Muhammad Aweidah, 18 years old, returns from his work at the Firas Market in Gaza City, where he slaughters and sells chickens. Ashamed, he covers his face as he hears those around him whispering about his late father, Ashraf Abdel Samia Aweidah. His mother, Khatam, as is her custom, goes to check in on him and asks him, "What’s the matter? Why all of this grief?” He responds saying, "All the people are saying dad was a collaborator." With all the tenderness of a mother, and the certainty of a wife who spent more than 20 years with her husband, she admonishes him saying, “Your father was honorable all his life, and you know full well that he died a wronged man."
Khatam’s husband, Ashraf Aweidah, was killed by armed groups in Gaza on Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, during the most recent shelling of the Gaza Strip. His body was tossed into one of the streets of Gaza City with a paper attached to him that labeled him an Israeli informant and the reason behind the assassination of dozens of Palestinian leaders.
The certainty with which Khatam reassures her son is matched by that of a source from the Interior Ministry in the Gaza government, who wished to remain anonymous, when he says that Aweidah was one of Israel’s most effective informants detained in Palestine since the 1980s. He alleges that Aweidah caused the deaths of 11 Palestinian leaders, including five from Hamas. He said that Aweidah had believed up until the last moments of the shelling campaign that there was an exchange agreement and that Israel would take him and save him.
From her family’s home in the Zeitoun neighborhood, Aweidah’s wife Khatam told Al-Monitor that her husband was killed unjustly and the problem arose because of the Jeep Magnum that he had bought a month before his arrest. Investigators explained to her sons that this car was suspicious and had been under surveillance for a long time. She added, "The issue is the car and its owner, not its new owner, my husband."
A security complex
Collaboration is not a new phenomenon in modern Palestinian history. For as long as there has been resistance, there have been informants. They accompany every uprising and war, and Palestinian literature is filled with stories of those who sold their land to Israel and those accused of collaboration. Revealing one’s status as an informant has even become a source of pride, as happened in the book, "Son of Hamas," written by Mosab Hassan Yousef. Yousef, who is the son of a well-known Hamas commander, confessed to collaborating with the Israeli military intelligence apparatus Shin Bet, which used to refer to him as the “Green Prince.” The sheer amount of alleged collaborators filling Gaza’s prisons gives one the sense that the security agency suffers from some form of collaboration paranoia; and could this paranoia have caused the death of Aweidah?
Khatam insists that torture forced her husband to confess. She said that during one of her visits during the month of Ramadan to see her husband she asked him why he had confessed to collaborating with Israel. She said that he cautiously raised his arm so as not to draw the attention of the guard, and showed her the scars from the torture.
Islam Shahwan, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior in Gaza, categorically rejected this story and the notion that security personnel are overly obsessed with collaboration. He said they are highly trained in these matters and are highly intelligent people who do not level accusations haphazardly. They take psychological and professional courses and they are very rarely mistaken.
As for using torture to extract confessions of collaboration, he admits that the internal security agency was excessive in its early stages, but that since then, this no longer occurs. According to him, there are nine regulatory bodies both within the Ministry of Interior and separate from it, which oversee the operations of the internal security agency. He noted that the internal security apparatus had succeeded in reducing the number of those collaborating with the occupation to the extent that during the recent shelling, the occupation itself confirmed that the information it was receiving was scant.
He explained that in the past there had been networks of collaborators with each individual collaborator possessing a codename. Thus in the event that one collaborator was identified, it was relatively easy to locate the others. Recently however, each informant is a dead-end in the sense that he has no knowledge of the other informants operating around him. This makes identifying them more difficult, especially in light of the lack of advanced technology.
In Palestinian society, calling someone a collaborator is very taboo and only ever said in a hushed voice. Defending the accused or discussing his innocence, even if he was truly innocent, is a very sensitive topic. Merely mentioning the name of the alleged collaborator sullies the reputation his family, particularly in a tribal city like Gaza. However, on Tuesday Nov. 11, 2012, during the most recent shelling of Gaza, a group of armed men brought six Gazans to an intersection in the neighborhood of Nasser, and shot them in front of onlookers.
The names of the deceased were made public and their corpses were defiled and mutilated, with the some of the armed men tying them to their motorbikes and dragging them through the city streets. Aweidah had been executed three days before this public killing and in much the same manner, having been shot six times in his face and chest in the same neighborhood and in full view of passersby.
Shahwan, the spokesman for the interior ministry who met with Al-Monitor in his office, said it was a painful situation, especially having to inform the families. He said that prisoners accused of collaboration had been apprehended previously and were being readied for transfer away from al-Ansar Prison to another location when armed men ambushed them en route, kidnapping the accused persons and executing them. The media then dispersed images of them as they dismembered the bodies in the streets. The spokesman stressed that these actions are outside the law and entirely unacceptable. He said that some of those responsible are currently detained in prison and that a high-level investigative committee is reviewing the incident and will announce the results of their investigations soon. He added that all of the executed prisoners had previously been sentenced to death by a Palestinian court in Gaza.
Ibrahim Haddad, Aweidah’s attorney, told Al-Monitor that Aweidah had not been sentenced to death, but rather he was set to go to trial in a matter of days. Israeli threats to invade Gaza prompted the evacuation of security headquarters, which in turn prevented the trial from proceeding.
Al-Monitor reviewed the Independent Commission for Human Rights’ reports and ascertained that six of the executed had been sentenced to death, and one was awaiting the ruling on his appeal. All of their judicial proceedings were still ongoing at the time of their execution; however Aweidah had yet to be tried.
Human rights activist Jaber Wishah told Al-Monitor that the 15 years he spent in Israeli prisons familiarized him with the occupation’s methods of turning citizens into informants. According to him, these prisons are the ideal setting for instilling violence, extremism and treachery. He stressed that it is incumbent upon every state and institution that incarcerates convicts and suspects to protect all detainees before they go to trial and sentencing.
Wishah went on to add, “The images of the extrajudicial public executions during the last conflict continue to harm the Palestinian people and their resistance. Vigilante justice is tantamount to lawlessness and the law of the jungle, which contradicts the rule of law."
The Israeli occupation targets Gaza and the strongholds of resistance it houses, and thus Israeli intelligence agencies are intent on converting locals into informants. They convert them through various means including blackmail and exploiting their material needs. Wishah said that despite the Israeli government's proclamations of terminating its military occupation in Gaza when it unilaterally disengaged from the Gaza Strip in 2005, officers of the Israel Security Agency who were responsible for certain sections of Gaza during the occupation are still actively overseeing these sections.
He pointed out that the occupation often exploits those who need to pass through the Erez Crossing en route to the West Bank or Israel. They blackmail them whether they are patients in need of medical treatment, merchants in need of access to shipping routes, or people traveling for one reason or another. Al-Qaeda always says that every Palestinian is targeted for collaboration, and when one cannot be turned, he is intimidated into non-action, the goal of which is to sow doubt among the Palestinian people.
The security services in Gaza distributed a video of Aweidah made for Palestinian audiences. It shows him confessing to participating in operations that led to the killing of Palestinian resistance leaders and how he sent signals to facilitate the assassinations of Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi and Said Seyam. He concluded his confession by saying, "I've been working with them as if I were a son of Israel."
Asmaa al-Ghoul is a journalist and writer from the Rafah refugee camp based in Gaza.
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