As dawn broke on March 22, 2004, an Israeli helicopter gunship hovered over the al-Mujama al-Islami mosque in Gaza City. Suddenly, the whoosh of missile rockets was heard, and then explosions. Shouts and screams filled the streets, followed by news bites from all over the world: Hamas's spiritual and political leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, had been killed as he was leaving the mosque to return to his nearby home. About three weeks later, on April 17, Gaza's newly chosen Hamas leader, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, was also assassinated from the air. Rantisi had taken extra precautions to protect himself--surrounding himself with bodyguards, constantly switching hiding places and never traveling in his own car. Still, he could not escape the long arm of Israel's security services either.
Yassin and al-Rantisi are just two of the more prominent Palestinian political leaders and militants assassinated by Israel since the eruption of the second intifada in September 2000. To date, more than 400 people have been killed in similar operations. While the morality and legality of Israel's assassination policy are debated in the Israeli press, little has been said or written about the logistical dimensions of such extrajudicial executions. This is unfortunate, since seemingly mundane questions--such as how Israel manages to ascertain the exact whereabouts of people like Rantisi--can broaden our understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in unexpected and valuable ways.
Although the Israeli military does not reveal its intelligence sources, it's well-known that despite innovations in surveillance technology (a pilotless drone, for instance, aided the helicopter gunship that fired on Yassin), Palestinian collaborators are indispensable to Israel's covert operations in Gaza and the West Bank. Brig. Gen. Yair Golan, who until recently headed Israel's military forces in the West Bank, said as much at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem last year. Moreover, meticulous readers of assassination coverage in Israeli newspapers have long been able to detect the fingerprints of collaborators at the crime scene. Consider a few lines from an article about the murder of Aiman Halaweh, published on October 23, 2001, in the Israeli paper Ma'ariv: "Halaweh, 27 years old, was driving in the middle of Nablus in a new car he had received a few days earlier, when suddenly a forceful bomb detonated inside the vehicle. The car was totally ruined from the blast, while Halaweh was killed on the spot." The careful reader understands that the "new car" was the bomb and that Halaweh must have received the vehicle from a Palestinian collaborator working for Israel.
The recruitment and deployment of Palestinian collaborators is not a new phenomenon. It is a longstanding Zionist practice, almost as old as Zionism itself. Already in the early 1920s, the Zionist Executive's Arab department employed collaborators to establish the Muslim National Associations as a counterweight to the Muslim-Christian Associations, which at the time was the hub of the Palestinian national movement. During the same era the Zionist movement adopted a similar scheme, establishing a loose network of Palestinian political parties, known as the farmers' parties, to challenge and undermine Palestinian urban nationalists. In fact, Zionist institutions employed collaborators throughout the British Mandate period to advance their goals. In 1932 a collaborator relayed information about sermons given by sheikh Izz al-Din al-Qassam, a Palestinian militant who was killed by British troops in 1935 and is remembered by Palestinians to this day, not least because the military wing of Hamas has appropriated his name.
In his groundbreaking book Army of Shadows, Hillel Cohen, a research fellow at Hebrew University's Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, exposes this particularly nefarious side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Cohen has spent years in numerous Israeli and British archives gathering information that many would prefer to forget, and in Army of Shadows he summons his findings to document the actions of a seemingly endless number of Palestinian mukhtars (village leaders), land merchants, informers, weapons dealers, journalists, businessmen, farmers and teachers who collaborated with the Jews between 1917 and 1948. By focusing on them, Army of Shadows chronicles a tragic chapter in the people's history of Palestine, one that many Arab scholars have refrained from writing because it contradicts the dominant ethos of Palestinian national unity. Zionists have abstained from recording it as well because it undermines their claim that the Palestinians were able to unify and fight against the establishment of a Jewish state after the UN partition resolution of November 29, 1947. Cohen reveals that many Palestinians signed pacts with the Zionists during the 1948 war and that some even fought with the Jews against the Arab armies.
Collaboration is a very thorny issue, primarily because of its corrosive blend of betrayal, exploitation and deceit, so it's not surprising that Army of Shadows created a stir when the Hebrew edition was published in 2004. Both liberal Jews and Palestinians found the book difficult to digest because each group found its side portrayed in unflattering terms. Many Jewish readers were upset by Cohen's revelation that the prestate Zionist intelligence agency, Shai, and the Jewish Agency's Arab bureau exploited almost every honest Jewish and Palestinian relationship to advance narrow Zionist interests. There were, Cohen notes, many Jews who desired only friendship or good business relations with Palestinians but were eventually identified by the Shai, which used them to collect information and enlist Palestinian collaborators. The Jewish Agency even helped establish and finance Neighborly Relations Committees, which initiated mutual visits and Jewish-Palestinian projects, ranging from pest control to the sending of joint petitions to the Mandatory government. The rationale for the creation of these committees was not only to enhance coexistence but also to recruit informers.
Ezra Danin, head of the Shai's Arab department from 1940 to 1948, identified twenty-five occupations and institutions in which Jews and Palestinians mixed company, among them trucking, shipping, train and telecommunications systems, journalism, Jewish-Arab municipalities, prisons and the offices of the British Administration. He proposed that the Jews in these walks of life enlist Arab collaborators, adding that "such activity should be similar to the way the Nazis worked in Denmark, Norway, and Holland--touching on every area of life." Cohen explains that this approach was different from that of British intelligence, which allowed only political and military organizations and subversive bodies to be targeted as pools for potential informers. This revelation, besides shedding light on some of the ruthless tactics employed by the intelligence agencies, helps explain why, from Zionism's very beginnings, it was almost impossible for many Jews to develop loyal relationships with indigenous Palestinians.