/ 24 June 2008

A secret fresh start

From a plastic chair on his front porch Samir looked out over a garden neatly planted with rose bushes. In this house Samir, his wife and five of their children are living a new life, surrounded by Jewish Israeli neighbours and in the firing line of the makeshift Palestinian rockets that target the Israeli town of Sderot. Last year one of these Qassam rockets fired only a few kilometres away in Gaza crashed into his garden, sending shrapnel up the front of the house.

Samir is not his real name, for this heavy-set, 52-year-old Palestinian is scared to reveal his true identity. This is his fresh start, his reward after working for more than 20 years in secret in his native Gaza as a collaborator with the Israeli security forces. ”I don’t regret any of my story,” he said. ”I’m very happy that I helped the state of Israel. Here everything is straightforward, not like with the Arabs. Here there is a law and there are rights.”

Many of Sderot’s residents are trying to sell their houses and move to safer towns beyond the reach of the rockets. But Palestinians such as Samir are moving in, in part because property is cheaper but also because there are others like them here, a community of about 80 collaborators — they prefer to use a Hebrew word that translates as ”assistants” — and their close relatives.

Most arrived before the rockets, when Sderot was simply an inexpensive Israeli town close to the Gaza border and convenient for occasional family visits. Those visits are now too dangerous and most of the Palestinians in Sderot now acknowledge they can never go home.

Samir was caught in 1994, the year that Yasser Arafat returned to Gaza in the wake of the Oslo peace accords. A friend and distant relative had given up Samir’s name during a brutal interrogation. Samir had spent years giving the Israelis whatever information he could find about the armed groups and their planned attacks, work he kept secret even from his wife. But Palestinian collaborators risk death if they are caught by their own people.

Samir was lucky: he was held in jail for four years, tortured and then forced to give up his savings, sell his land and his wife’s jewellery to buy his way out of jail. Eventually one morning in 2000 he escaped into Israel and asked his handlers for help. He was given an Israeli residency permit, which he must renew every two years, and was allowed to bring out his wife and five youngest children. The five older children, who were all married, had to stay behind.

At first the family lived in Haifa and then moved to Sderot about seven years ago. The Israeli security forces paid for the house and left Samir to restart his life.

Today his children study at the local Hebrew-language school, speak the language fluently, dress more like Israelis than Palestinians and count Jewish Israelis among their friends. One of his sons spent four years working as an interrogator with the Israeli security forces at a nearby prison, questioning Palestinian detainees.

Most of those in Sderot were recruited during the years of Israel’s­ full military occupation of Gaza, before the Oslo accords and long before the settlers were withdrawn in 2005. Some were arrested for drug-trafficking or other criminal offences and were offered work as informants as a way to escape jail time, others were uniformed policemen working for the Israeli occupation. Few seem to have started for the money.

Samir began after his brother was wrongly accused of being a collaborator and killed in the early 1970s. By giving information on the groups who killed his brother he sought revenge. ”Because of what they did to my brother I decided to work for the Israelis. He was so strong, so beautiful and they killed him for something he hadn’t done.” He hid documents in his roof and speaks proudly of how for years he operated in complete secrecy.

On the other side of town is another collaborator, who used the pseudonym Subhi. He arrived in Sderot in 1996 and now runs a successful business, drives a BMW and boasts of his contacts with the ”dignified people of Sderot”.

He left eight children in Gaza. The eldest son was jailed for being a collaborator, until he escaped during the factional fighting last year, and the second son was shot in the shoulder and nearly killed, again because of his father’s work over 20 years for the Israeli security forces. ”I don’t regret what I’ve done but I want my children to come out and be with me,” said Subhi (54).

He gave little away about how he started as an informant, saying only he did not work for the money and he believed it was the right thing to do. His experience has left him believing there can never be peace between Israel and the Palestinians. ”The only choice is an Israeli military occupation to clean the area of weapons. But I don’t believe there can be real peace.”

Some of the Israelis of Sderot, a poor town built on Jewish immigrants from Morocco and the Soviet Union, accept the Palestinians as neighbours and acknowledge their work. Many others­, however, have few good words to say about them. ”I don’t know how to accept them. We’re afraid that Sderot will be filled with Palestinians from Gaza,” said Sara Peretz. Several­ Palestinian families have moved into her street. ”It’s complicated. Their people are also trying to kill us.”

Several of the Palestinians are represented by Natan Shrayber, a lawyer who used to work in the Israeli security forces and is trying to bring the rest of their families out of Gaza. ”Their contribution is considerable but the problem is we can’t make public what they have done so often they are seen as a burden on society,” he said. ”But they have made an enormous contribution to state security: they are one of the main means of getting intelligence … no state can manage without people on the other side but the difference is that in Israel people know about it.”

Not far from Samir’s house is another Palestinian who spent years working for the Israeli security forces before he too fled Gaza in 1993. He was granted Israeli citizenship and claims that he not only informed on Palestinian militants but also killed several members of Hamas.

”When the Israelis ruled Gaza people lived like kings,” said the man. Like other Palestinians here he takes a hard line on Gaza, saying only a major Israeli invasion will halt the rockets. He accepts now his life is in Israel, where he boasts of his children’s good school grades and his large Mercedes car. He too understands he can never go back to Gaza. ”They would make a kebab out of me,” he said. ”They’d chop me into pieces.”

Israel seeks Lebanon talks
Israel said this week it wanted to open direct, bilateral peace talks with Lebanon, as officials confirmed a ceasefire with the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas began in the Gaza Strip on Thursday.

The talks with Lebanon would include discussions over the Shebaa Farms, an area of land held by Israel and claimed by the Lebanese.

The overture appears to have been encouraged by the US administration and comes after indirect talks between Israel and Syria were recently restarted for the first time in eight years.

The approach to Lebanon may indicate that an agreement is close at hand with the Lebanese group Hizbullah over the return of two Israeli soldiers captured at the start of the 2006 Lebanon war and who are now feared dead.

Israel is reportedly ready to release some Lebanese prisoners in return.

Israeli officials were cautious about how long the Gaza ceasefire might last, warning that the agreement was fragile and a military invasion still an option.

Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defence official who was the envoy on the ceasefire negotiations, said: ”This is not a peace agreement. A calm means that there is no type of terror, there is no difference if it comes from a or b,”’ he told Israel’s Army Radio. ”It’s clear that if there won’t be attacks on us, the army activity will be in accordance.”

The ceasefire will develop in stages, with Israel gradually easing its economic blockade of Gaza if the ceasefire holds. —