Collaborating the only way some Gaza families could find to survive

A family’s tragedy started a decade ago when money was short

Palestinian militants from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian take part in a military display in Gaza City yesterday. Photograph: Mohammed Salem/Reuters

Palestinian militants from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian take part in a military display in Gaza City yesterday. Photograph: Mohammed Salem/Reuters

Wed, Sep 3, 2014, 01:00

When Hamas executed 21 alleged Israeli collaborators on August 21st and 22nd, Tasmeem (16) was very happy.

Tasmeem’s father, Zuheir, was executed during the November 2012 war between Israel and Hamas, for having worked for the Israeli intelligence service Shabak. Her mother, Rasmiya, now 48, served nearly two years of a seven-year prison sentence for the same offence before she was pardoned by then Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya last December.

“Tasmeem told me, ‘I want people to know there are others like us,’” Rasmiya said in an interview in her cinderblock house in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza.

Islam Shahwan, a Hamas expert on collaborators and former spokesman for the interior ministry, brushed off criticism by human rights organisations of the recent executions.

“All but two of them had been tried before the war,” he said. “This war was very dangerous because Israel’s spies were working more openly than ever, going to cars and buildings of Hamas leaders and marking them with calls from mobile phones. We caught two of them in the act. We had to send a strong message.”

The family’s tragedy started a decade ago. Zuheir had worked as a rubbish collector in Tel Aviv. He stole a car in Israel, was sent to prison, then expelled to Gaza and banned from returning. “We had no money and a lot of children. I started going to Egypt to buy things for our small shop,” Rasmiya says. When she was pregnant with the couple’s eighth child, Zuheir went instead.

Israel still controlled the border with Egypt at Rafah. “The Israelis at Rafah told Zuheir they’d give him a permit to go to Israel if he’d help them,” Rasmiya says. “They gave him an Israeli Sim card. They wanted to know where Hamas people lived, where the tunnels were. They asked if his wife would work for them too, but Zuheir said no, his wife wasn’t part of the war.”

The parent’s son Romal, then 12, blew the fingers off one hand, playing with unexploded Israeli munitions. Zuheir’s Israeli masters arranged for the boy to be cared for at Tel Hashomer hospital in Israel. “They gave us 7,000 Israeli shekels (about €1,500) to help us,” Rasmiya says. “When we returned for Romal’s surgery, they gave us $14,000 to distribute to Israeli agents in Gaza.”

Collaborators in Gaza never know each other, Shawan had explained to me earlier. He calls the compartimentalised system “the dead spot”.

Money drops

Between 2008 and their arrest in 2011, the family made seven money drops, usually $500 or $1,000. “I put $100 bills in empty cigarette packets and left them in public places, so it looked like trash,” Rasmiya recounts. “Sometimes we cheated the Israels; if they said ‘Put $500,‘ we’d leave $300. I never saw the people who picked up the money.”

In early 2011, the family cut off contact with their Israeli bosses. “Zuheir was depressed. He was losing weight. He couldn’t sleep,” Rasmiya recalls. One afternoon in April, three Hamas security men in civilian clothes came for them. They were held in the same prison. “

Zuheir was tortured with a hot iron and with water,” Rasmiya says. “I could hear him screaming.”

During the November 2012 war, Rasmiya’s sister visited her in prison to tell her that Zuheir’s body had been delivered to the family, with bullet holes in the chest and head, for burial. “They didn’t allow me to say goodbye to him,” she says, her voice quavering and her eyes tearing up. “We were 17 when we met. It was a love match. Our families were against it.”

Petition

The family petitioned the Hamas government to release her, because her children were growing up without supervision. “My husband’s brother had started a rumour that I was the one recruited first by the Israelis,” Rasmiya says. “If it were true, Hamas would not have released me.”

Rasmiya says she has no money to feed her children. “Please write that I need help,” were her first words to me. “Our tragedy is not in the past; it’s in the future. When I walk down the street, I bow my head. None of my sons or my daughter will ever find a job or get married. We are very much alone.”

She would like to marry her children to the offspring of other collaborators. But men must pay dowries and rent a hall and fancy clothes for a Palestinian wedding, and Rasmiya has no money. One of her sons has been jailed for theft. Shahwan says Hamas “keeps an eye on her”.

“Collaboration happens in all wars,” says Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. “Collaborators are basically victims of the occupation. Those who betray their people should be held accountable, but with a fair trial.” Sourani believes that criticism by the rights centre prevented further recent executions.

Shahwan says collaboration has always been a huge problem. Both Fatah and Hamas “made mistakes” in dealing with it. In 1996, Fatah’s security minister Mohamed Dahlan estimated there were 60,000 collaborators. After the 2009 war, Hamas undertook a “national campaign” to root out Israeli informants. “Some of them escaped to Israel. We arrested some. Some turned themselves in. The number has fallen to just a few dozen.”

Double agents

By listening to suspected collaborators’ phone calls, Hamas identified Israeli agents whom they transformed into double agents, Shahwan says. “It’s been a real intelligence war between Hamas interior security and Shabak.” The Israelis use merchants to ship sophisticated electronic equipment to their pawns in Gaza.

With the help of the spies they’ve arrested, Hamas has deciphered electronic codes, Shahwan says. “One of our biggest successes was seizing a 4x4 vehicle that they’d sent to Gaza, piece by piece. It was equipped with cameras and mics that were connected to a satellite.”

Hamas leaders use a secure telephone system based on underground cables – never smartphones – Shahwan continues. That is why collaborators were under such pressure, and took such risks, to locate and betray their whereabouts during the war.

This article has been edited to remove the family’s name.