11:02am

Thu April 14, 2011
NPR Story

Excerpt: This Burning Land

Originally published on Tue November 6, 2012 4:06 pm

Chapter 6

THE INVISIBLE HAND

It would be easy to overlook Sami. He is a paunchy, middle-age Arab man with a crew cut and several days' worth of stubble on his cheeks. He chain-smokes Rothmans cigarettes and wears rumpled pants, an undocked shirt, and a sad look that seems permanently embedded in his dark eyes. He lives in a dingy walk-up apartment in the working-class Israeli town of Bat Yam. Despite its fortuitous location on the Mediterranean coast just south of Tel Aviv, the town has little charm. Row after row of stucco apartment buildings are each as bland as Sami's. If you set eyes on Sami for the first time and were told that he once belonged to one of most secretive and lethal branches in Israel's security services, you might find it difficult to suppress a chuckle. Yet Sami would not let me publish his last name because his work was so sensitive, he believed that it still endangered his safety, although he had been retired for years.

As improbable as his story sounds, Sami's everyman appearance was the perfect disguise for his clandestine work. Sami was a collaborator, or informant, part of an invisible army of Palestinians who supply the Israeli security services with crucial information that can be gleaned only by well-placed Palestinians living among fellow Palestinians. Time and again, collaborators provided the Israeli military and police with the precise, real-time information that allowed them to ambush a would-be suicide bomber while he was in motion toward an Israeli city. These informants stealthily marked cars belonging to Palestinian militants so that Israeli helicopters could swoop in for missile strikes on congested Gaza streets. The collaborators surreptitiously directed Israeli ground troops on raids through labyrinthine Palestinian refugee camps in the middle of the night to snatch those on Israel's most wanted list.

Working as a collaborator is a thankless job that places one's life expectancy on the short end of the actuarial charts. And once a Palestinian signs up, there is no turning back. It is akin to entering the U.S. Witness Protection Program after testifying against the mob. The pay is minimal, and the risks last a lifetime. Israel puts the collaborators in harm's way in order to assist with its security. Palestinian militants do not hesitate to kill fellow Palestinians who are suspected of cooperating with Israel and thereby betraying the Palestinian cause. Despite the considerable downside for informants, the Shin Bet seems to have little trouble recruiting them and maintains a roster of collaborators that surely runs into the hundreds.

We wanted to understand the psychology of the collaborators. What motivated these Palestinians to help Israel capture and kill Palestinian militants? It was not clear whether the collaborators secretly sided with Israel, whether Israel pressured them into the job, or if they were simply doing it for the money.

We picked up fragments, and, every once in a while, a ray of light would shine on this shadowy world. In Sami's case, I knew he lived somewhere on Herzl Street, one of the main thoroughfares in Bat Yam, although I did not have an address. I drove there one evening and began asking around. After several false leads, I found Sami's apartment. He was not there, but his wife, Nadia, invited me in for tea and said I could wait for him. Sami arrived shortly afterward, surprised to see a stranger on his living room couch. As an unexpected bonus, one of Sami's friends dropped by, and he, too, acknowledged that he was a former collaborator. He insisted on the pseudonym Muhammad.

Under normal circumstances, neither of these men would want anything to do with a journalist, but Sami had recently been involved in a bizarre episode that briefly and unhappily resurrected his career as an informer. The incident filled him with bitterness, and he was ready to talk.

Sami's story began at age seventeen when he left his hometown of Jenin in the West Bank and traveled to Lebanon to join Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, which operated there in exile during the 1970s. Sami was trained as a guerrilla fighter and dreamed of destroying the Jewish state. Yet during his four years in Lebanon, from 1976 to 1980, there were no opportunities to kill Israelis.

Instead, Sami became an unwilling participant in Lebanon's nasty civil war. "I was a fighter, and there was a war between the Muslims and the Lebanese Christians," he said. "Somehow I didn't die there, so all of this time since then is just bonus time."

The Arab-versus-Arab bloodbath left Sami deeply disillusioned, and he returned home to Jenin and married Nadia in 1981. Even as he pursued a more mundane existence, Sami stayed in touch with some of his old Fatah comrades, corresponding by mail. Many of his letters went to Tunisia, where Arafat and his movement regrouped after the Israeli forces drove them out of Lebanon in 1982. Sami's letters to Tunisia eventually attracted the attention of the Shin Bet, and the Israelis arrested him in 1987 for his ties to Fatah, which was outlawed at the time. While Sami was behind bars, Israeli security officials periodically tried to persuade him to become an informant.

Israel has tremendous leverage over the lives of Palestinians, and the security forces do not hesitate to invoke this pressure to recruit informers. Palestinian prisoners were prime targets.

