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By Laura King, Los Angeles Times

TEL AVIV, Israel — At least 18 Palestinians accused of spying for Israel were executed Friday in the Gaza Strip on the orders of a self-appointed Palestinian “revolutionary court,” Hamas-linked media and witnesses reported.

Meanwhile, in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, a rocket fired from Gaza made a direct hit on a synagogue, badly damaging the structure and causing minor injuries to at least two people, Israeli media said.

The escalating violence in the 6-week-old war follows this week’s collapse of a series of cease-fires and an abrupt suspension of interim negotiations that had been taking place in Cairo, the Egyptian capital. Since Tuesday, Palestinian militants have fired dozens of rockets into Israel, while the Israeli military has responded with a wave of hits against what it describes as terrorist targets.

The executions in Gaza came after pinpoint Israeli airstrikes earlier in the week killed three senior Hamas commanders and took aim at the chief of the group’s military wing, killing his wife and two of his children. Analysts said that to so accurately target the Hamas commanders, Israel’s military would almost certainly have needed human intelligence to supplement electronic surveillance.

Notices posted on walls in Gaza declared that those lined up and shot — apparently including two women, according to a Palestinian human rights group — were “traitors” who had “given information to the enemy” about the location of infiltration tunnels, weapons caches, rocket-launching sites, and the homes of fighters.

Eleven of the accused collaborators were shot and killed in Gaza City’s Katiba Square near Azhar University, according to a Hamas-affiliated radio station, and the other seven were executed near the Omari mosque after Friday prayers. Photos posted on Hamas-linked websites purportedly showed some of the condemned, their heads covered in paper bags, being forced to their knees in front of a wall, with bloodstains marking the ground in the aftermath.

Most Palestinians are well aware of the lethal consequences of cooperating in any way with Israeli forces, but informants often play a major role in pinpoint attacks against wanted fugitives from Palestinian militant factions. Some collaborators are offered inducements such as exit permits in order to provide information to Israel; others have reported being blackmailed or coerced into spying. And some are wrongly accused by Palestinian militant groups.

Thursday’s killing of three Hamas commanders in the southern town of Rafah was a major blow against the command structure of the group’s military wing, the Qassam Brigades. Another strike on Tuesday, in the Gaza neighborhood of Sheikh Radwan, was aimed at the top Hamas military commander, Mohammed Deif, and killed his wife, an infant son and toddler daughter. Israeli media reports strongly suggested that Deif might have been killed as well, but officials did not report any definitive proof and Hamas insisted he was still alive.

Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

This story has been updated.

AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams

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