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Since the aerial attack on Gaza began, Hamas has sought to suppress individuals it believes endanger the group's fight against Israel and its hold on power in the Strip, as well as public morale. Prime targets include Fatah members, people convicted or suspected of collaborating with Israel, and "common" criminals.

"Hamas rules with an iron fist even now," said one resident. A political activist who says he supports neither Hamas nor Fatah said that given the difficult conditions created by the ongoing shelling and ground invasion, Hamas is likely to try to prevent collaborators or those suspected to be from working with Israel.

Since the operation began on December 27, Hamas operatives have executed several people it classified as collaborators. Members of the group have confirmed the executions took place, and said the victims had admitted giving information to the Shin Bet security service that resulted in the deaths of Palestinians, or had already been sentenced to death by a Palestinian military court but the sentences were delayed for various reasons.

Independent sources said that among the dead were those not known publicly to have been collaborators, as well as others long suspected of cooperation with Israel, or those arrested and later released.

Estimates of the number of suspects executed range from 40 to 80, but amid the prevailing conditions shelling, fear of walking the streets and media blackouts it is virtually impossible to verify the numbers or identities of the dead.

Executions are carried out secretly. In Rafah, for example, at least some of the victims were killed in a caravan erected in the area formerly occupied by the Rafiah Yam settlement, and the victims' relatives were invited to take away the bodies.

Even in the current conditions, Hamas is continuing to arrest those it suspects of criminal activity or Fatah membership, many of whom were arrested on the eve of the IDF operation and fled detention when the shelling began. No one knows where the detained are being held. Independent sources and those linked with Fatah say Hamas' common methods include confiscating cell-phones, beatings, house arrest and firing at a suspect's legs.

Fatah members say Hamas is following a policy dictated from its leadership and directed against Fatah as a whole. An official in the Hamas-run Interior Ministry told Haaretz that the steps were taken only against Fatah members who expressed "happiness" at the aerial attack and even "distributed candy" in the streets as it began. An independent source corroborated Hamas' account.

Fatah officials said last Thursday that notifications were sent to organization members from the public security forces, under the direction of Hamas's Interior Minister Said Siyam, confining them to house arrest for 48 hours. Other Fatah members were ordered not to leave their homes from 7 P.M. until morning.

Hamas is also targeting common crime, promising the public that prices will not rise due to the closures of crossings into Gaza, nor will looting be allowed from stores that have been shelled.