Islamic fundamentalists are suspected of murdering three women thought to be prostitutes in the Gaza Strip. The deaths follow the bombing and torching of businesses and public places that radicals believe to be un-Islamic.
Police say 30-year-old Ibtefam Abu Genar's body was found first. She was one of three women murdered Tuesday night in different parts of northern Gaza.
In conservative Gaza, it's not uncommon for women accused of alleged immoral behavior to be killed by a family member — a so-called "honor" killing. But these killings are different, according to investigator Abu al Abed. In his long career, he said, he's never seen three women murdered in one night, let alone three assassinated gangland style.
"They were killed in the same way: a bullet in the head and bullet in the chest," Abed said. "So this indicates that this is not an honor crime, or a family crime; this is organized crime. There's a group behind it."
No group has claimed responsibility. It's just another in a five-month-long series of unsolved, violent crimes in Gaza targeting people suspected of "immoral" or decadent behavior.
The attacks started in October 2006, and they've stretched from north to south, hitting a wide range of businesses in the seaside Palestinian territory. Modern music stores, DVD outlets, restaurants and cultural centers have all been hit. In December, a Rafah cafeteria that allowed card playing was torched.
Rami, who didn't want his full name used, owns a DVD store in the south-central Gaza city of Khan Younis. He said that at first, he laughed off an anonymous cell phone call threatening to attack his small business for selling allegedly racy movies, including Western titles. Then another call came.
"It was a very serious voice, and he told me that if I don't shut down my store right away, that they will blow it up and they'll burn it," Rami said.
Rami closed his shop for a few weeks, turned to local militant factions for protection and put up pictures of Islamic heroes. He took down his posters for Hollywood blockbusters.
Internet entrepreneur Ahmed al Rafa-tee was not lucky enough to get a warning. One morning, the 24-year-old arrived at the Internet cafe he owned to find that his business had been blown up.
A statement from Suf al Haq Islamiya, or "The Swords of Islamic Righteousness," claimed responsibility for the attack. The group said they were "implementing the rule of God" and called shops like Rafa-tee's "dirty, corrupted" businesses that make youth "slaves of the devil mind," an apparent reference to online games and porn.
"They think these Internet shops are wasting the time of the youth, keeping them away from praying, from liberating Palestine, from Jihad," Rafa-tee said.
Rafa-tee calls the Swords group irrational. He says he had Internet filtering software in his now-destroyed cafe to block out porn sites.
Seemingly innocuous public cultural centers — some of the few places where kids of the opposite sex can mingle — have also been attacked.
Early Wednesday morning, someone bombed a public cultural center in Gaza City where boys and girls 14 and under learn traditional Palestinian folk dances, arts and crafts and sports. No one was seriously injured in the bombing. No group has claimed responsibility.
Nabil Barzock, the center's deputy director, is disgusted by the damage done to his building.
"There are some people which are radical, and they do not accept the mixing between boys and girls, and they are sending us a message trying to stop our activities," Barzock said. "But I say we will keep on teaching, training and protecting our traditions."
This is not the first time Gaza's Islamic fundamentalists have gone on vigilante sprees targeting alleged "immorality."
In 2000, Hamas supporters torched the remaining two stores that sold alcohol in Gaza. And on New Year's Eve in 2004, unknown fundamentalists bombed and destroyed the United Nations Club. It was the last place in Gaza known to serve alcohol.
No one knows who's carrying out the current round of attacks. But since October, the obscure Swords of Islamic Righteousness has claimed credit for blowing up more than 50 businesses it sees as morally corrupted.
But a careful check of Interior Ministry police crime records from October thru February for all of Gaza shows that police attribute only nine bombings to the Swords group. The records show another 18 violent attacks across Gaza in that period targeting businesses for alleged immorality.
So it appears that the Swords group boasts of far more attacks than it has actually carried out. And that's likely key to its strategy. The group's anonymous violence has only heightened its mystery and stature, with a chilling effect on Gaza's close-knit society.
Naila Ayesh runs a Women's center in Gaza City. She says these murky attacks have now made many women — including many secular women — more scared to walk the streets without a male relative, or without covering up.
"In Gaza, you can see few numbers of women who are not covering their heads," Ayesh said. "It doesn't mean that most of the women who cover their heads, they are [religious]. But some of them, really, they're afraid to go outside the homes without covering."
Gaza security officials are investigating the possibility that these vigilante moralists have the tacit, or even explicit, backing of Hamas.
Investigator Abu al Abed didn't want his full name used to protect his safety. The security forces are dominated by men like Abed, men who are loyal to Hamas rival Fatah.
Abed said analysis of explosive residue links Hamas' underground paramilitary wing — the Izzadine al Qassam brigades — and its more official police force to the wave of attacks.
"Our primary investigation shows that the Swords of Islamic Righteousness includes members of Hamas' Executive Force, and they're supported directly by the Qassam groups," Abed said.
Some in Hamas, investigators say, are working by proxy to do what they can't do openly now that they're leading the government: trying to impose an Islamist social agenda across Gaza.
Hamas supporters dismiss those allegations. The spokesman for Hamas's Executive Force, Islam Sharwan, called the charges that Hamas is behind the Swords of Righteousness ridiculous.
"This is totally incorrect information. Hamas has nothing to do with this group," Sharwan said. "And we're investigating these attacks to protect the Palestinian people. If a member of a faction has done this, they'll be exposed and arrested."
Meantime, at week's end the bodies of the three women — the alleged prostitutes — were retrieved quietly from the Gaza City hospital morgue. One male relative from each family came, the mortician says, and silently took the body away.