Three weeks after Hamas executed a member who allegedly led Israel to the hideout of the group’s military leader, a few things are unclear – did he give Israel intelligence? Was he being blackmailed? And how did he actually die?
Mahmoud Eshtewi, who had two wives and three children, was recruited to Hamas’s military wing in 2000. The last role he filled was a battalion commander in the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. His three brothers also joined the military wing. One was killed in a 2003 Israeli airstrike.
Eshtewi was arrested a few months after Operation Protective Edge. He was held in a Hamas detention center for a year, and is believed to have been severely tortured. Only on February 7 did Hamas declare that he had been executed. The supposed justification was vague: moral and behavioral violations to which he admitted during interrogation.
Rumors abounded that he had been executed after providing Israel with intelligence on the precise location of Mohammed Deif, the military wing’s leader, during Operation Protective Edge.
The Human Rights Watch organization, which investigated the circumstances of Eshtewi’s killing, concluded based on witness testimony that he had undergone severe torture during his interrogation.
During Operation Protective Edge, Israel launched several missiles at a house in Gaza City's Sheikh Radwan neighborhood in which Deif was believed to be holing up. Hamas claimed that the attack, which killed Deif's wife and son, was a breach of the ceasefire between the two sides. Israeli officials have confirmed that the Deif was targeted but declined to speculate on whether he had been injured in the attack. To this day, his fate remains murky, and Hamas insists that the master terrorist is alive and well.
Eshtewi’s relatives, who have been enmeshed with Hamas since the military wing’s inception, turned to Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza and Khaled Mashal in Qatar with requests to ask for his release. Both promised to look into the issue and did nothing more. A rare protest organized by the family in front of Haniyeh’s house was violently dispersed by Hamas security.
The man’s mother, Samira Eshtewi, even appealed to Deif via a video asking him to release her son. In the vide, the cancer-stricken woman is seen weeping and begging for mercy, but also reveals that Deif was apparently a guest at the family’s home at one point. “You honored us with your presence in our house and that was a great honor for me; I swear to you Abu Khaled (Deif), they tortured by son severely, even some of the al-Qassam commanders condemned it,” she says in the video.
Executed or starved to death?
The family received Eshtewi’s body the day after he died. They asked to examine the body and, they claimed, saw that he had carved in his flesh an Arabic word that translates roughly to “someone who has been wronged.” The family also said that a doctor’s examination suggested that he had died after dying of starvation during a hunger strike, with the gunshots being made after death to hide the real cause. Relatives even demanded that Hamas conduct an autopsy, but Hamas refused.
It is therefore unclear exactly what caused Eshtewi’s death. A New York Times report said that Eshtewi was first brought in for questioning after suspicions of embezzlement arose. He immediately confessed, with caused Hamas to suspect that he was confessing in order to cover up a bigger secret. An ensuing investigation led the military wing to someone who claimed Eshweti was homosexual who had previously had sexual contact with him. Hamas suspected that the money Eshweti embezzled was used to pay for sex with this person or to keep him quiet.
Hamas was more disturbed, however, by the belief that Israel’s intelligence services had discovered Eshtwei’s alleged sexual orientation and used this as leverage to pressure him into providing information.