When Israel recruits Palestinian informants, Arab society pays the price

With every wave of political tension, Israel recruits new Palestinian informants en masse. They are resettled in Arab cities, where their presence prompts violence rates to surge. In fact, many will be murdered before even ‘making it.’

By Makbula Nassar (translated by Gila Norich)

Aouni, who owns the neighborhood grocery in Haifa, wants me to talk on my radio show about the collaborators roaming free and unfettered through the streets of the city. But he wants to be featured anonymously, much like the pseudonym Aouni, which I have assigned him here.

“I’ll send you everything in writing,” he says.

“Why?” I ask.

“Because I don’t want to get into any trouble.”

“Get into trouble with whom? With collaborators?”

“No, I don’t want to get into trouble with the police.”

A violence that has its own informants

Through perhaps unnecessary, it is not hard to understand the source of his fear. We agree that I will read his words during the broadcast and stimulate some discussion among listeners. Two days later Aouni backs out. He saw a film on Channel 10 about Shin Bet officers — a different type of collaborator, yet still a product of the “inside” that specializes in snitching — and came to the conclusion that it was not even worth bringing up.

The family of Mahrous Zbeidat at a memorial football match held in his honor. (photo: Wael Awad)
The family of Mahrous Zbeidat at a memorial football match held in his honor. (photo: Wael Awad)

I understand him. It is widely held that collaborators feel they are above the law — and are regarded as such. Last year, Khalil Mahroum, the owner of an Arab grocery in Haifa, was murdered. Mahroum taught physical education, was a paramedic, and volunteered in his community. He was alerted to intervene on behalf of his son who was being attacked for refusing to sell cigarettes to a minor, the son of a family of collaborators. Cameras capture the son being brutally beaten with rakes, then Khalil being shot to death in cold blood during a fight that quickly escalated. The killer was the minor’s grandfather, a former collaborator from the territories (according to reports) to whom the state had given full citizenship and resettled in the heart of Arab Haifa, where he served as a member of Israel’s internal security services, the Shin Bet.

Haifa is also still reeling from the vicious murder of young Mahrous Zbeidat. Zbeidat asked his neighbors, an established family of collaborators, to stop harassing his younger sister. He had a chair thrown at him from above through a window, and was brutally stabbed several times in the back as he tried to flee. Mahrous was a wonder child; a distinguished young athlete, actor, and creator, who had dedicated his life to the fight against violence. A true soldier. Sadly, I learned of his existence only after his murder; I saw his work and could not believe that such an angel had lived among us and now was no more.

Slacking the rope

In the terrible aforementioned incidents, the suspects were arrested and charged. But these are not the incidents Aouni is alluding to; the daily fights, disturbances, the controlled terror without even a flicker of concern on the part of the authorities, or the police. This is confirmed by an Arab volunteer in the Haifa police, whose name I won’t reveal. I ask him, “Are the actions of informants typically overlooked by police?” The answer was yes, in several incidents, but not in regard to serious offenses. Aouni is a not a coward, but he does not want protection only after succumbing to a serious offense either.

No research definitively confirms the percentage of collaborators known to be involved in criminal offenses or how many murders have been committed within the Arab communities where they have been placed. The number is simply not recorded in police registers; it is not information that the State of Israel tracks. But a string of bloody incidents and hundreds of reports in both the Arabic and Hebrew press attest to the extent of the problem.

Acts of intimidation and abuse within the local population at the hands of collaborators is not infrequent, including the use of firearms, which are given to them by the state. They know the state will forgive the “insignificant nonsense” that happens with the neighbors. They know that they, the informants, are important, and it is important to the state that they are kept happy. Otherwise their ability to recruit new collaborators may be jeopardized.

Whoever shoved the collaborators into Arab cities never envisioned the explosive situation it would create. On one side, a population that sees them as vile traitors, on the other, the collaborators themselves, who believe they are entitled to certain privileges. We are witnessing local residents themselves become victims of the occupation. There is a price for all this intelligence, the targeted and non-targeted assassinations, the ongoing occupation and the settlements, the cost of which is billed to us and mailed directly home (all of this, of course, does not count the damage and suffering caused to the Palestinians of the territories, who also suffer as a direct result of these same collaborators).

The relationship between resettling informants in the midst of the Arab towns and villages and the rising level of violence and murders in those same areas was mentioned in almost every interview I held while preparing this piece. It is a continuous flow, dating back to the First Intifada, and an important number that must be checked. And this is not to claim that that the Arab population is faultless or devoid of violence.

But until the dozens of murder cases that have remained open for two decades already — without any suspects — are solved, and until we uncover the identity and background of the perpetrators and the sources of the massive number of weapons that have seeped into the hands of the Arab population, we wont know if this violence is ours alone, or whether there has been some “collaboration” behind it.

What don’t we know about informants?

Hebrew University Professor Menahem Hofnung, whose article, “The Price of Information: Absorption and Rehabilitation of Israeli Security Forces in Israeli Cities,” which is still in its final stages and has yet to be published, is among the few to have looked into the issue of informants and collaborators. His research, in a sense, sums up all that we know intuitively about the issue.

