Palestinians grapple with collaborators
Accused face near certain death
WEST BANK (CNN) -- Akram al Zahtma, a 22-year-old Palestinian, is accused of collaborating with Israel. Human rights activists say he is doomed.
About 1,500 Palestinians have been killed as collaborators since the first Palestinian intifada in 1987, nearly 70 of them in the past two years, according to the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.
Arrested by Palestinian police, Zahtma confessed to being a collaborator who helped the Israeli military locate and kill Salah Shehade, head of the military wing of Hamas. The Israeli bombing of Shehade's home in Gaza in July killed 17 people, including 10 children.
In the presence of a police guard, Zahtma was asked if he was beaten while in custody. He was contrite.
"This mistake's my own mistake," he said. "I'm the person who should be [punished] -- not my family."
His face and neck were bruised. Palestinian human rights activists say beatings are routine when Palestinian police arrest suspected collaborators.
Zahtma said he was tricked into becoming an Israeli spy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when an Israeli undercover agent offered to help him study in Canada.
His story is a common one, said Saeb Erakat, chief negotiator of the Palestinian Authority.
"I know students who come to my office who are supposed to go to Amman or America in their fifth year or sixth year ... ," said Erakat. "The Israelis are telling them, 'You're not going to be allowed to leave unless you accept to collaborate with us.'"
Eventually, Zahtma said he helped Israel locate and kill Shehade, whom the Israelis held responsible for numerous deadly terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians in recent years.
Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist organization, is labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.
Though Shehade's house was situated in a densely populated Gaza neighborhood, the Israelis said they thought using a precision missile, fired by an F-16, would raze just the home and none of the adjacent structures, a source told CNN. Israeli officials later apologized for the civilians' deaths.
Program 'quite successful'
Gideon Ezra, former deputy director of Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, acknowledged Israel's recruitment of Palestinian collaborators, saying the program was "quite successful."
"We don't force anyone to work with us," he said.
Many Palestinians blame accused collaborators for Israeli attacks that have killed Palestinian civilians. In Zahtma's case, prosecutors say the penalty will be harsh.
"How can I give him a sentence or penalty less than death?" asked prosecutor Khaled al-Kidra, the Palestinian attorney general for security matters.
Still, some Palestinian officials express a degree of sympathy for accused collaborators.
"We look at them ultimately as the victims of the occupation, but they betrayed their people," said Youssuf Issa, Palestinian Authority military intelligence chief for Gaza.
Innocent of charges?
By contrast, one Palestinian human rights activist says most accused collaborators are innocent.
"We ask not only the families. We ask also the neighborhood. We ask friends. We ask people who know them. And most of these people are completely innocent," said Bassem Eid of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.
Eid said Zhatma's family -- like the families of other accused collaborators -- also will be punished for his alleged activities.
Human rights activists say many impoverished Palestinians are innocently blackmailed into becoming collaborators after unwittingly being photographed with Israeli undercover agents. Others are allegedly coerced in other ways.
"We know about workers [with permits] to work inside Israel, and one day these people [have] their work permit confiscated because they refuse to collaborate with the Israelis," Eid said.
Ezra denied the allegation. "Nobody is blackmailing no one," he said. "We are a democratic country and we use only democratic ways. But we are doing it as good as possible and all the time."
An expert says the situation breeds paranoia that is corrosive to Palestinian society.
"Society is very harsh," said Dr. Eyad Sarraj, a noted Palestinian psychologist and human rights activist.
"First, it does not accept betrayal or to be betrayed. Second, because it is Arab, it is tribal. For a long time living under Israeli occupation has led to a feeling of communal paranoia. Everyone is suspecting everyone else."
The collaborator situation has prompted Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group to call for help against both sides.
"The international community should interfere here," Eid said. "Not only to put pressure on the Palestinian Authority, but also to pressure the Israelis to stop this kind of phenomenon."
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