The Secret That Hamas Wants to Remain Buried Forever

 

​How a bitter power struggle in the Hamas terror organization's leadership led to the execution of one of its most prominent field commanders.

About one year after the execution of Mahmoud Ashtiwi, a prominent Hamas field commander in Gaza City, the real story behind the affair is exposed: a bitter power struggle in the Hamas leadership, in the center of which is Yehya Snowar, the head of the radical camp in Hamas, led to an unprecedented move. What was an extreme and unusual event, might under Snowar's direction, turn into a violent routine for the Hamas terror organization and in the Gaza Strip in particular.

​The early afternoon hours of the 9th of February 2016 were no ordinary hours in the Zeitoun neighborhood in Gaza City. Women's cries and laments could be heard coming from the neighborhood's alleys. Their cries were coming from the compound of houses of the Ashtiwi family, a respected family in Gaza City, whose sons are known for their close affinity to Hamas. The women's laments were accompanied by calls never heard before in Gaza. Alongside praises of the deceased, one could distinctly hear sharp accusations and criticisms against Hamas military wing leaders, mainly Yehya Snowar, the head of the radical camp in the organization and one of the senior terrorists who were released in the "Shalit Deal". The deceased individual being led for burial was Mahmoud Roshdie Ashtiwi, "Abu Al-Majd", the commander of the Zeitoun Battalion in the military wing of Hamas, the"Iz Al-Deen Al-Qassam Brigades", who was executed the previous night by his own subordinates and colleagues, members of Hamas. New and reliable information, being released for the first time, reveals the truth behind the unusual move. A bitter and instinctive struggle for control within the movement's ranks and a powerful leader drunk with power constitute the focus of the true story.

According to the new information, Yehya Snowar and a group of his followers, most of them brigade commanders in the military wing, were troubled by the direct and critical approach of the rising battalion commander Mahmoud Ashtiwi and his close ties, in their opinion, with the Hamas elite in the Gaza Strip. The main targets of Ashtiwi's criticisms,  Al-Deen Al- Hadad, who served as commander of the Gaza City South Brigade and was Ashtiwi's direct commander, and Raid Saad, formerly the commander of the Gaza City North Brigade and is one of the founders of Hamas's artillery corps, were key players in Snowar's radical camp. Ashtiwi, and the opinions he dared to utter, were perceived as a serious challenge to Snowar and his men, a challenge that had to be eliminated by every possible means.

 

The new information released also exposed the repercussions Ashtiwi's execution caused within Hamas, and the implications continue until this very day. Within internal debates, senior Hamas members claimed that the execution is likely to damage the movement's image in the eyes of the public, during a time period in which opinion of the terror organization was already in decline due to the civilian distress in the Gaza Strip. Other senior members attacked the developing dictatorship in the movement and the trampling of the principle of "the consensus" (ijma), according to which the strategic decisions are supposed to be made, and yet other voices protested that Ashtiwi had not been afforded a proper legal proceeding. The debate on the subject of Ashtiwi gradually died down over time, but not the concern among many members of Hamas regarding the strengthening of the power of the extreme camp under Snowar's leadership.

FROM THE ALLEYS OF GAZA TO THE ELITE OF THE MILITARY WING

During the summer of 1995, when he was a high school student in Gaza, Ashtiwi decided to join the ranks of Hamas's military wing, following the footsteps of his older brother, Ahmed, whom he regarded as a role model. Ahmed would be killed during clashes with IDF forces in the Gaza Strip in 2003. Those days were the beginning of the so called "Days of Oslo" and the Authority began to establish itself in the Gaza Strip, more than once arousing violent friction with Hamas activists.

The young Ashtiwi gradually climbed up in the ranks of the military wing, and rose from a junior activist to a group commander until he established himself as one of the senior commanders in Hamas's military wing in Gaza City. Ashtiwi amassed special prestige during the course of operations in 2008-2009, 2012, and in the summer of 2014, prestige which earned him many praises on the part of the movement's senior members. Against this background, a personal relationship also developed between Ashtiwi and the Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip, including Ismail Haniyeh, the movement's leader in the region.

AN EARTHQUAKE IN HAMAS

What looked like a rapid rise of "the young meteor" to the military wing elite was cut short in January 2015. Ashtiwi's sister, Bouthaina, a journalist who became an especially vocal and outspoken critic against the Hamas leadership following his execution, described in graphic detail in her Facebook page dedicated to her brother's memory the nightmarish night the family went through on the 12th of April 2015, about three months after Mahmoud had been suddenly arrested. "The first person to enter the house was Yehya Snowar, holding Mahmoud with one hand and in the other hand he had a gun that he pointed in the direction of the family members in a terrifying manner". Bouthaina continued to describe how masked activists from Hamas's military wing and its intelligence system, "El-Majd", blocked all the streets leading to the house and wandered around their family home  that humiliating the family members, and in particular Mahmoud's elderly parents. Before he left, Snowar promised Mahmoud's father that he would release his son within a few years "after he forgets all the Al-Qassam secrets", but the well-known end did not match Snowar's promise.

