Israel’s enduring use of Palestinian collaborators to entrench the occupation and destroy Palestinian resistance was once the great unmentionable of the Middle East conflict.
When the subject was dealt with by the international and local media, it was solely in the context of the failings of the Palestinian legal system, which allowed the summary execution of collaborators by lynch mobs and kangaroo courts.
That is beginning to change with a trickle of reports indicating the extent of Israel’s use of collaborators and the unwholesome techniques it uses to recruit them. “Co-operation”, it has become clearer, is the very backbone of Israel’s success in maintaining its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Collaboration comes in various guises, including land dealers, who buy Palestinian-owned land to sell it to settlers or the Israeli government; armed agents who assist Israeli soldiers in raids; and infiltrators into the national organisations and their armed wings who foil resistance operations.
But the foundation of the collaboration system is the low-level informant, who passes on the titbits of information about neighbours and community leaders on which Israel’s system of control depends.
Recent reports in the Israeli media, for example, suggest that the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, far from reducing the opportunities for collaboration, may actually have increased them. The current siege of the Strip — in which Israel effectively governs all movement in and out of Gaza — has provided an ideal point of leverage for encouraging collusion.
Masterminding this strategy is the Israeli secret police, the Shin Bet, which has recently turned its attention to sick Gazans and their relatives who need to leave the Strip. With hospitals and medicines in short supply, some patients have little hope of recovery without treatment abroad or in Israel.
According to the Israeli branch of Physicians for Human Rights, the Shin Bet is exploiting the distress of these families to pressure them to agree to collaborate in return for an exit permit.
Last month, the group released details of 32 cases in which sick Gazans admitted they were denied permits after refusing to become informants.
One is Shaban Abu Obeid, 38, whose pacemaker was installed at an Israeli hospital and needs intermittent maintenance by Israeli doctors. Another, Bassam Waheidi, 28, has gone blind in one eye after he refused to co-operate and was denied a permit.
But these cases are only the tip of an enormous iceberg. Those Palestinians who refuse to collaborate have every interest in making their problems public. By contrast, those who agree to turn informant have no such interest.
As with other occupation regimes, Israel has long relied on the most traditional way of recruiting collaborators: torture. While a decision by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1999 banned torture, the evidence suggests the Shin Bet simply ignored the ruling.
Two Israeli human rights groups, B’Tselem and Hamoked, found last year that seven “special” interrogation methods amounting to torture are still being regularly employed, including beatings, painful binding, back bending, body stretching and prolonged sleep deprivation.
Detention provides other opportunities for recruitment. In the past 17 years alone, 150,000 Palestinians have been prosecuted by the military regime. According to the Israeli group Yesh Din, 95 per cent of these trials end in plea bargains, offering yet another chance to persuade a detainee to turn informant in return for a reduced sentence.
Cell-sharing in Israel’s prison system, as Salah Abdel Jawwad, a Ramallah-based political scientist, has observed, is also the perfect environment in which the Shin Bet can collect data not only about the detainee but also about the wider society from which he or she is drawn.
With hundreds of thousands of Palestinians having passed through its prisons since 1967, Israel has been able “to control the population from an early stage”, Mr Abdel Jawwad said, “particularly because it is able to identify those who are the potential future leaders of the society.”
An example of the use of pressure during detention emerged last week when a gag order was lifted on the case of Hamed Keshta, 33, from Gaza. A translator for news agencies and the European Union, he was arrested in July when he tried to use a permit to cross the border into Israel for a meeting with his EU employers.
Mr Keshta said he was taken into detention and offered the chance to turn collaborator. When he refused, interrogations by the Shin Bet “began in earnest”, the Haaretz newspaper reported. He was held for a month, accused of serious charges including “security violations” and conspiring to commit “a crime against state security”.
“I assume that it is the standard interrogation that thousands of other Palestinians undergo,” he noted after his release. “They did not hit me, but I was placed in restraints and forced to sit on a chair”, he said referring to the infamous “shabah” stress position that becomes unbearably painful after a short period. Keshta also had medication withheld.
For decades, the occupation has imposed a system of absolute control on the lives of Palestinians that requires them to apply for permits either from the military regime ruling over them, known misleadingly as the Civil Administration, or from the Shin Bet.
Most Palestinians need a permit to carry out such essential daily tasks as building or altering a home; passing through a checkpoint to visit a relative or reach a hospital; passing through a gate in Israel’s separation wall to farm their land; driving a taxi; receiving import or export licences; leaving the occupied territories, including for business; visiting a relative in prison; winning residence for a loved one; and so on.
There are few Palestinians who have not needed such a “favour” from the military authorities at some point, either for themselves or someone they know. And it is at this point that pressure can be exerted. In her book Sharon and My Mother-in-Law, Suad Amiry describes this process eloquently. In return for help or a permit, a small favour is given by the occupation regime. Once taken, the recipient’s integrity is compromised and slowly greater demands are made.
It is this gentle ensnaring of large sections of the Palestinian population — together with open threats of physical violence to smaller sections of the population — that ensure collaboration with the occupation is endemic. This, as Israel well understands, creates an environment that frustrates successful resistance, which requires organisation, co-operation and intelligence-sharing between armed factions. As soon as the circle widens beyond a few individuals, one of them is likely to be an informant.
The result can be seen in the dismal failure of most armed acts of resistance, as well as the ease with which Israel picks off Palestinian leaders it “targets” for execution.
Mr Abdel Jawwad calls this approach “psychological warfare” against Palestinians, who are made to believe that their society is “weak, sickly and composed of untrustworthy characters”.
In short, it encourages social fragmentation in which Palestinians come to believe that it is better to stab their neighbour in the back before they get stabbed themselves.