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.
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.
Source: The New York Times, March 1, 2016