A memorial for Mahrous Zbeidat. (photo: Wael Awad)
A memorial for Mahrous Zbeidat. (photo: Wael Awad)

The first fact his research substantiates is that, simply put, Israel sees its agents as cannon fodder. Israel is not too worried that hundreds of its informants are murdered by their own people before even receiving the coveted title of “collaborator.” This fact does not prevent the mass recruitment of new collaborators with every wave of political tension, despite the high likelihood that many of them will be killed. According to research published by B’Tselem in 1994, during the First Intifada alone approximately 900 people deemed collaborators were murdered because “amil” (“agent” in Arabic) is the heaviest form of guilt Palestinian society can employ, guilt that can chase the person and tarnish his family for generations.

Looking at the many waves of collaborators who have been absorbed over the years shows that the recruitment of large numbers of collaborators coincides primarily with peaks of new settlement building. We are talking about a continuous flow, and the number of collaborators petitioning for recognition has only risen in recent years. It is a constant attempt to establish control and [Jewish] settlement on Palestinian territory — an attempt, according to the research, which certainly informs the policy of relying upon informants.

The informant absorption basket

Of course, the price of information is money — a lot of money. The plan is that whoever survives from among the collaborators is left to enjoy the spoils. The State of Israel owes something to the survivors who flock to it after their service has expired. Collaborators do not betray their people for the sake of Zionism or to save Jewish lives. They do it simply for the money and for citizenship in the “Garden of Eden.” It is estimated that informants number into the thousands, though the exact figure remains elusive. According to the research, their economic cost is estimated to be in the billions.

Where are they resettled? This fact can be substantiated with a simple test of the eye and without much research. The State of Israel sprinkles them (and rightfully so!) in Arab villages or in poor urban neighborhoods. Research finds that we rarely see them being resettled in wealthier towns or in the settlements, even if they would have preferred it. Israel has made sure that their absorption basket be restricted to certain types of housing. This assumes that they all have the status of “collaborator.” Research shows that hundreds are still trying to claim this status, and meanwhile, Israeli courts don’t recognize them.

According to the same research, 30 percent of those petitioning for recognition as “collaborators” were found to have criminal pasts. Plenty of data is missing of course, leading us to believe that the number could be even higher. Many became collaborators in order to escape prison sentences, which is why collaborators “unload their cargo” in the cities where they end up.

In the 1990s, with a wave of informants coming out the First Intifada following the withdrawal from West Bank cities, Israel resettled thousands of collaborators in Arab towns and villages inside Israel. Tensions overflowed in Baka Al Gharbiyyah due to the collaborators’ tendency to “expand” their absorption basket, which included a certain entitlement to violence and bullying. In 1999, an informant residing in the city shot his neighbor in a conflict over a parking spot. In response, a raging crowd formed, setting fire to the homes of some collaborators. Two boys from Baka who participating in the protests died after being trapped inside one of the homes. There was never any record or investigation of those events, which were known at the time as the “Baka riots” — or of many similar ones that took place over that same period and were linked to collaborators. All we have is our memory and the court files.

The pogrom didn’t help Baka. Instead, it left a deep and painful scar. Professor Hofnung believes it was this event that caused a shift in Israeli policy. From that point on, the “burden” was be distributed among other Arab towns, as well as mixed towns, development towns, and the Jewish periphery, where the common denominator was poverty and an inability to resist.

A dual source of violence

Since then the waves of collaborators have only increased. For example, the mass migration of informants over to the “other side” of the current separation barrier, or when collaborators were wooed into Israel following the Gaza disengagement in 2005. That year, the towns in the Triangle region in northern Israel were seething from the rising number of collaborators being settled in their midst, forming a sensitive seam line with the territories. In the village of Umm al Kataf, the state began distributing plots of land to the collaborators, which in turn agitated local residents. In the conflict that ensued, collaborators shot dead Fahmi Kabaha, a father of ten from the village.

Scores of meetings were held in Umm al-Fahm, a city at the forefront of the conflict, in order to coordinate how to deal with the problem — specifically the involvement of collaborators in crime — as if the Arab population inside Israel doesn’t have its own sources of destruction.

Sometimes these sources collide. Such was the case of the double murder that happened in Gatt last February, a village in the Triangle, which left Mukhtar (17) and Ahmed Witad (27) dead. Police claim that the motive behind the killings was a conflict among criminals, which turned out to be true. The family claims collaborators were involved.

Professor Hofnung’s research concludes with the insight that mobilizing informants is an unavoidable necessity, and since it must continue, we should improve collaborators’ rehabilitation process within Israeli cities. Personally, I see a different solution: end the demand for informants and collaborators. There is no alternative other than ending the occupation.

Makbula Nasser, active in political and feminist affairs, is a journalist and hosts a show on current affairs on Radio Al-Shams, where she’s worked for over 10 years. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call, where she is a blogger. Read it here.

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