GAZA CITY — The death of Mahmoud Ishtiwi had all the trappings of a telenovela: sex, torture and embezzlement in Gaza’s most venerated and secretive institution, the armed wing of Hamas.
Mr. Ishtiwi, 34, was a commander from a storied family of Hamas loyalists who, during the 2014 war with Israel, was responsible for 1,000 fighters and a network of attack tunnels. Last month, his former comrades executed him with three bullets to the chest.
Adding a layer of scandal to the story, he was accused of moral turpitude, by which Hamas meant homosexuality. And there were whispers that he had carved the word “zulum” — wronged — into his body in a desperate kind of last testament.
His death has become the talk of the town in the conservative quarters of Gaza, the Palestinian coastal territory, endlessly discussed in living rooms, at checkpoints and in cabs. But to astute Gaza observers, this was more substantive than a soap opera. Mr. Ishtiwi, who is survived by two wives and three children, was not the first member of Hamas’s armed wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, to be killed by his own. What was unprecedented was the way his relatives spoke out publicly about it.
The family was considered Hamas royalty for having sheltered leaders wanted by Israel, including Mohammed Deif, the Qassam commander in chief lionized by Palestinians. Mr. Ishtiwi’s mother even sent Mr. Deif, who has lost an eye and limbs but has survived repeated assassination attempts by Israel, a tearful video message in which she entreated him to release her son.
Ibrahim al-Madhoun, a writer close to Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, said the situation spotlighted shifts since Yehya Sinwar was elected in 2012 to represent Qassam in Hamas’s political wing, a role akin to defense minister. Mr. Sinwar’s actions, he said, showed that even senior figures were not sacrosanct.
“He is harsher than other leaders — he wants his army to be pure,” Mr. Madhoun said in an interview. “Those who are in the Qassam are the most important people in Gaza. There is a need, they say, to show that these people are not untouchable.”
Qassam put out a statement on Feb. 7 announcing Mr. Ishtiwi’s execution, but its spokesman, and those of Hamas over all, have refused to comment since. A senior Hamas official, however, confirmed some facts and the broad contours of the case on the condition that he not be identified, saying he did not want to be seen as meddling in an affair considered embarrassing for the Hamas movement and tragic for the family.
Human Rights Watch investigated the death; the group and an international aid worker who closely followed the case have shared details. Mr. Ishtiwi’s mother and 11 of his siblings were also interviewed for this article, alongside two Gaza-based human rights activists who followed parts of the story.
Mr. Ishtiwi was 19 when he joined Qassam, following three of his five brothers into the force. One, Ahmad, was killed in an Israeli strike in 2003.
He became a commander in Zeitoun, his own gritty neighborhood in Gaza City. During the 2014 war, Israeli bombs smashed his family’s apartment building and his second wife’s house.
It was five months after that deadly battle subsided, on Jan. 21, 2015, that Mr. Ishtiwi was summoned to an interrogation by Qassam military intelligence officials. Officers doing a kind of after-action investigation of the war suspected that he had diverted money allocated to his unit for weapons. “Do you have money?” he was asked, according to relatives. “How do you spend it?”
He admitted that he had kept money meant for the brigades, and thus, said his sister Buthaina, 27, “began the telenovela of torture.”
The Hamas official said Mr. Ishtiwi’s quick confession had aroused suspicion that he was hiding something bigger.
A dragnet investigation began, drawing in Mr. Ishtiwi’s soldiers. Qassam officials found a man who claimed he had had sex with Mr. Ishtiwi and provided dates and locations. They concluded that the missing money had been used either to pay for sex or to keep the man quiet. If Israeli intelligence officials knew Mr. Ishtiwi was gay, the officials surmised, perhaps he had given them information in exchange for keeping a secret that, if uncovered, would have made him an outcast in his society.
Rumors rippled out that Mr. Ishtiwi had given Israeli forces the coordinates for an Aug. 20, 2014, assassination attempt on Mr. Deif, which killed one of the elusive man’s wives and their infant son. But no proof ever emerged that Mr. Ishtiwi had done so.
On Feb. 15, 2015, two of Mr. Ishtiwi’s siblings visited him at a Qassam base.
“Mahmoud, we heard the things they are saying about you! Is it true?” his sister Samia, now 39, recalled asking. Mr. Ishtiwi nodded yes.
Suspicious, Samia turned to the two guards flanking him. “ ‘Is he agreeing because you filled him with beatings?’ ” she recalled asking. “They said, ‘He confessed without us giving him even a slap.’ ”
But then, she said, she saw her brother raise his hand, revealing the word “zulum” written in pen three times on his palm. She did not have a photo to prove this.
Still, Mr. Ishtiwi sought to reassure her. “Let the brothers take their procedures,” Samia recalled him saying. “Put a summer watermelon in your stomach,” an expression that means “don’t worry.”
In his next meeting with relatives, on March 1, Mr. Ishtiwi told his brother Hussam that he had been tortured since his fourth day in detention. Six weeks later, when his wives visited, they sneaked out a note, of which Human Rights Watch shared a photograph. “They nearly killed me,” it says. “I confessed to things I have never done in my life.”
By June 7, when Samia visited her brother at a Qassam base near Gaza City’s used car market, Mr. Ishtiwi “looked destroyed,” she recalled.
“I asked, ‘Why are you crying, brother?’ ” she said. “And he said, ‘I have been wronged, wronged.’ ” Relatives said Mr. Ishtiwi had told them he had been suspended from a ceiling for hours on end, for days in a row. He was whipped, and guards blasted loud music into his cell, banishing sleep.
Samia said he had raised his trouser leg to show her that he had carved the word “zulum” into his skin with a nail, as a message in case he was killed. This could not be confirmed.
She also said Mr. Ishtiwi had given her two pages crammed with writing, describing the abuse and proclaiming his innocence. The family would not share the letter, but several of Mr. Ishtiwi’s siblings said that it listed episodes in which rival commanders had made errors that led to the killing of Qassam fighters in the 2014 war, and that it accused them of orchestrating his detention.
Buthaina and Samia said they had shown the letter to Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, at his home on June 15. (Mr. Haniyeh did not respond to requests for comment.) They said they had asked Mr. Haniyeh if their brother could have a lawyer. No. Red Cross visits? No. An internal committee to review his case? Perhaps.
They returned on July 2 with dozens of relatives and neighbors and tried to pressure Mr. Haniyeh by chanting outside his home against Hamas, a rare event. Police officers hit some of the demonstrators, people who were there said, and a senior Hamas spokesman publicly accused them of being violent.
After a sleepless night, Buthaina posted about the situation on Facebook, breaking months of silence. “We are children of this movement,” she said. “We thought that we would resolve the matter between us.” Instead, she said, “The trust was broken.”
Aug. 10 was the last time the family saw Mr. Ishtiwi.
Later, his mother sent her emotional eight-minute video to Mr. Deif, the Qassam chief, begging him to save Mr. Ishtiwi’s life. She reminded him that she had sheltered him at great personal risk. She pleaded, “Free my son!”
Mr. Ishtiwi’s family continued to press officials for his freedom. The last such meeting, with a senior Hamas preacher and two other men at the family’s rented home in Zeitoun, lasted until 2 a.m. on Feb. 7.
It was later that very day, after Mr. Ishtiwi said afternoon prayers, that he was killed.
New York Times
New York Times