Hamas’ newly elected supreme leader on Thursday announced the arrest of a suspect in the mysterious shooting death of a top militant commander in March, claiming a gunman dispatched by Israel had carried out the attack. But he refused to identify the suspect, leaving a cloud of mystery over a case that has plunged the Islamic group into a crisis.
In a hastily arranged news conference, Ismail Haniyeh indicated the gunman was a local Palestinian who had acted on the orders of Israel. He said more details would be released in the coming days and that the suspect would face execution.
“All the indications, and all the evidence we have indicate that the perpetrator committed this crime based on orders from the Israeli occupation,” he said.
The arrest marked a breakthrough into the investigation into the death of Mazen Faqha, a top Hamas commander who was killed in the garage of his apartment building on March 24.
Hamas has said the gun used to shoot Faqha had a silencer, allowing the killer to escape unnoticed. It has said the professionalism of the shooting indicated that Israel was behind the hit.
“What the enemy did was a painful strike in terms of strategy and security,” Haniyeh said.
Israel has not commented on the shooting. Israel and Hamas, an Islamic group that opposes Israel’s existence, are bitter enemies and have fought three wars since Hamas took control of Gaza a decade ago.
Faqha, 38, and originally from the West Bank, was serving nine life terms in Israeli prison for directing deadly suicide bombing attacks before he was freed with more than 1,000 other Palestinian prisoners in exchange for a single Israeli soldier in 2011. Under the release, Faqha was sent to Gaza.
Following his death, Hamas imposed a lockdown in Gaza, setting up military style checkpoints throughout the territory, sealing its border crossings and rounding up dozens of people for questioning. Last month, it executed three people accused of collaborating with Israel, though their cases were not directly connected to the Faqha case.
Haniyeh thanked the people of Gaza for “understanding” the measures taken by security services over the past month and a half. He also dedicated the “strategic achievement” of finding the alleged shooter to the wife of Faqha, who stood next to him, to the Palestinian people and to the hundreds of Palestinian prisoners who are staging a hunger strike in Israeli prisons.
Hamas announced last week that Haniyeh would serve as its new supreme leader following a lengthy and secretive internal election process.
The announcement comes shortly after Gaza’s rulers unveiled a new, seemingly more pragmatic political program aimed at ending the group’s international isolation.
Hamas is trying to rebrand itself as an Islamic national liberation movement, rather than a branch of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, which has been outlawed by neighboring Egypt. It has also dropped explicit language calling for Israel’s destruction, though it retains the goal of eventually “liberating” all of historic Palestine, which includes what is now Israel.
Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group and says it has not changed its ways.