Collaborators tremble since Hamas killings
Desperate for money to feed his family, Sami committed the most heinous crime in Palestinian eyes.
The 22-year-old Gazan agreed to collaborate with Israel. He infiltrated a Palestinian militant group, passed information to the Israelis and defused bombs planted by his colleagues to kill Israeli soldiers on cross-border raids.
In exchange, Sami obtained a prized Israeli transit permit and found steady work in the West Bank. He led a double life for 3-1/2 years before being arrested a few months ago, and is now one of dozens accused spies held in Palestinian Authority jails.
They fear for their lives because of a rising public clamour for the liquidation of collaborators since Israel tracked down and assassinated Hamas militant leaders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi.
Israel's prowess in pinpointing the shadowy movements of militant leaders and pre-empting some planned suicide bomb attacks by catching perpetrators en route to their target is due partly to an increasingly effective network of Palestinian informers.
Militant groups have put to death at least 30 collaborators and in the wake of the Yassin and Rantissi killings in March and April threatened an unbridled campaign to wipe out any more they could find.
Abu Qusai, a Gaza-based leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, part of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, puts the number of collaborators in the dozens rather than thousands as some Palestinian officials say.
The Authority balks at summary executions to avoid the risk of killing the wrong man as happened in a 1990s crackdown.
"I never thought I would be discovered," said Sami, in an interview inside the jail where he awaits trial. He faces a long sentence.
He spoke softly and averted his face from the camera, betraying his shame and dread about the possible consequences of an offence for which some collaborators have been disowned by their families in this close-knit community.
"I did not complete my studies because of the difficult financial situation," he said in a reference to poverty-stricken Gaza where unemployment exceeds 50 percent. "I decided I had to get an Israeli permit to work in the West Bank to help my family."
The price, when he went to apply for a permit at an Israeli-controlled Gaza border crossing, was collaboration, he said.
"The Israeli intelligence officer there asked me to search border areas for explosive devices (planted by militants) in anticipation of army incursions," said Sami, not his real name.
To do so, he said he managed without difficulty to enter the ranks of a militant faction, which he did not identify, and win enough trust to join its armed wing.
SABOTAGING MILITANT OPERATIONS
While on missions along the frontier with Israel near the volatile Palestinian refugee camp of Rafah in southern Gaza, Sami would deactivate explosives planted by militants, some of whom belonged to the group he had joined.
"The devices were very primitive and I used only to cut the wires leading to the detonators," he said. "I also used to tell (Israelis) about the locations of armed groups."
Israel captured Gaza and the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war. It granted Palestinians self-rule in their communities in 1993-94 but reoccupied wide areas after violence erupted in 2000 in the wake of failed talks on Palestinian statehood.
Palestinian security officials say Israeli intelligence officers have tried non-stop since then to recruit Palestinian workers and travellers at crossings under Israeli control in return for money, free movement and sex.
Militants defend their executions of alleged turncoats in the West Bank by saying that Palestinian security forces seem powerless to act because they have been crippled by the Israeli army clampdown on the uprising or by their own internal feuding.
The Palestinian Authority has sentenced many collaborators to death since 1994, but only three have been executed. Some lesser spies who turned themselves in and "talked" have been freed without charge.
Security officials have urged militants to turn over suspects for investigation and prosecution rather than engage in vigilantism often driven by rumour, rather than hard evidence, or a desire to settle scores.
Jailed collaborators tend to cite financial hardship for their recruitment by Israeli intelligence in its war with militant factions leading the revolt for statehood.
"That's no excuse. Ninety-nine percent of Palestinians are suffering financial problems. Does that make them potential collaborators? Of course not," said a senior Palestinian security officer. "Nobody dies of hunger here. But hundreds are dead because of information passed to Israel by collaborators."
All affected families continue to receive welfare benefits from the Palestinian Authority and Islamic charities.
Despite the risk, collaborators don't earn much. Sami said he used to collect around 1,000 shekels ($220) from time to time at secret locations known as "dead zones".