Wrath of Gaza is felt by those accused of treason

Collaboration with Israel is a capital offence – and retribution is swift

Gaza City

The two saloon cars were blasted by missiles within 300 yards of each other, burnt out and compacted to half their size; a house nearby was the next to be hit, followed by two more in quick succession. The next strike was on a street where people had gathered outside a mosque.

It had been a relatively quiet day in Gaza City, with many more shops opening up after the days of strife and families venturing out into the sunshine. Then all hell broke loose, culminating in what became the bloodiest two hours in the current conflict.

The Israeli raids were followed by terrible retribution against "collaborators" by the Palestinians. Half a dozen men were executed, the bodies of some of them being dragged through the streets roped to motorcycles.

The events had unfolded against a backdrop of flickering hopes of a ceasefire. But early expectations were dashed by deadlock in Cairo last night. At one stage we heard that Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian President, had declared that hostilities would end within hours; Hillary Clinton was on the case and in the region.

At the Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, which had seen a grim procession of ambulances bringing in the injured and the dead over the past six days, the mood was quite relaxed as local people, officials and the media gathered for a visit of foreign ministers from Arab League countries and Turkey.

At 2.08pm, a long-range Qassam rocket, of the type Israel has accused Iran of supplying to Hamas, was fired from within 500 yards of the hospital. It hit Gush Etzion, a Jewish settlement south-east of Jerusalem, an area thought to be beyond the range of Hamas weaponry before the conflict.

Hamas officials at the hospital were asked how firing rockets from such a built-up area could be justified as it is likely to provoke Israeli action. One said Palestinians were merely defending themselves, another that it was probably the work of the Islamic Jihad militia.

The Israeli air strikes, starting off near the hospital, and then spreading to other areas across Gaza, began seven minutes later. They may have been direct reaction to the rocket attack, or, as many people here believe, a last frenzied round of bloodletting before a deal which is said to include the condition that Israel stops assassinations such as that of Hamas military commander Ahmed al-Jabari last week.

Thirty-two ambulances screamed into Shifa in the next three hours, delivering a number of dead bodies including some which had been decapitated. The foreign ministers arrived early in the evening accompanied by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who, along with other senior Hamas officials, has been in hiding out of fear that the Israelis may try to eliminate them.

The two cars destroyed in the Sedra district were targeted hits; seven people were killed. "This is an area with families, there are children playing, the Zionists just don't care," said Osama Wahid.

A missile struck a house on a parallel street. One man was killed, four others were injured. Among those stumbling out of the front door was Uma Mustapha. "Why did they do this? They killed Mahmoud, he is my cousin. What are they going to say, he is a terrorist? He was not involved in anything like that. He was not involved in any kind of politics."

There were other killings taking place in the city. A minibus pulled up, six men were pushed out and then shot from within the vehicle, which then pulled away. A little before the convoy of foreign ministers arrived in four-wheel drives, another convoy, of motorcycles, drove along the road in front of the hospital. A dead man, tied and trouserless, bounced along behind one of them. The policemen lined up to welcome the dignitaries watched in silence.

There was a third convoy coming into the hospital, of ambulances and taxis bearing casualties amid rage with a crowd at the front chanting, "Allah Hu Akhbar". A doctor in one of the front rooms of the hospital washed his arms, covered in blood from elbow to fingertip in blood, in the basin.

The sense of panic was reinforced by calls on mobile telephones of rumours of an invasion. The Israeli military had started dropping leaflets on villages near the border. They said: "The Israeli Defence Forces are not targeting any of you and they do not want to harm you or any of your families. For your safety we demand you evacuate your houses immediately and move towards the centre of Gaza City".

But fear still ruled. Along the largely empty streets, Abidullah Ahmed Rassam was driving with his family in a battered car. They had arrived from al-Qubbah near the border to seek refuge. "Peace? Maybe for a few days, a few weeks. After that, the attacks would start again. We are Palestinians, this is our fate." As he spoke, there were sounds of repeated explosions coming increasingly closer.

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