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The Enemy Within

6 minute read
Matt Rees/Jerusalem.

The accused are doomed from the start. The judges refer to them openly as “traitors.” No private lawyers will represent them, and their government-appointed attorneys put up little or no defense. Palestinians arrested for collaborating with the Israelis are a pitiable lot. Even relatives keep their distance, out of both shame and fear. In a Nablus courtroom two weeks ago, the nephew of a Palestinian official assassinated by the Israelis beat up a relative of the collaborator on trial for helping carry out the hit. But the simple allegation that one is a collaborator can be a death sentence. This year suspected collaborators have been shot in front of their families or in parking lots on busy streets. No one pursues their killers. With every Israeli hit on a Palestinian leader, the search for traitors intensifies. In the past two weeks five suspects have been lynched; six have been given death sentences. “It’s a witch-hunt,” says Bassem Eid, a human-rights activist. “There’s a huge hatred in society toward the collaborators.”

It is a hatred that has overflowed into paranoia. Last Tuesday, as a handful of Israeli tanks demolished a police station in the town of Jenin in the northern West Bank, which is under Arafat’s control, some Palestinians at first said the Israelis made the dramatic stab in order to rescue 70 collaborators imprisoned there. In fact, there were no such prisoners. The Israelis wanted to punish Jenin, which has been the base for several recent suicide bombers. Yet Palestinians believe that Israel would risk its troops two miles inside enemy territory only to rescue its valuable operatives. Without collaborators, Palestinians say, how would the Israelis have such stunning success targeting and killing activists in Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s own Fatah Party?

The truth is, Israel’s assassinations are six parts gadgetry to four parts information from collaborators. Technology is the foundation of Israel’s intelligence operation. In 1996, Israel completed a $4 million network of antennas in hilltop Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank that enables it to listen in on every cellular-phone call Palestinians make. At the Jerusalem headquarters of military intelligence’s listening division, Unit 8200, computers scan the calls for key words that signal conversations worth a hearing by one of the hundreds of soldiers stationed there. Even with no one on the line, a cell phone emits a signal every few seconds, so Israel can trace the owner constantly. Assassinations are carried out with the aid of unmanned drones that fly high and send back detailed surveillance photos.

Of course, just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. Part of the Palestinian fear is justified. When Israel pulled out of Palestinian towns beginning in 1994, it had to expand its operation for finding and maintaining collaborators to keep track of events now outside its area of control. The Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security force, set up a special unit to select likely collaborators from among the close circles of Hamas activists and Palestinian Authority officials. The Shin Bet men who run the collaborator network in Bethlehem had two mobile homes as offices three years ago. Now they have seven. They have even paved a parking lot and planted a little garden. Each Palestinian town has about 10 agents working its collaborator network.

For Israeli agents, it can be dangerous work. In June Lieut. Colonel Yehuda Edri of Unit 504, which runs the Israeli army’s West Bank network of Palestinian informants, died when a collaborator he had gone to meet outside Bethlehem shot him. Military intelligence changed its procedures to match the Shin Bet, where bodyguards search the collaborator before he meets his handler. Still, only three agents have been killed by collaborators during meetings in the past few years. The collaborators aren’t so lucky. They average three years before they are discovered by their compatriots. Then either they are killed by vigilantes or they flee to Israel. During the first intifadeh of 1987 to 1993, more than 1,000 suspected collaborators were executed by vigilante gangs like the Fatah Hawks. Some were hanged in public squares; others were dumped on lonely roads. Since the Aqsa intifadeh began, some 20 have been lynched and two executed of the 14 sentenced to death by Arafat’s State Security Court; 200 remain under arrest, awaiting trial.

It is money that turns Palestinians into informants. It doesn’t take very much. Collaborators who have confessed to Arafat’s police say they often get as little as $50 for each meeting with a handler. But the desperate economic conditions of the intifadeh, during which unemployment has risen to more than 60%, favor the Israeli recruiters. Despite the sympathy Palestinian court officials feel for the economic straits that push people into collaboration, there is no quarter given at the swift trials in State Security Court.

Human-rights activists criticize the trials. A horrified European Union extracted a promise from Arafat in the spring not to execute any more collaborators after two were put to death by police firing squads. But even the critics say there would be no need for the trials or, perhaps, the mass paranoia if Israel would quit using informants. That would allow the Palestinians to rehabilitate the traitors with a public commission, like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Until then, the collaborators will remain emblematic of a fundamental division in Palestinian society.

There is no chance of Israel’s halting its collaborator operation. It is stepping up activities on all fronts. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon threatened that the next time a Palestinian gunman fires a shot from the town of Beit Jala across the valley to Gilo, a suburb of Jerusalem built on occupied land, Israel will invade the Palestinian town. Last week Israel moved tanks to the edge of Beit Jala as part of what Israeli military officials call a “rolling operation.” As in the Jenin incursion, the aim is to mount different types of actions with constantly varying amounts of force all over the Palestinian territories. Until now, Israel’s attacks have come mostly in predictable trouble spots. The new message is that they could happen anywhere. It is intended to pressure Arafat and his regime by planting the idea that any one of them could wake up in the middle of the night with an Israeli tank rolling by his house. If the collaborators don’t make Arafat’s men paranoid, maybe that will.

–With reporting by Jamil Hamad and Aharon Klein/Jerusalem

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