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How Israel builds its fifth column

Palestinian collaborators face mob justice, and fuel a culture of suspicion

By Catherine TaylorSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 22, 2002


Hani knew it was wrong.

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But the young Palestinian says he couldn't resist the woman who seduced him in a field near his house two years ago. And he never suspected what was to come.

In the middle of the tryst, the couple was ambushed by Israeli security agents who told Hani (not his real name) that his wife would be informed of the infidelity unless he cooperated. He says he now suspects he was set up, but he admits he was an easy target – wanted for a raft of petty crimes and a wallet full of fake identity cards. Within days he had agreed to trade his freedom for life as a collaborator.

Across the West Bank and Gaza Strip many thousands of Palestinians like Hani have been successfully coopted as informers. Precise numbers of those on Israel's payroll are unknown but figures of up to 15,000 have been suggested by human rights groups.

Israel's use of informants has prevented numerous suicide bombings. Yet in addition to enhancing Israeli security, collaboration has also developed a culture of suspicion such that anyone who runs a successful business or has access to hard-to-get permits is often suspected.

In Hani's case, the motivation was fear, not greed. "I agreed to work with them in return for clemency," he says. "I agreed to help them solve cases involving theft and drug dealing."

Last year Hani says his Israeli supervisor contacted him and asked that he watch two men from his West Bank village – one a member of Hamas, and the other from Fatah. "I didn't want to do it but he said that he merely wanted to know their movements," Hani says. "I gave away extensive information about them. But fear came over me that they planned to do more than just monitor them. I saw on television how Israel was assassinating people and how they went after them methodically. I came to the conclusion I was helping this to happen and I ran away."

Hani's odd behavior was noted by Palestinian police, who arrested him. He says it was a relief to escape "this deep hole I had gotten myself into. I confessed everything. I spoke faster than my interrogator could write."

A crucial role

Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, that transferred chunks of the Occupied Territories to Palestinian Authority control, the recruitment of collaborators has become a crucial plank of Israel's security apparatus. The role begins simply – passing details of a neighbor's car number plate or place of work. As collaborators are drawn more deeply into the system they may be asked to infiltrate the highest levels of militant and political groups or set up targets for arrest and assassination. Israel has stepped up its policy of targeted assassination during this intifada, typically using collaborators to arrange the hit, as they did with Hani.

"Where would Israel be without collaborators?" asks Moshe Kuperburg, a former agent with Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, who recruited and ran a network of informers in the West Bank before retiring in 1999. "It's simple. We'd be up [a] creek."

Incursion as recruitment drive

Saleh Abdul Jawwad, head of the political science department at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah, believes collaborator recruitment was one aim of Israel's recent offensive in the West Bank. Hundreds of Palestinian men were rounded up. The declared goal was to root out the militants among them, but Mr. Jawwad says during interrogation many were offered opportunities to collaborate.

"In most countries you are detained or imprisoned because you do something wrong, or plan to," he says. "Here almost the entire adult male population has been through this experience. I see it as a kind of refinery for producing collaborators."

Hani's story is backed up by research from human rights organizations including Israeli human rights group B'tselem and Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG).

Both have recorded testimonies from those with criminal records detailing how they were offered freedom in exchange for information. Others were shown photographs of female relatives undressing in fashion store changing rooms, and told the images would be circulated unless they agreed to collaborate. "There are many taboos in Palestinian society that create opportunities to pressure people into collaboration," says Jawwad.

'Sophisticated methods'

Mr. Kuperburg, a wiry, energetic man with a wide smile and ready charm, says his methods were more sophisticated, centered on disillusioning young militants against the organizations they joined by pointing out inconsistencies in the extremist rhetoric, or the failure of the groups to achieve the Palestinian state they claimed to be fighting for.