Silent partners

Hidden in Sderot are dozens of Arab collaborators who left their families in Gaza and fled for their lives.

Sderot shop 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sderot shop 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In rocket-battered Sderot, dozens of Palestinians - former collaborators and informers from the Gaza Strip - live in silence and isolation, hidden from the public eye. Unable to return to Gaza, they fear the Kassam rocket attacks from their Palestinian brothers and worry about the families they left behind. Most of all they fear the revenge of Hamas. They can be eliminated any time. There is no escape. According to the municipality there are 17 registered families, but there might be around 80. People sublet and do not register. Dozens are spread in adjacent places in the Negev. They chose Sderot because it was an inexpensive town close to the Gaza border and convenient for occasional family visits. But the irony is that with their Israeli neighbors they are now in the firing line of the Palestinian rockets that target Sderot. Asked how to stop the rocket attacks, their answer is far less complicated: The choice is war or peace. There is no middle course. "It is almost impossible to explain what we have experienced in Gaza and how our life is today," says A over coffee and cake on a yellow plush sofa in his backyard. The condition set by A for this interview was that his name not be revealed. It is 9 a.m. Friday morning and A's street, with graceless row houses in a staggering monotony, looks deserted, a perfect place to go underground. A's life is split in two parts: One he left behind in Gaza; the second he lives today in Sderot. Now 60, A was once a rich farmer in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip. He still owns a four-story house, several warehouses, stables and hundreds of dunam of land there. But some 15 years ago he was approached by an operative of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and asked if he could provide some information. A was willing to comply and placed himself on the other, the Israeli, side. "I did not do it for the money," A stresses. "I honestly believed and still believe today that we have to put a halt to terror organizations in Gaza because not only do they harm Israel but also damage our own Palestinian society. In Gaza people live under a constant fear that extremist organizations will boycott you, lock you out from work, money or worse." A does not want to specify which information he used to gather for Israel, because it concerned sensitive security issues, but he adds: "I infiltrated terror cells and the information I gathered and passed on to the security forces saved Israeli lives." He says he only left Gaza, about 10 years ago, when it became too dangerous for him to stay because his cover was blown. One day he came home from work and was ambushed by two men with drawn pistols. They shot him in the shoulder and knee. With the assistance of his Israeli contacts, he fled to Israel. But the Israeli authorities did not let him take his wife and eight children out of Gaza. His eldest son tried to escape, but didn't succeed. Although the situation was very upsetting in the beginning - A has never seen his family again - he says he has made peace with it, although part of him will always remain in Gaza. "We knew I would not be able to return and be together as a family," he says. "Therefore my wife and I decided to divorce. We are still in regular contact by phone." He remarried, has six children in Sderot and built a new life in Israel. His children go to the local kindergarten and elementary school, speak fluent Hebrew, dress like Israelis and even have Hebrew names like Yisrael, Ariel and Avraham. He lives on welfare because he is handicapped due to his wounds. "Israel is a terrific country," he says. "Show me one Arab country in the Middle East that takes care of its people so well. I received a nice house and the state pays for my children's education. It is really okay." But as he tells his story his dark eyes shift nervously from me to the garden gate, the entrance to his house. He slowly sips his coffee and continues: "The downside is that Hamas blacklisted me. Recently it even broadcast a very slanderous report on me. I run the risk that I will be discovered and do you know what will happen?" He laughs bitterly and makes the gesture of cutting his throat. The family lives in a kind of huge prison, his wife says. The children do not go to public playgrounds and the family doesn't even go to the local supermarket for fear of being recognized. According to A Hamas members are everywhere, also in Israel. "There are family ties between the Arabs of Israel and Palestinians, among them members of terror organizations, which go far beyond their loyalty to Israel. From the Arab used clothing dealer who visits Sderot once a week to the vendor in the market in Rahat, they are all potential Hamas informers. They can hear from my accent that I'm a Gazan and then the conclusion is easily