``You have small children,'' the Israeli secret service agent, known to his prisoners only as ``Captain Rami,'' reminded Mohammed. ``Why stay in this heat and dust?'' the agent asked, referring to Israel's Ketziot prison where Muhammad - charged with no crime - had so far served half of a six-month term under ``administrative detention.''
``There's a shorter way if you and I cooperate,'' Rami said. ``I will talk to the intelligence officer in your area, there will be cooperation between you and him, and you will go home.''
Though Rami's air-conditioned office had provided the first respite in weeks from the blistering summer heat of the Negev Desert, Muhammad says he didn't hesitate: ``If I go home, I don't want to go home that way.''
The reply cost Muhammad 90 more days in the cramped tent city of Ketziot. But his refusal to collaborate dealt one more blow to Israel's unraveling network of informers in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
For 21 years, Palestinian collaborators were the eyes and ears of the Israeli occupation. Now, motivated by the nationalist aims of their 10-month uprising against Israel - and in many cases by fear of retaliation from fellow-Arabs - Palestinians are refusing to cooperate. The effect has been to place at risk Israel's vaunted intelligence network, which is crucial to maintaining effective control over the territories, several Israeli and Palestinian sources say.
``The Israelis have used fear and collaborators to maintain control of the territories,'' says Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab. ``Now the fear is gone and the collaborators have disappeared.''
Just who is and who isn't a collaborator is a highly subjective call. Palestinians tend to suspect those Arabs who hold senior positions in the Israeli civil administration that runs the West Bank. Another suspect group is the mukhtars, or village leaders, some of whom provide services to the authorities or Jewish settlers in return for Israeli documents - travel permits, family reunification permits - that can then be sold for a profit.
During the first months of the uprising, alleged collaborators were forced to recant before the entire village, often at the mosque after Friday prayers. Israeli-supplied guns were turned in and the accused would vow ``not to repeat harm to our people,'' Mr. Kuttab says. ``It was a kind of political and religious repentance.''
Dealing with collaborators is now the work of Palestinian ``hit squads,'' Palestinian sources say. Punishments are assigned sparingly, only after warnings to reform have gone unheeded, they say.
Open cooperation with the occupation authorities was dealt its most serious setback earlier this month when two Palestinian collaborators were murdered.
Masked men used AK-47 rifles to gun down Mustafa Abu Bakr, an Israeli-appointed mukhtar, in Bidya, near the West Bank city of Nablus. On the same day, Oct. 6, 25-year-old Ahmed Zarour was shot and killed in a coffee shop in the Israeli Arab town of Umm el Fahm, where he had been hiding since being chased out of his West Bank village of Anin for being a collaborator.
It was the first time a mukhtar had been killed and the first time a West Bank resident had been killed inside Israel.
Palestinian sources say the two deaths, raising to nine the number of suspected collaborators killed since the start of the Arab uprising last December, has loosened the grip of the occupation.
Of the estimated hundreds of collaborators who have not been killed or assaulted, most have ``repented'' or been driven out of the territories. Those who remain live ``like rabbits in holes,'' a West Bank source says.
``Shin Bet [Israel's secret police] now has to do its own work instead of relying on collaborators to help,'' says Kuttab. ``The problem is, with more than 500 towns and villages in the West Bank, the Army and Shin Bet can't be every place at once.''
One result: In the past, Palestinians could be sentenced by Israeli judges on the basis of information received from collaborators in open court. Now far fewer cases are based on such positive identification. That may be one reason that Israeli authorities have resorted to mass arrests and detentions under administrative orders based on ``secret'' information that may not exist at all, Palestinian sources speculate.
Just how seriously Israel takes the erosion of its intelligence capabilities was illustrated by its reaction several months ago after Muhammad Ayed, a suspected collaborator, was lynched in the West Bank village of Kabatiya.
For the next six weeks Israeli authorities laid siege to the village, placing it under curfew, cutting off phone, water, and power lines, and banning sales of the town's principal products. It was the harshest collective punishment imposed since the uprising began.
``The reaction is enormous,'' says a resident of Kabatiya who, like other Palestinian and Israeli sources interviewed on the subject, asked not to be identified. ``It's worse than if a Jew had been killed. When collaborators are killed or threatened the Army has to act because the whole system is breaking down.''