After the second intifada began, Israel began large-scale roundups of Palestinian militants and detained roughly ten thousand Palestinians at any given time. The cases against them ranged from stone throwing to mass killings. If Israel was rocked by Palestinian attacks that originated from Jenin, the Shin Bet would round up suspects in that town or simply approach Palestinian prisoners from Jenin who were already in custody. The Shin Bet would then make an offer: provide us with intelligence from your hometown, and we will release you; otherwise, you could languish in jail indefinitely. Most Palestinian prisoners rejected such Israeli offers, but some accepted.

Israel also leaned on Palestinians who had work permits for Israel that needed to be renewed regularly. Before the second intifada, tens of thousands of Palestinians had these prized permits that allowed them to commute to jobs in Israel that paid much better than similar work in the West Bank or Gaza. Israel cut back drastically on the permits after the fighting began. When crossing into Israel, any Palestinian with a permit could be pulled aside by an Israeli security official and told in a less-than-subtle fashion that sharing the names of neighborhood militants was the best way to ensure that a work permit was renewed.

Most often, Israel paid a modest sum, perhaps the equivalent of one hundred dollars a month, for a typical collaborator, according to Palestinian security officials who have investigated such cases.

Yaakov Perry, the director of the Shin Bet for seven years in the 1980s and the 1990s, wrote in his autobiography that payments should be small because "sudden riches arouse suspicion."

Yet with just one small payment, Israel effectively owned a collaborator for life. If the collaborator changed his mind and wanted to quit, the Shin Bet could simply threaten to expose the collaborator to his fellow Palestinians. In reality, Israel would have little interest in revealing its helpers, but few informants were willing to call the bluff. The methods may not be pleasant, but for Israel, the payoff is high. "Good intelligence is the most important thing in fighting terrorism," said Gideon Ezra, a member of Israel's parliament who served more than three decades in the Shin Bet and was second in command before leaving in 1995. The army carries out many of its operations at night in densely packed neighborhoods that are poorly lit, with unmarked streets. Without intelligence, "the army is a bit blind and deaf. The minute a suicide bomber has a bomb, he is a weapon that is already in flight. Only good and accurate information can stop him."

Sami said he repeatedly rebuffed Israeli overtures to recruit him, and he was released after more than four years in prison. When he returned to Jenin in the early 1990s, however, he was shocked by what he described as Fatah's thuggish tendencies. "A Fatah cell was established to kill collaborators," he said. "People were accused of being collaborators and were being killed. I didn't agree with the violence. A person could be sitting with his family and then be dragged away and shot. I thought that should stop."

Despite witnessing this swift demise of suspected collaborators, Sami said that he initiated contact with an Israeli military officer and volunteered. "I told him, 'If there is room for me, I will join.' " He still had contacts in Fatah, and he observed events in Jenin, which has long been a breeding ground for extremists. The intelligence network was still a bit crude in those days, and Sami simply used public pay phones to call in his reports to his Israeli handlers. Yet after a couple of years, Palestinian militants in Jenin grew suspicious of Sami, and people who were suspected of being collaborators in the town were receiving vigilante justice at an alarming rate.

"I started to feel danger," Sami said. "I had been in security in Fatah, so I knew how it worked. I saw people watching me and following me. I felt they were about to take me away."

One evening in 1993, gunmen came to his street at dusk, according to Sami, who had a one-year-old son at the time. "They surrounded my house, they had masks and weapons." He was sure they were about to kill him, so he grabbed his young son and said the boy was sick and needed a doctor urgently. Sami walked down the main road, carrying his son in his arms, effectively using the child as a shield. Sami went directly to the house of a fellow informant, who had weapons. When he reached the house, Sami was welcomed in and wasted no time. "I called my Israeli contact person, who said, 'Don't leave.' He sent a car to pick me up, and I was driven to Israel." Sami had little choice but to leave his son behind, along with the rest of his family.

When Sami reached the Israeli town of Afula, his Israeli handler bluntly explained that his old life was over. "He told me I would have to stay in Israel," Sami said. "He gave me money and told me to buy new clothes and shave. He sent me to a hotel where I checked in under an assumed name. I was there sixty-five days, and then he gave me an apartment."

