By Jonathan Cook
Fadi al-Qatshan is one of the latest casualties of a war taking place in Gaza’s shadows, as Israel seeks ever more desperate ways to recruit collaborators while Hamas, the Islamic movement ruling Gaza, enforces tough counter-measures.
The 26-year-old graduate died in November. He was killed not by a bullet or in a missile strike, but when a simple piece of medical hardware – an implant in his heart – failed. His repeated requests to the Israeli authorities over more than a year to be allowed out of Gaza for medical treatment had gone unheeded.
According to his family, Israeli security services knew his life was in danger but denied him a permit to attend a medical appointment at a hospital in East Jerusalem. Gaza’s own hospitals, in crisis after years of Israel’s blockade, warned him they could no longer help.
Following a request for a travel permit, his family says al-Qatshan received a call from someone identifying himself as from the Shin Bet, Israel’s intelligence service. Speaking in Arabic, the man said he knew the device in his heart “might explode any minute”. He was urged to “cooperate” in return for a permit.
Al-Qatshan was told he could call the mobile phone number on his screen and arrange an appointment at Erez, the Israeli-controlled crossing that is the only way for ordinary Palestinians to exit Gaza. The agent reportedly rang off with the words, “See you in Tel Aviv”, Israel’s large coastal city. Al-Qatshan sealed his fate by deleting the number.
Issam Yunis, director of Al-Mezan human rights organisation in Gaza City, says his group regularly records cases of Palestinians in desperate need of medical treatment being approached to collaborate. “The choice for these patients is really a terrible one. It is to cooperate with Israel or die in Gaza.”
Although Israel is suspected of recruiting tens of thousands of Palestinians as collaborators since its creation in 1948, the practice has rarely attracted more than superficial attention. Palestinians are ashamed that cooperation with the Israeli security services is widespread, while Israel is loath to draw attention to the systematic violations of international law at the root of its system of rule in the occupied territories.
But the issue of collaboration is finally emerging from the shadows, assisted in recent months by a spate of films addressing the subject.
In the running for an Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony next month is Omar, a Palestinian film that places the awful dilemmas faced by collaborators at the heart of its love story.
Omar nudged out of the competition Israel’s own entry, Bethlehem, which features a similar story about the fraught relationship between a Shin Bet agent and a young Palestinian informant.
And last month the audience award at the Sundance Festival went to the Green Prince, an Israeli documentary based on the memoirs of Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of a Hamas leader in Gaza who channeled information to the Shin Bet for 10 years before fleeing to the United States. His father, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, was recently released from an Israeli prison.
With Palestinian collaborators a hot topic in Hollywood, they are also in the spotlight in the occupied territories.
A missile strike that killed Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari in November 2012 – the opening salvo in Israel’s eight-day attack on Gaza known as Operation Pillar of Defence – has been widely ascribed to intelligence provided by a collaborator.
In response, Hamas carried out public executions of several suspected informants in the streets of Gaza City, including dragging the body of one behind a motorbike.
According to Hillel Cohen, who has researched Israel’s recruitment of collaborators since the state’s earliest years, the extent of the problem is difficult to assess. Israel keeps most of the archives on its intelligence operations in the occupied territories “tightly classified”.
The use of collaborators, he says, was probably most extensive in the 1970s and ’80s, before Israel handed over areas of the occupied territories to the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo Accords and before the advent of today’s more sophisticated surveillance technology.
Nonetheless, the practice has far from ended.
“Israel still needs people on the ground,” says Cohen. “If they want to place a bomb in a car or supply a phone with a hidden tracking device, someone has to do it. The technology can only help so much.”
According to Saleh Abdel Jawwad, a politics professor at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, there are many different types of collaborators.
In East Jerusalem, for example, where Israel hopes to prevent any future Palestinian control of the city, a feature of life are the “land dealers”, Palestinians who buy land in strategic areas, secretly on behalf of settler organisations.
Israel also uses economic collaborators, who, for example, act as contractors for Israel in selling its products in the occupied territories. Israel has also tried to recruit political collaborators, in an effort to place them in charge of Palestinian communities or weaken candidates Israel opposed.
But Israel prizes most highly the recruitment of active members of Palestinian national organisations, who can provide reliable information on resistance operations or the movements of Palestinian leaders.
Typically, these collaborators are “turned” after their arrest. They may agree to cooperate under torture or as a way to receive a reduced prison sentence, said Morad Jadalah, a researcher with Addameer, a prisoners’ rights organisation in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
But the most common type of collaborator is the informant, who provides general information about the activities of political groups or the movement of individual activists, as well as the names of those taking part in demonstrations.
Jadalah says when Palestinians are arrested, as they try to cross a checkpoint or during a raid on their village, the weakest and most vulnerable – often children – are targeted during interrogation with a mix of threats, violence and inducements.