seven more were shot in front of al-Omari mosque at noon, according to al-Rai. The group's leaders haven't been seen in public during the fighting.

An airstrike in the southern city of Rafah Thursday killed Raed Attar, who Israel said masterminded a network of infiltration tunnels and the 2006 capture of soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held for five years before Israel traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for his release.

Mohammed Abu Shamala, Hamas military operations chief in southern Gaza, and Mohammed Barhoum, a Hamas weapons smuggler and fundraiser, were also killed, Israel's military said.

The strikes also included an apparent failed attempt to kill Mohammed Deif, Hamas's top military chief. According to former Mossad intelligence service director Shabtai Shavit, the policy seeks to trip up Hamas, which rules Gaza, and force them to make mistakes.

Israeli forces "will continue to hunt down and attack Hamas leaders at any time and wherever they may be," Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said Thursday.

Israel, the United States and European Union consider Hamas a terrorist organization. Human-rights organizations including Amnesty International have condemned Israel's policy of targeting militant leaders as extrajudicial executions.

"Eliminating the leadership damages their ability to fight effectively," Shavit, who led Mossad from 1989 to 1996, said in a phone interview yesterday. "It takes time for their replacements to know their new jobs. It also intimidates and makes them spend a bigger chunk of their time making sure they're not killed as well."

Hamas vowed to take revenge, singling out Ben-Gurion International Airport as the primary objective. Major international airlines maintained their flights.

"Killing our leaders won't weaken us," the Al-Qassam Brigades said in a message distributed to reporters in the Gaza Strip. "The enemy will pay a very heavy price for this crime."

Israel withdrew forces from a Gaza ground offensive on Aug. 5 under one of several truces that have since collapsed.

The Jewish state has gone after other political and religious leaders to weaken Hamas, killing the group's founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and political chief Abdel Aziz Rantisi in missile attacks from an AH-64 Apache helicopter gunship in 2004. Yahya Ayash, the bombmaker known as "the engineer" was killed in 1996 when he answered a booby-trapped mobile phone.

"First you go after the terrorist military leadership, then you hit the political leadership," said Shavit.

Militants fired 14 rockets from Gaza overnight after launching at least 80 Thursday. Israel's air force carried out about 20 strikes overnight and 41 strikes yesterday, the military said.

As the violence flared, Israeli Cabinet ministers authorized the call-up of 10,000 reserves troops in a telephone vote, a Defense Ministry official said on condition of anonymity because the government didn't want to officially announce the mobilization yet.

Egypt's Foreign Ministry said Thursday it had urged officials on both sides to recommit to a cease-fire. Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar, who has sought to help broker the cease-fire talks, met Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss developments in Gaza, the official Palestinian news service Wafa reported.

The Egypt-mediated talks had aimed at reaching a lasting accord addressing disputes unresolved by pacts ending two previous conflicts. Hamas has demanded an end to the blockade that Israel, citing security considerations, initiated after the group won Palestinian elections in 2006. Israel has sought assurances that militants won't resume their rocket attacks and cross-border raids.

"We won't give up the demands that Palestinian people have agreed on: to end the aggression and lift the Gaza siege," Mashaal, who survived a 1997 Israeli assassination attempt and now lives in Qatar, was cited as saying by Turkish newspaper Milliyet. Hamas has received no step-by-step plan to solve the crisis, he said. "There's only talk about it."

Reported with assistance from Shoshanna Solomon in Tel Aviv, Calev Ben- David and Saud Abu Ramadan in Jerusalem, Deema Almashabi in Riyadh and Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara.

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