Sami had no option but to build a new life, on his own, in the northern Israeli port of Haifa. The city is mostly Jewish but has a large Arab minority, and relations between the two communities are generally decent. For nearly a decade, Sami remained in Haifa, living on a stipend from the Israelis, while his family remained in Jenin. They were less than an hour away by car but lived in another world. Finally, in 2002, Sami moved to Bat Yam, and his family came to Israel to join him at the apartment on Herzl Street. In addition to Sami's wife, Nadia, four of their six children and five of their grandchildren lived there. Money was tight, and the apartment was cramped. The large family home in Jenin was just a memory for Sami. At least, the family was together and had seemingly escaped the turmoil of the West Bank. But as we witnessed time and again, escaping the conflict often seems impossible. Even when you try to walk away from it, the conflict comes and finds you.

One day in February 2007, a would-be Palestinian suicide bomber from the West Bank, Omar Abu Roub, entered Israel with the intent to wreak havoc in or around Tel Aviv. He slipped into Israel, but, for reasons that were not clear, he did not immediately seek a target. He may have had second thoughts, and Israeli police also speculated that he thought his bomb had malfunctioned. Whatever Abu Roub's thinking, he hid the bomb in a trash can and contacted a young Palestinian acquaintance named Emad—who happened to be Sami's son. In most places, such a coincidence would strain credulity, but the Israelis and the Palestinians are so few in number and live in such close proximity that strange connections crop up with regularity.

The would-be bomber, Abu Roub, and Sami's son, Emad, knew each other from time spent together in an Israeli jail for relatively minor offenses. When Abu Roub called, he failed to mention why he was in town, and Emad said afterward he had no idea that his former cellmate was taking a brief respite from his suicide-bombing mission.

Emad cordially invited Abu Roub to the apartment on Herzl Street, and the two young men sat down for coffee. Sami was napping at the time but was awakened by the sound of the visitor. Furthermore, he immediately sensed something suspicious about the guest. It was extremely difficult for a West Bank Palestinian to reach Israel. How did he get here, and what was he doing? Sami had been well trained. He promptly did what good Palestinian collaborators do—he surreptitiously called the Israeli police.

Within minutes, the police burst through the front door. They grabbed the men in the apartment and then began overturning furniture, tearing doors off their hinges, pulling drawers out of dressers, rifling through kitchen cabinets, and leaving plates, glasses, and clothes strewn throughout the apartment as they frantically searched for a bomb. "The house was a total mess," said Nadia. "The police threw everything on the floor and broke many things."

The police arrested Abu Roub and Emad. The officers were not persuaded by Emad's seemingly far-fetched story about an unexpected call from a former jail mate on a suicide-bombing mission.

After a brief interrogation, Abu Roub then led police to the trash can where his explosive was hidden. Soon after that, Abu Roub and

Emad once again found themselves sharing a jail. This was hugely distressing for Sami. In his view, he had once again come to the aid of the Israelis and felt that he deserved credit for sparing them a potentially deadly attack. Instead, his son was in jail, and his good deed had turned into a nightmare.

To make matters worse, Israeli television got wind of the story and rushed to the scene, splashing Sami's face on television. Sami did not appreciate the publicity, and his Jewish neighbors were less than thrilled to learn that Sami's son had invited a would-be bomber into their apartment block. "The other residents saw me on television, and now they don't want me in the building," Sami lamented. "And I can't afford to move."

The next morning it got worse. Israel's largest circulation newspaper, the tabloid Yedioth Ahronoth, featured a screaming headline: "A Terrorist from Islamic Jihad in Apartment in Bat Yam." There was also a large photo, with a caption that read, "Shin Bet agent with terrorist." There was one glaring error. The "terrorist" pictured was not Abu Roub—it was Sami's son Emad. This development also had an adverse effect on Sami's relations with his neighbors. After two days, the police decided that Emad was not a conspirator in the bombing plot and released him, sending him back to the apartment building where he was now persona non grata.

The story did not end there. Armed with intelligence gathered from Abu Roub, the Israeli army raided Jenin shortly afterward and killed three Islamic Jihad members who had allegedly planned the bombing. Sami, meanwhile, was still trying to patch up his battered apartment three months after the raid when I stopped by. "The Ministry of Defense said they couldn't help me because they didn't cause the damage," he said. "They told me to talk to the police, but they didn't help either. I'm angry. It wasn't just a little bit of damage."

As Sami wallowed in despair, he reflected on the life he had abandoned in Jenin. "I lived well," he said. "We're a family of farmers. We had a big house, lots of land with olive, lemon, apple, and orange trees. We had a big family and lots of friends. I sold vegetables to Israelis in the northern Galilee."

"In Jenin, my living room is nearly seventy square meters," he said. "Here, my apartment is seventy square meters." The house in Jenin he recalled so fondly sat empty most of the time. Sami's wife visited once a month, for two or three days. "They leave her alone," he said. "But I can't go back."

