Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Collaborators stuck between Israel, Palestinians


JERUSALEM, Jan. 22 (JTA) – Younis Aweba dips into his pocket and unfolds an Arabic leaflet circulating through the West Bank, listing 14 wanted collaborators with Israel.

He calmly points to his name – fifth from the top – on a piece of paper that is nothing less than his own death warrant.

Even after two Palestinians have been executed by the Palestinian Authority for collaborating with Israel, another two have been sentenced to death and several more gunned down in the streets of the West Bank, Aweba maintains his serenity during an interview in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.

He has nothing to fear, Aweba says.

Perhaps it is the pistol beneath his windbreaker, provided by Israel for self-defense, that gives Aweba a sense of security in these dangerous times. Maybe his resilience is drawn from 33 years of standing by Israel’s side.

More likely, Aweba, a Muslim who works as a maintenance man at the Western Wall, simply is trying to deter potential assassins by projecting a brave image.

Whatever the reason, as Israeli-Palestinian violence continues for a fourth month, stories like Aweba’s are playing themselves out across the territories in a particularly ugly way.

Collaborators with Israel, whom Palestinians consider the worst of traitors, are under enormous pressure from both sides: Israel is hunting for information; the Palestinian Authority is hunting them down.

“My name has been on the Palestinian ‘wanted’ list since the first intifada,” Aweba says, referring to the Palestinian uprising against Israel between 1987 and 1993. “I survived that period, and I will survive this, too. But if anything happens to me, my blood will be on the head of” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Aweba is 58, his gray hair combed back, several days’ stubble dotting his chin. His voice is throaty; as he talks, light plays off a gold tooth.

Like a true intelligence operative, Aweba – who has renounced his Palestinian identity – is careful not to give details of how he has helped Israel over the past three decades. Palestinian sources say he is a prominent informer who has played key roles in cracking Palestinian terror cells and recruiting other moles for Israel.

That reputation has made Aweba infamous in Ras al-Amud, the mostly Arab neighborhood of eastern Jerusalem where he has lived since 1976.

For years, his wife and 12 children have been subject to nasty stares from neighbors and villagers, he says, and his house occasionally has been stoned.

Earlier this year, Aweba’s 30-year-old son was kidnapped into areas under Palestinian control. His abductors forced him to sketch a map of the family home, and point out exactly where Younis Aweba sleeps at night.

Under such pressure, it is difficult to imagine what drives Arab informers to help Israel. Aweba insists his motives are pure: Unlike other collaborators, who may provide information because of bribes or blackmail, Aweba says he supports Israel.

His work began just after Israel’s 1967 victory in the Six-Day War, when Aweba lived in the Abu Tor neighborhood in what had been Jordanian-controlled Jerusalem.

“I had been living under Jordanian occupation and was subject to discrimination. Suddenly, I saw democracy in front of my eyes,” he says. “I came to the Mahane Yehuda market,” the main produce market in western Jerusalem, “and saw the Jews had no tails, that they live better than we did.”

Israeli operatives visited the newly won Arab areas, and they asked questions. Aweba answered. Only in 1972 did his neighbors start to sneer.

He escaped to Tel Aviv until 1977, when he moved back to eastern Jerusalem and was given a gun and Israeli citizenship. He has no regrets about his past, even though – like many Arabs in Israel – he sometimes has suffered discrimination despite his allegiance to the country.

After returning to Ras al-Amud, he had to fight a demolition order on a home he was building; ultimately, his work for Israel helped get him off the hook. And during his interview with JTA, a group of yeshiva students from a neighboring terrace cheered Aweba, although just days earlier – before he appeared on Israeli television – they had spat at him.

“I only hate the other side that wants me dead,” he says. “I have no regrets, and I am proud of myself. Nobody forced me to do this work.”

This is not always the case.

Human rights groups – who condemn the Palestinian execution policy – also have criticized Israel’s tactics in recruiting informers.

According to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, Israel exploits its control over movement in the territories to woo Palestinians.

The Palestinian Authority controls most of its urban centers, but Israel still controls movement between cities in the West Bank, into Israel and abroad. Permits often are promised in exchange for information.

“Even if it is not illegal for Israel to try and recruit collaborators, these tactics make it illegal,” said Yael Stein, head of research at B’Tselem. “Israel helps protect them in very rare cases, and it is clearly their obligation to do so.”

Officials at Israel’s Defense Ministry and at the Prime Minister’s Office, which oversees the Shin Bet secret service, declined to comment for this article.

But Gidon Ezra, a Likud Knesset member and former Shin Bet chief, says Israel indeed looks after those who provide valuable information, resettling them inside Israel – though their absorptions are not without difficulties.

“There are a lot of people who have been fingered as having collaborated with Israel – even if they didn’t – and they are between a rock and a hard place,” Ezra tells JTA. “Everyone who did help Israel is given basic assistance in things like housing until they get on their feet.”

The problem, however, is that many of the several hundred Palestinian collaborators who have been accepted into Israel prefer to live in Israeli Arab communities, whose residents often consider them traitors to the Palestinian cause.

Aweba’s case is a bit more complicated; Israel in principle does not help collaborators move from eastern Jerusalem to Jewish sectors of the city, Ezra says, since the city is united.

For years, Aweba says, he has wanted to move out of Ras al-Amud into a Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem, but he cannot afford the housing. Now, as his situation becomes increasingly precarious, he has asked Jewish friends to finance a rental.

Despite repeated disappointments, Aweba remains hopeful.

His only criticism of Israel is directed at Barak, whose concessions to the Palestinians, he believes, have allowed the current unrest in which the Palestinian Authority is knocking off collaborators like Aweba. Aweba supports Ariel Sharon, the Likud Party candidate for prime minister.

Back in the West Bank, hardly anyone in the Palestinian Authority is paying attention to those parts of the Oslo accords that implied collaborators would be safe. International criticism has not stopped Palestinian officials from defending their execution policy. These officials say the collaborators play a key role in helping Israel liquidate Palestinian officials and militants suspected in anti-Israel attacks.

According to the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, seven suspected collaborators have recently been found dead in the streets; it’s unclear whether these are cases of vigilante justice or officially-sanctioned hits.

Part of the problem, the monitoring group says, is that Palestinians define collaboration very loosely to include not only those suspected of helping Israeli intelligence, but sometimes those who sell land to Jews – and even to critics of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s regime.

During the original intifada, for example, Palestinians killed an estimated 850 of their own who were suspected of collaborating with Israel in one way or another – almost as high as the number of Palestinians who died at Israel’s hands in the six-year revolt.

Mireille Widmer, a researcher at the group who has studied Palestinian treatment of collaborators, believes most of the recent victims were suspected of involvement with the Israelis.

“There have already been seven cases of alleged collaborators killed in the streets,” she says. “The problem is that the public is so supportive of the death penalty that there is a danger that if the P.A. doesn’t crack down hard enough, the population is likely to take over.”

For collaborators like Aweba – who have seen Palestinian institutions try suspects within hours, with no opportunity for appeal, and then shoot them down by firing squad – there is little consolation in a recent Palestinian offer of amnesty for those who turn themselves in within 45 days.

Reports – still unconfirmed – that hundreds have already given themselves up could indicate that many collaborators feel they have no place to hide.

Recommended from JTA