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.