Sami then volunteered a family tragedy to drive home his point. His younger brother died in an accident in 1996. "My family didn't even call and tell me until after his funeral because they were worried I would try to go to Jenin and something bad would happen to me."

The tales of collaborators rarely have happy endings, but Sami's friend Muhammad expressed great pride in what he had done. Unlike Sami, he displayed no bitterness or regret, although his work as an informant had permanently reshaped his life. He then proceeded to reveal some of the more effective techniques he used as a collaborator.

Muhammad grew up in Nablus, the largest city in the West Bank. Like many Palestinian men, Muhammad had once worked in Israel, making good money as a metalworker. He was not involved in politics, he said, but one day in 1982 a member of the Israeli security forces approached him. "We hear you are a good man, a strong man," the Israeli told Muhammad. The simple flattery worked. Muhammad agreed to assist the Israelis in return for a monthly payment, a standard arrangement, and he was, by his own account, very good at his new job.

One of his main missions was to go to West Bank cities looking for Palestinians who were wanted by Israel. The Palestinian streets are full of hawkers who have lungs like bellows and sell everything from vegetables to candy to cigarettes. Muhammad passed himself off as a wandering blanket salesman. His thick blankets were draped over his shoulder and fell down below his waist, concealing a small communications device attached to his belt.

In those technologically primitive days of the early 1980s, the device had a simple on-off switch. When Muhammad surreptitiously flipped the switch on, it meant that he had located a wanted man, and the Israeli forces could pinpoint his location. As Muhammad shadowed the wanted Palestinian, waiting for the Israeli soldiers to arrive, he had to make sure the soldiers didn't shoot him by mistake. "I always wore a yellow baseball hat so the Israelis would know who I was," he said.

Muhammad performed this work for more than a decade, but Israel's military began to withdraw its soldiers from most Palestinian cities in the years that followed the 1993 Oslo interim peace agreement. This meant that the Palestinian collaborators, who were already vulnerable to attack by fellow Palestinians, had no protectors. Muhammad was among a wave of collaborators allowed to resettle in Israel for their own safety.

Yet the Israelis valued his skills so highly, they did not want him to retire altogether. The Israelis acknowledged that it was too dangerous for Muhammad to continue working in the West Bank, where many people knew him, but new missions were arranged in Gaza, where he was unknown.

This meant that Muhammad needed new skills, because the Israeli military operated very differently in Gaza. In the relatively open spaces of the West Bank, troops are stationed throughout the territory, and most operations are carried out by ground forces who move around in jeeps. Gaza, however, is a much more confined space. Palestinians are packed into overcrowded towns and refugee camps. The army has always been reluctant to have soldiers operate in or around the Palestinian cities in Gaza, where they would be susceptible to ambush. As a result, many operations were carried out by helicopters or unmanned drones.

Because a typical Gaza home has ten or more residents, many of them children, a militant generally enjoys a degree of immunity in his apartment or his house. The same is true when a militant is in a mosque, an office, a shop, or any other public building. The one and perhaps only time that Israel can isolate a militant is when he is in a car, but this is by no means simple. The militant is, quite literally, a moving target. He knows he is most at risk in a car and therefore may change vehicles often.

Yet in a scenario repeated countless times, a pair of Israeli helicopters suddenly materialized in the skies over Gaza City. They hovered briefly over a busy street, just long enough to pick out the car with the militant in the middle of traffic. The helicopters each unleashed a missile or two, turning the car into a fireball, and then darted out of Gaza's air space as rapidly as they came. How did they do this?

The Israelis have many ways of gathering intelligence. Palestinian militants are often sloppy when it comes to talking on both mobile phones and traditional land-line phones. The collaborators are always lurking in the shadows. The cameras in the Israeli drones feed images to the military around the clock. Still, it takes incredibly precise intelligence for these strikes. It's analogous to locating one specific cab from the air in New York City during rush hour. Clearly, a collaborator must mark the car so that the Israeli air force can instantly identify it. It also falls on the collaborator to provide visual confirmation that only a militant—and not his whole family—is in the car.

Muhammad explained how he worked. "I would secretly follow the wanted man and find out what kind of car he traveled in. Once this was determined, I would wait for the chance to secretly spray the roof of the car with a clear substance from an aerosol can." Muhammad said he could not identify the sticky substance provided by his Israeli handlers but was certain that it served its purpose.

"When the target got into the car by himself or with his bodyguards, I would call my Israeli guy and say, 'My friend is here.'"

Within minutes, the Israeli helicopters appeared on the horizon.

Although we asked on multiple occasions, the Shin Bet never discussed its methods, and we could not independently contra Muhammad's explanations. Yet they were the most detailed and plausible accounts we ever heard.

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