drawn. Israel refuses - for security reasons they say - to give me a gun license. But without a weapon I can't defend myself and my family. I'm a sitting duck." BASSEM EID, head of the east Jerusalem based Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG), condemns Israel's use of collaborators as a violation of human rights and international law. He estimates there are tens of thousands of Palestinians like A in Gaza and the West Bank. "Nobody knows their exact number - many are never discovered - but we know that behind every liquidation of a Palestinian political figure by Israel stand Palestinian informers," Eid says. Little is known about the recruiting of the collaborators and the nature of their assignments, but PHRMG reports, based on many interviews with Palestinians, suggest that they are the weakest links in society. Eid describes a situation of interdependency: "Palestinians are dependent on Israel for work, business and a whole system of permits and ID cards. Israel uses this dependency to get information, especially from areas where soldiers can hardly penetrate. Of course, money also forms an important motive." A's neighbor, M does not refer to himself as a collaborator, but rather as an assistant. The 25 years he spent in Israel's local police in Jabalya, the largest refugee camp in Gaza, earned him a living and a house in Sderot. M, 48, proudly recalls his participation in the rescue of the Bus 300 passengers on April 12, 1984, after Palestinians hijacked the Israeli bus between Tel Aviv and Ashdod and drove it to Deir el-Balah in Gaza. Years later, Fatah members, who accused him of treachery, shelled his house, killed his son and captured M. "Luckily they were after my money and not ideology," he says. His family paid thousands of dollars to release him and M fled to Israel, leaving his family behind, because in the critical moment the Shin Bet failed to help them. Today M earns NIS 5,000 a month as a bus driver, which is sufficient to support his new Israeli wife and three children. But he and his children do not have Israeli nationality or a passport and can never leave Israel. "I am displaced and do not belong anywhere," he says. "I have to manage here. My only alternative is to return to Gaza and be lynched." M is still assisting the State of Israel. About a year ago, he managed to foil a terror attack at the Erez checkpoint by luring the terrorist, his brother, to Israel where he was caught. When he sees the bewilderment on our faces he adds without emotion: "The man kidnapped people and prepared terror attacks." BOTH A AND M are shunned by many of their Israeli neighbors. As one neighbor of A said: "We don't like them, because we're afraid that Sderot will be filled with Palestinians from Gaza. Maybe Hamas will try to bomb their houses or cars or eliminate them. We don't need more problems. And once a snitch, always a snitch. Maybe these people give information to Hamas now?" M's son was hit by a Kassam rocket three months ago. M is still in shock and doesn't understand why Israel is not protecting its own people. Can Israel solve the problem of the rocket attacks from Gaza, I ask A and M. A says that a hard-line policy is the solution. A major ground incursion will eliminate the key players launching the rockets. Isn't he afraid for the safety of his family in Beit Lahia? He nods but adds dryly that there is no choice. M has a different point of view. Israel does not understand the culture and mentality of the Gaza Strip, he explains. "[Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert's indecisive and lenient attitude is not understood by Palestinians. I'll give you an example. I was a strict police officer in Jabalya. I gave tickets for the smallest violations. People respected me and there was law and order in the camp. After a while I let the reins slacken a bit and tried to bribe people instead of punishing them. The result was that they walked all over me." According to M the same applies to Hamas. Half-hearted solutions are no solutions. Israel will have to deal with Hamas. M worked with Hamas in Gaza and knows how it operates, he says. "Israel can come to a hudna (long-term cease-fire) with Hamas and in due time a peace in stages," he says. "Hamas has the power and the authority to enforce such an agreement. I assure you that no Kassam rocket would be launched at Sderot anymore." From cautious phone calls with relatives and friends in Gaza - Hamas listens in to their conversations - and from the conversations with Gazans in Israel for medical treatment, A and M gather that many Gazans tolerate Hamas, but there are few militant supporters. "When Hamas took power, Fatah members changed. They grew a beard, attended the service in the mosque, cried 'Allah akbar' and got $100 from Hamas," A says. "That way you insured yourself of a house, your job and an education for your children. But many of these Palestinians would like to have peace with Israel, if only to improve their economic situation." Says M, "It is either peace or war. Hamas does not understand compromises."