The following months were ones that Hamas would like to forget even today. The Ashtiwi family members took daring and extraordinary steps in the Gaza Strip. The family held several protest rallies outside of Ismail Haniyeh's, head of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, house in the Shati refugee camp, not far from the Ashtiwi family home. Protesters during the rallies called and demanded a clarification as to what Mahmoud had been arrested for and to know the reason for a humiliating attitude towards Ashtiwi, who until recently had been one of the military wing's heroes. In order to increase the pressure, the family also sent letters to the Hamas leadership abroad, including to Khaled Mashal, a detail revealed by Ashtiwi;s brother, Mohammed  during the course of the eulogy he gave at Ashtiwi's graveside. From the depths of its desperation, the family published a public plea in the form of a video clip where Mahmoud's mother asked Mohammed Deif, the head of Hamas's military wing, to act to release her son, while reminding him of the shelter the family used to provide for Deif and the family's role in saving his life.

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 SNOWAR FINDS A SOLUTION TO THE "HEADACHE"

Ashtiwi was held in the Hamas jail for almost a year. But then, suddenly and without any preliminary signs, one bright morning his execution was announced. The notice published by the movement's military wing on the 7th of February 2016 was official and laconic. It was alleged that his execution was on account of "security and moral reasons". The sea of rumors that spread in the Gaza Strip during the following weeks speculated a variety of stories: from homosexual relationships and corruption to the argument that became the "unofficial narrative" of the execution, claiming that Ashtiwi had been an agent of the Israeli Security Agency. Within this framework, it was claimed that Ashtiwi had reported to the Israeli Security Agency about Deif's location during the course of  Operation Protective Edge.

Ashtiwu's vocal funeral was the first harbinger of an unprecedented wave of attacks by his family members against the Hamas leadership. Those attacked were all the leaders of the movement's military wing: headed, as aforesaid, by Yehya Snowar, and alongside him Mohammed Snowar, formerly the Khan Yunis Brigade Commander (and Yehya's brother) and Iman Nofel, formerly the Central Strip Brigade Commander. The Hamas leadership quickly turned to the family members and asked them to restrain the voices of protest, but to no avail. Ashtiwi's sister Bouthaina appeared on nearly every Arabic langauge network and in her interviews attacked, in particular Yehya Snowar, whom she described as "the brains and the brawn" behind her brother's execution. Further criticism was levelled at Ismail Haniyeh for allowing the execution.

In the eyes of many Palestinians, the story of Ashtiwi's execution brought to mind another embarrassing incident that Hamas had attempted to conceal, the execution of Ayman Taha, one of the terror organization's main spokesmen in the Gaza Strip, and the son of Mahmad Taha, one of Hamas's founders. Hamas invested great effort in covering up the truth in Taha's execution as well. Taha's body was found toward the end of August 2014 under the ruins of a building in the Shajaya neighborhood of Gaza. It was not difficult to notice the strangeness of the case: Taha's autopsy revealed that he had been killed as a result of gunfire. In this case the Palestinian street was also rife with rumors, including claims of widespread corruption affairs, alongside rumors of outside contacts with Arab intelligence bodies.

A PAST EVENT … THAT IS EXPECTED TO BECOME ROUTINE?

The story of Ashtiwi's execution, according to parties in the Gaza Strip, does not belong to the past, but has become a fearful part of the present day reality. On the eve of the internal elections for the Hamas leadership, which is expected to be conducted during the coming months, Ashtiwi's "ghost" resurfaces and warns against the strengthening of the extreme voices that are liable to sweep Hamas and with it the entire Palestinian arena with its destructive adventures.

The concern of Yehya Snowar's possible success troubles many both inside and outside the Palestinian system. A scenario where he and his followers would reinforce their power in the movement following the elections, causes sleepless nights not only for many of the Hamas leadership, but also for the Palestinian Authority and among Arab entities that have an influence on the Palestinian arena, mainly Egypt, Jordan and even Qatar, who is a main supporter of the movement. The memory of the unprecedented incitement by the women of the Ashtiwi family against the senior Hamas members haunts the movement to this present day, and causes fear that they will turn into a mob that will take to the streets against the movement with a demand to topple its regime.