BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Palestinian militiamen shot dead two alleged collaborators with Israel on Thursday, then tied the body of one to the back of a pickup truck, dragged him through town and attempted to hang him from a rooftop overlooking the traditional birthplace of Christ.
The killings of the two Palestinians, carried out in front of onlookers, were a sign of the growing anarchy in the Palestinian areas as fighting with Israel intensified. The lawlessness will likely hamper the Palestinian Authority's ability to bring various militias in line with a cease-fire, should a U.S. envoy arriving Thursday succeed in brokering a truce.
It was the second time in three days that suspected informers have been killed and their bodies shown off. About two dozen collaborators have been killed by Palestinian militiamen during the past 18 months of fighting.
Thursday's events began before dawn when Palestinian militiamen arrived at an apartment building used by Palestinian intelligence officers to hold detainees who were moved out of Bethlehem's main prison after Israeli air strikes last week.
The militiamen snatched the two suspected informers from the apartment and took them to a spot where one of Bethlehem's militia leaders, Hussein Abayat, was killed in a targeted Israeli missile attack in November 2000.
There, the militiamen killed their captives, and the bullet-riddled bodies were left face down in pools of blood in a dusty street. Crowds of curious onlookers gathered, including small children. One of the children placed his foot on one of the corpses. Aware of the TV cameras and photographers, a gunman wearing a traditional Arab scarf wrapped over his face and dark sunglasses, posed beside the bodies and pointed an M-16 assault rifle at their heads.
Gunmen then tied the corpse of one of the men to a pickup truck and drove into the center of biblical Bethlehem, dragging the battered body, one of his arms outstretched in front of him.
In Manger Square, close to the Church of the Nativity, where tradition says Jesus was born, three gunmen dragged the body by ropes tied to its feet into a building and up the stairs, leaving a trail of blood.
They tried to hang the body from the roof of the Palestinian Tourism Ministry, which is still decked out with a millennium countdown clock and a sign welcoming Yasser Arafat to Bethlehem. Palestinian police intervened and the gunmen drove off, firing their weapons into the air.
The gruesome display frightened many Palestinians.
"It is very dangerous that people take the law into their hands because innocent people will be the victims of such incidents in the future," said Issa Qumsisieh, 38, standing near one of the bodies.
But Abdullah Sief, 25, was angered that the police stepped in.
"In every revolution the spies have to be executed," he said. "They must be hung in the middle of the city to be a lesson for everyone who thinks he can give information to our enemy."
The two slain men were identified as Mohammed Deifallah and Mahmoud Sabatin. Deifallah was sentenced to death last year by a Palestinian court for helping Israel kill Hussein Abayat. Sabatin was in Palestinian custody on suspicion of helping Israel kill another militia leader, Atef Abayat, in a car explosion on October.
Thursday's killings came just two days after Palestinian militiamen hung the blood-streaked body of a suspected informer upside down from a statue in a central square of Ramallah.
Many of the collaborators slain during the past year and half of violence are suspected of having helped Israel carry out killings of Palestinian militants. Israel has killed dozens by missiles, tank and sniper fire and bomb attacks in operations the Palestinians denounce as assassinations.
During the first Palestinian uprising from 1987-93, more than 800 suspected collaborators were killed by fellow Palestinians.