Palestinian Hit Squads Exact Heavy Toll From Collaborators
SILAT EL-HARITHIYA, OCCUPIED WEST BANK — `I KILLED him with one bullet.... And even one bullet was too good for him."
Abul Hol, dressed in black jeans and bomber jacket, a pistol tucked into his belt, talks matter-of-factly of the way he dealt recently with a brother Palestinian he suspected of collaborating with the Israeli secret service.
But his ruthless violence and the brutality often used by fellow members of the notorious Black Panther group of armed activists are causing deep concern among Palestinian leaders, who admit that young vigilante groups in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip are running wild.
The persistent interrogations, beatings, and killings of suspected collaborators are "going beyond all logic, beyond any limit," says Ghassan Khattib, a prominent member of the Palestinian advisory team to the Middle East peace talks. "I don't know how to control it."
Abul Hol (his nom de guerre), who has been on the run since he joined the Black Panthers two years ago, constantly cracks his knuckles, nervous to be out of hiding during daylight, even in this remote West Bank village near Jenin. He has killed five suspected collaborators in the past 24 months, he says.
Six hundred seventeen Palestinians have been killed by other Palestinians since the intifadah (uprising) began in December 1987, according to Israeli Army figures, compared with the 900 or so shot by Israeli soldiers.
In the first four months of this year 93 alleged collaborators died, a 30 percent increase over the same period in 1991.
The Israeli Army says that the overwhelming majority of victims were not collaborators.
"Nothing has happened to hurt our ability to gather intelligence in the territories," claims Army spokesman Moshe Fogel. Unnecessary punishment
Many Palestinians agree that the Black Panthers, affiliated with Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah faction in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and other armed groups, often mete out unnecessarily vicious punishment.
"Most of the victims are not killed for dangerous collaboration but for informing on minor matters," says Zuheir Debei, the imam of a Nablus mosque and local Fatah activist.
"They are weak, but they are like people on a march who faint; they need help, not stabbing or shooting," he adds.
Palestinians at all levels of society, from Faisal Husseini, a top Palestinian leader, to Abul Hol, agree that certain collaborators, such as those who sell Palestinian land to Israelis or who carry guns issued by the Israeli secret service, deserve the death penalty in the absence of any other practical means of punishment.
That local collaborators with an occupying force will be killed, says Mr. Husseini, is inevitable and in some cases just; he points to the thousands of Frenchmen killed by the resistance for collaborating with the Germans during World War II.
But there is a broad gray area, covering petty informers, businessmen who deal with Israelis and suchlike, where majority Palestinian opinion conflicts with the stricter definitions of the Black Panthers.
Abul Hol insists that his 30 fellow Panthers in the Jenin area "have not made a single mistake" in choosing their victims.
Two weeks ago, for example, Abul Hol's cell killed the Silat el-Harithiya school principal, Ahmed Abul Hamed, with the Uzi machine gun he had been issued by the Israeli Army.
Mr. Hamed was widely known to be a collaborator, and had a desk at the local Israeli Civil Administration office from which he issued permits to work in Israel for a fee, say local residents.
"When he was killed, some people distributed sweets in the street" in celebration, says villager Mustafa Zoweidah.
Other cases, however, are less clear. Since the intifadah began, the Black Panthers have killed three known collaborators from Silat el-Harithiyah "and nobody regretted their deaths," says Mr. Zoweidah and three others.
One was shot while resisting his kidnappers, one died as a result of torture during his interrogation, and a third was killed after being seen in a car with Israeli soldiers on a security sweep.
"Some people here sympathized with them, even if they were collaborating, because they felt they did not deserve to die," says another villager, Muhammad Shawahneh. Other reasons for killings
At the same time, say Israeli officials, many Palestinians killed by other Palestinians are victims of family vendettas, factional disputes, business rivalries, or straightforward criminality.
Although early leaflets issued by the intifadah leadership condoned the killing of certain classes of collaborators, such as Israeli-appointed village leaders, Husseini says that today "the high rank in the leadership insists on not allowing any killings."
In 1990, PLO leader Yasser Arafat is known to have sent a personal message to Black Panthers in Nablus, ordering them to end the wave of murders they had launched. Instead of obeying the command, however, the Panthers "used the message for target practice," laments Mr. Debei, the local Fatah activist.
"The Black Panthers began to depend on themselves, and they don't trust anyone else to take the right decision for them," Husseini says.
Abul Hol claims that while his cell is authorized by standing orders to kill any Palestinian who carries an Israeli-issued weapon or who sells land to Israelis, he refers the decision on whether to kill other suspects to the Black Panthers' Jenin-area central committee.
"I am sure the committee has contact with higher authorities," he says. "If Fatah ordered us not to kill anyone, we would carry out the order to the letter, but I know of no decision to stop killing collaborators." Out of PLO's control
Abul Hol says he is still being paid $130 per month from what he knows to be Fatah funds, despite his continued work of seeking out and killing collaborators.
"I think the Palestinian leadership gave up trying to control this phenomenon a long time ago," says Yizhar Beer, head of the Israeli human rights watchdog B'tselem, which is currently preparing a report on collaborator killings. "They could not stop it."
Husseini admits that more should have been done to control the killings.
"The trouble is that we are caught between the people's demand to get rid of collaborators and the very strong feeling that killing is wrong anyway," he explains.
"It was a mistake for the leadership ... to forbid all killings," he argues. "If the leadership had punished [collaborators] and forbidden anyone else to punish [them], the number of those killed would have been much lower. Now the only solution is to get rid of the occupation."