During his trial this week, a bearded, middle-aged man named Munthir Hafnawi stared wanly from behind the metal bars that separated him from a packed, hostile courtroom. "God is aware that I'm innocent," he muttered.
Yesterday, the Palestinian Authority's State Security Court decided otherwise. A three-judge panel convicted him of high treason and sentenced him to death. "God is great," shouted the crowd in the courtroom.
Mr. Hafnawi joins at least eight other Palestinians who are awaiting execution for collaborating with Israel; the PA put two collaborators before firing squads in January. Palestinian human rights lawyers say the PA's collaborator trials are unfair, but the proceedings are more deliberative than the blunt retribution dispensed on the streets. Some 20 suspected collaborators have been killed in recent months.
The murders and executions embody the frustration that many Palestinians feel as their struggle with Israel wears on. This is a lopsided contest, in which the Israelis employ attack helicopters and high-tech missiles while the Palestinians use assault rifles and home-made bombs, so killing a collaborator offers the Palestinians a tangible means of hitting Israel.
Working with the enemy is considered treason in any conflict, but fewer warring groups are more enmeshed than the Israelis and the Palestinians. The hand that throws a rock at an Israeli soldier may well accept a salary from an Israeli employer.
During 34 years of occupying the Palestinian territories, Israel has sought to make the Palestinians economically dependent on the Jewish state. Today, despite the intifada, or uprising, of the past 10 months, many Palestinians still manage to work in Israel. The PA continues to rely on Israel for water and electricity. Rumors abound among Palestinians about prominent members of their society who maintain business links with Israeli companies or even the Israeli government.
Choosing between working with the Israelis and fighting them has always been the $64,000 dilemma in Palestinian society. For most of the past decade, PA President Yasser Arafat and his aides have openly advocated negotiation, cooperation, and peacemaking as a means to settle the conflict and end Israeli occupation.
Hard-line parties such as the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, have instead insisted on confrontation and resistance. Israeli and Palestinian observers, say the PA's credibility is withering as Hamas and Islamic Jihad gain popularity.
The line that separates collaboration and cooperation is becoming increasingly fine. The extrajudicial murders of suspected collaborators may perk up the neck hairs of Palestinian officials who have advocated cooperation and negotiation with Israel. The PA is attempting to style itself as the only arbiter of collaboration.
"The Palestinian Authority rejects and condemns every attempt by any party to take the law into its hands," said an Aug. 3 PA statement on collaborator killings. "The Palestinian Authority is the only responsible party for taking legal measures against those who try to harm the high national interests of the Palestinian people."
In trying Hafnawi, the State Security Court found a suspect who would have a hard time denying collaboration.
Palestinian police came looking for Hafnawi just hours after the assassination of Mahmoud Madani, a leading member of Hamas, on Feb. 19. Madani was walking home after noon prayers at his Nablus mosque when men drove up in a car and shot him, Nablus governor Mahmoud Aloul later told reporters.
Israeli officials did not publicly take responsibility for the killing, but they have acknowledged carrying out "interception operations" against Palestinians suspected of planning attacks against Israelis. Israeli officials said Madani had been involved in car bomb attacks that killed two Israelis and wounded more than 100.
Hafnawi's trial in the State Security Court made clear why he came under suspicion. The prosecution relied heavily on a confession that Hafnawi wrote during his detention and which he variously retracted and accepted during the trial. During one examination, Hafnawi admitted he had provided information to Israeli intelligence agents since his university days in 1979.
Hafnawi typically accepted payments of $75 to $150, even though he has prospered as a garment merchant for two decades. One of his homes, a multilevel structure overlooking part of Nablus and outlying refugee camps, betrays an architectural sophistication lacking in the cinderblock-and-cement construction surrounding it.
According to the confession, Hafnawi met with an Israeli officer in Tel Aviv in January and pointed out the location of Madani's shop and home on a map. Hafnawi also identified Madani in pictures. At this meeting, he admitted in court, Hafnawi took a payment of $500.
But Hafnawi denies helping the Israelis kill Madani. Instead, he said in court, in early February he sent his daughter's fiancé to tell Madani that Hafnawi had received an anonymous phone call indicating that the Hamas activist was in danger.
But the prosecution and the judges observed that Hafnawi did not tell the authorities about the warning or try to protect Madani. The chain of events on Feb. 19 indicated that Hafnawi may have been able to provide the Israelis with precise information about Madani's whereabouts.
Hafnawi's trial had some of the trappings of due process - a defense lawyer, sworn testimony by witnesses, a panel of apparently impartial judges - but Palestinian human rights lawyers say that such proceedings are legally flawed.
"Everyone knows the State Security Court operates outside the context of the international standards of a fair trial," says Bassem Eid, director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, a private advocacy group based in Jerusalem.
He and Raji Sourani, a lawyer who runs a similar organization in the Gaza Strip, say the trials are unfair because defendants are often subjected to torture; Palestinian security services rely on informants rather than on investigation; courts must frequently appoint defense counsel because private lawyers refuse to defend accused collaborators; and there is no court of appeal. Only Mr. Arafat can overturn or modify judgments of the court.
"We don't believe justice can be achieved in these kangaroo courts," says Mr. Sourani.
Indeed, Hafnawi at times claimed his confession was coerced. He was represented in the trial by a police officer with a law degree because private lawyers declined to take his case. And several close family members say they had never been interviewed by investigators.
One of the judges in the Hafnawi case, who spoke anonymously, says he ensures that the confessions used are those made to the State Security Court prosecutor and not to intelligence agents, who are often assumed to use harsher methods of interrogation. The judge said he viewed a videotape of Hafnawi making his confession and saw that no coercion was taking place.
He said that doctors certify that torture does not occur and that handwriting experts are called in to make sure that forged confessions are not submitted to the court.
But the judge acknowledged that accused collaborators represent more than just themselves. "What is on trial is the Israeli occupation," he said, and collaborators "are the invisible soldiers of the occupation."
The trials also take place in a highly charged atmosphere. "I want to spit in his face," one Madani relative screamed as a hearing in Hafnawi's trial adjourned one day this week. "You insect," another woman cried. "You deserve death."
On Sunday, Madani's mother interrupted court proceedings with loud, tearful outbursts about Hafnawi's guilt. Nablus governor Aloul, after a brief attendance in the courtroom, leaned close to her on his way out. "Don't worry," he said in a low voice that was heard by this reporter's translator. "You'll get what you want."