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It was known in Gaza as "Operation Strangling the Necks," but the 38 Palestinian men and women accused of collaborating with Israel during the recent fighting were actually gunned down on the street after being bound, blindfolded and forced to kneel.
Now, a Hamas official's startling disclosure to Al Jazeera that the executions were possibly illegal -- even by the terror group's standard -- could force the International Criminal Court to take action, if an Israeli human rights group gets its way. The Israel Law Center, a Tel Aviv-based non-governmental organization that has long campaigned for justice for victims of terror, believes the admission is enough to put top Hamas leader Khaled Meshal on trial for war crimes.
“It is very important today to deal with the war crimes that Hamas is committing against its own country, against its own people," Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, chairwoman of the center, told FoxNews.com. "Executing 38 civilians is a war crime, and the court -- which has already expressed an opinion that they want to deal with war crimes in Gaza -- should enter this issue and investigate.”
The West Bank-born Meshal, who is officially the head of Hamas' political wing, has bounced around the Middle East. He lived in Jordan in the 1990s, before Hamas was banned from the country. He has since lived in Damascus, Syria, which he fled during the ongoing civil war, and now, Doha, Qatar. A bitter rival of the Palestinian Authority dating back to the time it was led by Yasser Arafat, his power has risen since 2007, when Hamas was elected to govern Gaza. Observers say he is firmly in control of the leadership in Gaza.
The executions were carried out shortly after airstrikes by Israel Defense Forces in retaliation for rockets launched from Gaza killed three top Hamas commanders. In one case, several victims were executed by masked militants in front of the Omari mosque on Palestine Square, one of Gaza’s busiest districts as worshippers watched. At least 11 were killed outside a police station. A so-called conviction letter signed by the “Palestinian Resistance” and posted near where some of the executions took place accused the victims of giving Israel "information about the whereabouts of fighters, tunnels of resistance, bombs, houses of fighters and places of rockets, and the occupation bombarded these areas killing a number of fighters. Therefore, the ruling of revolutionary justice was handed upon him.”
But senior Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk candidly cast doubt on the legality of the executions, acknowledging that at least some of the victims had been detained prior to the hostilities for other alleged offenses.
“Basically, they were already sentenced to death, but the execution was done collectively today,” Marzouk told Al Jazeera in an interview from Qatar. “It is possible that this step was taken to satisfy the public in this matter, without considering other legal measures that should have been taken.”
Amnesty International last month called for an end to Hamas' summary executions.
“This flurry of executions by Hamas is made even more shocking by the fact that the victims were sentenced to death after trials which, if they happened at all, were summary and grossly unfair,” said Anne FitzGerald, Amnesty International’s director of research and crisis response. “Hamas must immediately and totally cease its use of the death penalty.”
Darshan-Leitner likened the executions, videos of which have circulated on the Internet, to the beheadings of two American journalists carried out by Islamic State.
"These extremist Muslim groups are doing the same things; it’s ISIS in Iraq, it's Hamas in Gaza, and the courts should deal with these war crime executions,” she said.
The Center's suit was filed in response to a pledge from ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to investigate any alleged atrocities carried out in Gaza during the recent conflict. Holding Hamas responsible in the International Criminal Court, which neither Israeli nor Palestinian leaders recognize, could be a longshot. But the complaint filed with the court notes that Meshal holds a passport from Jordan, which recognizes the authority of the world court.
“Mashal is a Jordanian citizen, and Jordan is a member of the ICC,” read a statement released by the Center. “The ICC is empowered to exercise its jurisdiction over all acts committed by the citizen of a member, wherever those acts are committed. Mashal can be immediately investigated and prosecuted for these 38 heinous murders.”
The executions were even decried by Palestinian advocacy groups.
“We demand the Palestinian National Authority and the resistance [Palestinian armed factions] intervene to stop these extra-judicial executions, no matter what the reasons and motives are,” said Raji al-Surani, chairman of the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights.
Darshan-Leitner insisted that the Center is not doing Israel's bidding in filing suit with the International Criminal Court.
“We are an NGO," she said. "We could be any type of NGO; Israeli, American, or any other. We know that Amnesty International condemned these executions and criticized Hamas for doing it, so if Amnesty International wants to, they should join us and other NGOs and human rights organizations in this complaint against Khaled Meshal.”