Killing of alleged collaborator exposes Palestinian tensions

Isabel Debre

AP  /  May 9, 2023

NABLUS, West Bank – There was no mourning tent for 23-year-old Palestinian Zuhair al-Ghaleeth. There were no banners with his portrait, no chants celebrating his martyrdom.

Instead, a bulldozer dropped his bullet-riddled body into an unmarked grave, witnesses said.

The day after six masked Palestinian gunmen shot and killed Al-Ghaleeth over his suspected collaboration with Israel, his family and friends refused to pick up his body at the morgue, the public prosecution said. He was buried in a field cluttered with discarded animal bones and soda cans outside the northern West Bank city of Nablus.

It was a grim end to a short life. The April 8 killing in the Old City of Nablus — the first slaying of a suspected Israeli intelligence collaborator in the West Bank in nearly two decades — riveted the Palestinian public and cast a spotlight on the plight of collaborators, preyed on by both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The case has laid bare the weakness of the Palestinian Authority and the strains that a recent surge in violence with Israel is beginning to exert within Palestinian communities.

“It feels like we’re in war times,” said 56-year-old Mohammed, who heard shouting that night, followed by gunshots. He ventured out of the Ottoman-era bathhouse where he works to find his neighbor, Al-Ghaleeth, motionless on the ground, his eyes rolled up and mouth agape. A crowd of Palestinians swelled around his bloodied body. “Collaborator!” they yelled. “Spy!”

The scene had an eerie familiarity, Mohammed said, as if the horrors of the First and Second Intifadas, or Palestinian uprisings, were being replayed: Paranoia turning Palestinians against each other. Rumours ruining lives. Vigilante violence spiralling out of control. Like all witnesses interviewed about the incident, Mohammed declined to give his last name for fear of reprisals.

The angry gathering around Al-Ghaleeth’s body quickly turned into a protest of the Palestinian Authority, which administers most Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank. The cries against Al-Ghaleeth’s betrayal took on new meaning as the crowds directed their anger toward the deeply unpopular self-rule government, which ordinary Palestinians accuse of collaboration with Israel for coordinating with Israeli security forces.

“It was chaos,” acknowledged Ghassan Daghlas, a Palestinian Authority official. Palestinian security forces fired tear gas. Medics rushed Al-Ghaleeth to a Nablus hospital, where they tried to resuscitate him but could not get a pulse. A medical report seen by The Associated Press said Al-Ghaleeth died of gunshot wounds in his lower extremities at 10:15 p.m.

The next morning, as word spread that Al-Ghaleeth had been building a house in the nearby village of Rujeib, Palestinians swarmed the construction site, poured gasoline over the unfinished walls and set them on fire.

The public prosecution is still investigating Al-Ghaleeth’s killing and has yet to announce arrests.

But an independent armed group known as the Lion’s Den, which has risen to prominence in the past year, seemed to take responsibility.

In the Old City of Nablus, where Al-Ghaleeth lived and died, the Lion’s Den has brought together militants from the secular nationalist Fatah party and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group. The young men — disillusioned with the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process and with the undemocratic Palestinian Authority — have made the Old City a sort of private fiefdom.

After news of Al-Ghaleeth’s death broke, the Lion’s Den declared that “the traitor was liquidated.”

“A traitor sells his homeland and his value as a human being for money,” commander Oday Azizi wrote on Facebook.

Lion’s Den member Tyseer Alfee said the killing was a warning. “We want all to see the fate of those who collaborate with the Israeli occupation,” he wrote in a text message when asked why Al-Ghaleeth was shot publicly in the bustling marketplace, his body left for residents to find.

A grainy video purporting to show al-Ghaleeth confess to his collaboration was posted on social media and quickly garnered many views. In the four-minute clip, Al-Ghaleeth — looking tired and swallowing hard several times — tells how Israeli agents used footage of him having sex with another man as blackmail.

He said an Israeli recruiter ordered him to gather intelligence on Lion’s Den leaders to help the military target them. After each mission, he said, the Israeli agent gave him 500 shekels (about $137) and a carton of Marlboro cigarettes.

Two members of the Lion’s Den, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said that after months of suspicion, they began following Al-Ghaleeth around. They caught him surveilling another militant and detained him. They described a six-hour videotaped interrogation, with just a clip leaked to social media to protect sensitive information about the group. “He confessed to everything after 30 minutes, maybe in hopes we wouldn’t kill him,” one said.

The public prosecution said it filed the online video as additional evidence in the case.

But the confession raised as many questions as it answered, evoking the fraught judicial processes of grisly executions in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip — both those considered legal and those with little or no due process.

Since its 2007 takeover of the enclave, the Hamas militant group has publicly killed 33 suspected collaborators and other convicted criminals, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. During war times, Hamas gunmen have seized at least 29 alleged collaborators from detention centers and killed them in the streets, without any pretense of a trial. Their bodies were dragged through Gaza City by motorbikes and left for crowds to gawk at or stomp on.

In the occupied West Bank, killings of alleged collaborators have occurred only in periods of intense unrest. Over 900 suspected collaborators were killed in the chaos of the First Intifada that began in 1987. More than 100 were killed in the second uprising, from 2000-05, according to Israeli rights group B’Tselem.

