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Palestinian Authority Executes 4 Men

Times Staff Writer

The Palestinian Authority, in a move denounced by human rights groups, executed four men Sunday it described as convicted murderers.

The executions in the Gaza Strip were the first carried out by Palestinian officials since 2002.

International human rights groups and a number of Western nations had urged the government of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to refrain from utilizing capital punishment, in part because of opposition in principle to the death penalty and in part because of the belief that it was unlikely the condemned had received a fair trial.

A spokesman for the Palestinian Interior Ministry, Tawfiq abu Khoussa, described the executions as an attempt to underscore the seriousness of a government campaign to restore public order, particularly in the Gaza Strip.

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“There is a new drive to confront and fight chaos and lawlessness in the Palestinian territories,” Abu Khoussa told reporters in Gaza City.

Palestinian officials said in a news release that one of the condemned men was put before a firing squad and that the other three were hanged at a prison in Gaza City. All were executed before dawn, with no prior notice to their families.

The executed men were identified as Mohammed Khawaja, 24; Wael Shoubaki, 33; Ouda abu Azab, 27; and Salah Musallam, 27. They were described as criminals who committed murder in the 1990s.

Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups had sought clemency for the men, who had spent years on death row. Raji Sourani of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights said his group had appealed to Abbas personally to stay the executions.

“It’s a violation of basic human rights, especially in the absence of fair trials,” said Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for the Israeli group B’Tselem.

Until Sunday, the Palestinian Authority had executed 13 people since 1994. Nine men, most of them accused of collaborating with Israel, have been killed in prison by fellow inmates. Scores of other accused collaborators have been killed by vigilantes.

More than 50 Palestinians remain on death row, for crimes including collaboration and sexual assault.

The late leader Yasser Arafat, who died in November, came under heavy criticism over use of the death penalty, and halted executions in 2002.

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Sunday’s executions won praise from the Islamic militant group Hamas, which is mounting a strong electoral challenge to Abbas’ ruling Fatah movement.

“We consider this a step in the right direction to protect the security of citizens and the state,” said Ismail Haniya, a Hamas spokesman.

Law and order in the West Bank and Gaza have sharply deteriorated in the course of more than four years of fighting with Israel, during which the Palestinian security forces have been decimated.

Since Abbas took office in January, armed gangs from his Fatah faction have repeatedly shot up government offices amid infighting or to express anger over various grievances.

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Before dawn Saturday, gunmen attacked an office of one of the security forces in Gaza, setting off a gun battle that lasted hours.

Separately, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been sparring verbally over the question of whether Abbas’ government will move to disarm Palestinian militant groups.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nasser Kidwa angered Israeli officials Saturday by saying that no move would be made to seize the weapons of groups such as Hamas as long as Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza.

Abbas has consistently indicated that he wants to negotiate with militants rather than confronting them head-on, but Kidwa’s comments were an unusually blunt statement of that policy.

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“Weapons are legal as long as the occupation exists,” Kidwa told Palestinian television.

Israeli Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert likened the failure to disarm militant groups to “dropping a cluster bomb” on efforts to maintain calm and restart peace talks.

“Very simply, either they [Palestinian Authority officials] fight terrorism, or we will,” Olmert told Israel Radio.

Israeli authorities, meanwhile, imposed a closure on the Palestinian territories Sunday as Jews were ushering in the holiday of Shavuot, which ends tonight.

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The Israeli military generally bars Palestinians from entering Israel during Jewish holidays, citing concern about attacks.

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Special correspondent Fayed abu Shammalah in Gaza City contributed to this report.


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