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Shadow World of Israel’s Palestinian Informants Spawns Three Acclaimed Films

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It’s been a decade since suicide bombs exploded inside Israel with anything approaching regular frequency. Attacks on Israeli soldiers remain rare enough that, when they do happen, they generate international headlines. But the “quiet” in the conflict between Palestinians and Israel has always been relative. In the realm of intelligence, the contest has ground on, sometimes ferociously, but almost entirely out of sight.

Three new movies bring the struggle into the open. All three are set in the interrogation rooms where Israeli agents coerce Palestinians to reveal plans for attacks. Each has won acclaim, and each approaches the matter from a different perspective.

Omar, an Oscar finalist for Best Foreign Film, unfolds from the vantage of a young Palestinian arrested after helping to kill an Israeli soldier, and pressured mercilessly by his captors to turn informer.

The Green Prince, winner of an audience award at the Sundance Film Festival, is a sleek documentary about the unlikely real-life relationship between an Israeli intelligence officer and his marquee source, the trusted eldest son of a founder of Hamas.

Bethlehem, currently in theatrical release in the United States, is a thriller. Set in the Palestinian city adjoining Jerusalem, the story is propelled by the fraught relationship between an Israeli agent and a Palestinian teenager who informs on his older brother, the leader of a suicide bombing cell during the Second Intifada (which ended around 2005). Co-written by its director, a Jewish Israeli, and a Palestinian journalist who is also an Israeli citizen, Bethlehem galvanized Israeli audiences by focusing not on one side of the conflict, but on the morally hazardous middle ground where intelligence is gathered.

“The atmosphere reminded me of my life,” says Gezer, a retired field officer with Israel’s internal intelligence agency, Shin Bet, who saw Bethlehem with a TIME reporter but was interviewed on condition only his nickname be published. “I mean the tension, the tempo, the stress.”

The attention to realistic detail in Bethlehem is such that Shin Bet arranged to screen the film for its agents. Indeed, all three films are profoundly authentic.

“Both Omar and Bethlehem, which are wonderful films, are fiction, but fiction based on events like The Green Prince,” says Nadav Schirman, who directed the documentary, which opens in U.S. theaters this fall. “The relationship between handler and source is at the root of all three of these movies. It dates back to forever, in a way to Judas and the Romans. There’s always a relationship between the conquered and the conqueror.”

Director Hany Abu-Assad found the inspiration for Omar in a newspaper story about a love triangle fatally complicated by the involvement of Shin Bet. But the director traced his interest in distrust and paranoia to a feeling that came over him while making his acclaimed 2005 feature Paradise Now—that he was being watched.

“You start becoming insane,” Abu-Assad recalls. “You start not to trust anybody, because this feeling became so intense.” At one level, he found himself harking to the words of a former Shin Bet director, who described the agency’s ultimate goal as leaving Palestinians uncertain they could trust anyone. At another level, he realized that in his new film, Omar’s ardent love for the sister of a friend would prove his greatest vulnerability.

“The worst paranoia you can get as a human being is also from love,” says the director, a native of Nazareth. “When you are in love and you don’t trust your lover, every look, every SMS, is suspect. Nothing is worse.”

And that, all three filmmakers agree, is also the reality facing most informants. Some 800,000 Palestinians have been in Israeli custody since 1967, and in the name of preventing attacks, every one might have been pressured to turn informant by men trained to find a weakness and exploit it. “The phenomenon itself makes you want to recoil from it,” says Yuval Adler, who directed Bethlehem. “What we are trying to do is find ways to access it without recoiling.”

The solution was making the informant in Bethlehem a kid: Sanfur, slang for “Smurf,” was 15 when he was recruited by a Shin Bet field officer, who assumed the of surrogate father. Two years later the handler had grown genuinely protective, at the crucial point in the film putting his own career in jeopardy to steer the youth away from danger.

That situation mirrors the history related by The Green Prince. The Israeli agent running Mosab Hassan Yousef grew so attached to the Hamas informant that he was drummed out of Shin Bet. Among the rules he breached was one barring meeting a source unless accompanied by bodyguards.

“The thing we tried to get in the movie is this duality of intimacy and exploitation,” says Adler. “The handler oscillates between the needs of the asset and the organization. They always have to manage the betrayal of the asset.”

But, always, the asset will be betrayed. Even Yousef—who volunteered as an informant after recoiling from the brutality of Hamas—ends up in tears describing being abandoned by the intelligence institution for which he had risked his life.

And his case was as good as it gets. Most informants work for money, or because their Israeli handlers exercise brutal leverage over them—perhaps a permit that allows them to quadruple their daily wage by working inside Israel; perhaps just that they have worked for them, a fact that could easily get them killed as a traitor.

It’s a morally unpleasant transaction that is driven by “interests,” Gezer says. “How am I supposed to fall in love with a guy I see for an hour once a month?” the former field officer asks. “I loved a source when at the end of the meeting I had a few pages of good material. I hated him when at the end of the meeting, I didn’t. After all, the source is a tool. And everybody has to remember it.”

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