“These killings are a symptom of increased violence,” said Nathan Thrall, an analyst and author of a book on Israel and the Palestinians. Without due process, he said, “there are people who will use these accusations opportunistically to eliminate rivals and settle scores.”

Now Israelis and Palestinians are in the midst of one of the region’s bloodiest phases, outside a full-blown war, in two decades. As of Tuesday, 105 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire this year, according to an AP tally, about half of them affiliated with militant groups. Palestinian attacks against Israelis have killed 20 people in that time.

In recent months, the Israeli army has killed most key commanders and founders of the Lion’s Den, it says. In an apparently rare targeted killing last fall, a bomb on a motorbike exploded as militant Tamer al-Kilani walked by.

Purported security video provided by the Lion’s Den shows an unidentified man parking the motorbike and exiting the frame before the blast killed al-Kilani. During raids, Israeli special forces often adopt disguises, such as of local worshippers or labourers, to quietly slip into the Old City — most recently last Thursday.

As the deaths rose, mistrust grew in the Old City. “We are all terrified because of how many have died,” said Ahmad, a 23-year-old hotel waiter in Nablus. “There are drones and cameras. There must be spies. Everyone suspects everyone.”

On Instagram, Al-Ghaleeth looks like any other 20-something Palestinian. His page is full of mirror selfies in track suits, beauty shots of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque and fan photos of Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi, with captions praising Lion’s Den “martyrs” sprinkled in.

Rumours abound about how he first aroused suspicion. Some say he always covered his face with a keffiyeh scarf in the Old City, as though trying to hide. Others talk of his apparently sudden wealth that allowed him to build a large house on a hilltop even though he once swept streets for cash. A few neighbours allege he resembled the shadowy figure in security footage of al-Kilani’s killing.

“We all knew he was an agent,” said Nael, a 52-year-old cafe owner in the Old City, whose nephew, a leader in the Lion’s Den, was killed last year. “It was the way he walked and talked. We have a sense for these things.”

Despite Israel’s sophisticated technology for surveilling militants, former intelligence officials say Palestinians themselves remain a crucial tool in preventing militant attacks, allowing Israel to conduct intelligence operations at safe remove.

“People think we only target terrorists, but the person down the street is very interesting as well. You can blackmail all kinds of people even if they’re not involved,” said one former Israeli intelligence agent, among nearly four dozen operatives who refused to report for reserve duty in 2014 to protest his unit’s tactics. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “There is no military control without this kind of intelligence.”

He said relationships between recruiters and collaborators often become twisted into something else. “The gifting of a pack of cigarettes is very symbolic,” he said. “This person has to be under the impression that you care for him, that you’re just a friend who’s helping out.”

Collaboration has featured in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since before the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation. Palestinians have been blackmailed into service — threatened with having behaviour exposed that’s forbidden, or “haram,” in their conservative Islamic communities, such as alcohol use, gambling or homosexuality. Others are recruited when seeking permits to get medical treatment in Israel.

“If they’re gay? Absolutely,” said retired Col. Miri Eisin, a former senior intelligence officer, referring to how the Israeli military, with great leverage over Palestinians’ lives, tries to recruit them. “Family problems. Money problems. None of it makes you feel lovely in the morning, but it’s very effective.”

The Shin Bet, Israel’s main agency responsible for collecting intelligence in the West Bank and Gaza since Israel’s capture of those territories in 1967, declined to comment on its tactics or on Al-Ghaleeth’s case. The Israeli military also had no comment.

Al-Ghaleeth’s family declined to be interviewed, instead sharing a statement saying that Zuhair “has nothing to do with them.”

“The history of the family is honourable in serving Palestine,” it added.

Neighbours said the family had barely scraped by, collecting garbage in the Old City.

The Palestinian Authority, which is responsible for prosecuting suspected Israeli collaborators, said it considered Al-Ghaleeth’s death symptomatic of a larger failing.

“This is a dangerous sign,” the public prosecution said. “It affects the safety of citizens.”

The Palestinian leadership accuses Israel of undermining its security forces by raiding cities and villages under its control. Israel contends it has been forced to act because of the authority’s ineffectiveness in dismantling militant infrastructure.

“Our situation is very weak, and that empowers extremism,” said Daghlas, the Nablus official, describing growing Palestinian militancy he fears could render the authority irrelevant. “We are not Gaza, where such killings happen all the time. But Israeli escalations push us in that direction.”

Whether the authority will hold the gunmen accountable is unclear. Palestinian security forces are wary of acting against militants, especially after their arrest of a popular Hamas financier in Nablus last fall sparked a day of riots. Detaining gunmen with family ties to Fatah could exacerbate internal tensions.

Nael, the Old City cafe owner, was blunt when asked why Al-Ghaleeth was killed rather than handed over to Palestinian security forces. “How can a collaborator investigate a collaborator?” he said.

In a pasture outside Nablus — between a horse farm and an Israeli military checkpoint — teenagers working the field steer clear of a certain patch of rocks.“If the spy was guilty, he deserves what happened,” said 16-year-old Laith, looking toward the unmarked grave. “Only God knows the truth.”

Associated Press writer Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report