In a pair of groundbreaking books, Israeli historian Hillel Cohen explores the thorny issue of Palestinian collaboration with Zionists.


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.

Army of Shadows also disturbed Palestinian readers because it reveals for the first time the extent of Palestinian collaboration with the Jews during the Mandate period and the ensuing 1948 war. Some Palestinians were opportunists who collaborated with the Zionists to make money or advance their careers–these were primarily land brokers and people seeking administrative jobs. Others were mukhtars who wished to advance their regional or village interests or, in cases of internal competition, to solidify their leadership with the Zionists. Still others can be characterized as Palestinian patriots who simply disagreed with the dominant national leadership. Finally, there were those who had Jewish friends and did not view Zionist immigration as a catastrophe. The problem, though, as Cohen points out, is that regardless of the motivation, collaboration contributed to the fragmentation of Palestinian society at a time when its very fate was being determined.

Simultaneously, Cohen underscores the Palestinian leadership’s failure to cultivate a unified national ethos. While disunity among a people is in no way unique, in this case, as Cohen shows, it was aggravated in two ways. First, a totally different and competing national movement was making claims on the same territory, and this movement knew how to profit from splits within Palestinian society in order to undermine national aspirations. Indeed, the Zionists exploited the fissures to recruit and deploy collaborators, and this ultimately served to deepen internal Palestinian discord and frustrate Palestinian nation building.

Second, and more disturbing for a Palestinian readership, Cohen stresses that instead of capitalizing on the fact that Palestinian Arabs shared a national consciousness and were divided mostly on pragmatic questions about how to achieve their goals, the dominant Palestinian group, led by Hajj Amin al-Husseini and loosely organized under the auspices of the Arab Party (established in 1935), defined all competing nationalist views and actions as treasonous. Collaborators, accordingly, were no longer just those who aided the Zionists’ military efforts; they were local and regional leaders, merchants who traded with Jews, journalists who wrote in favor of the Zionist project and, most important, land dealers who helped Jewish institutions locate and purchase Palestinian land. Cohen tells us that

On a clear day in mid-May 1936, an Arab boy set out on a trip from Jerusalem. With him in his car were two Jewish girls. The boy’s name was Victor Lulas. To the nationalists he was a criminal two times over. He was driving a car, in violation of the leadership’s strike orders, and he had maintained his social ties with Jews. When he reached the turn in the road by the village of Abu-Ghosh, a group of young men stopped him. They dragged him out of the car, beat him, and then sent him on his way.

People like Victor Lulas were the new traitors. Without changing their ways and habits, they found themselves outside the norms of Palestinian society. Patronizing a Jewish doctor, employing a Jewish worker or being employed by a Jew–all became illegitimate. Thus, Husseini’s uncompromising maximalist positions, alongside his camp’s unwillingness to tolerate the views of its opponents, paradoxically ended up expanding the definition of traitor and collaborator. Simply put, many of those who continued to live as they had in the past were branded as collaborators; collaboration not only became a common occurrence but a defining aspect of Palestinian society and politics.

Army of Shadows joins a growing shelf of books about Mandatory Palestine written by the so-called Israeli New Historians, among them Benny Morris and Tom Segev. (Segev has furnished Cohen’s book with a nice blurb.) Like Morris and Segev, Cohen is a positivist: a scrupulous archivist who spends hours poring over files and old newspapers in order to make sense of the past and to bring it, as it were, to light. (Cohen’s fluency in Arabic gives him an important advantage over Morris and Segev.) As die-hard positivists, though, these New Historians are uninterested in theory; they refrain from examining the implications of their revelations and claims on our understanding of important concepts such as nationalism, hegemony and collaboration. There is little, if any, abstraction in their writings.

Devotion to the archives hasn’t hampered Segev’s storytelling talents. In One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate (2000), he beautifully and masterfully interweaves remarkable anecdotes to create a gripping and irresistible tale. Yet after reading it, I find myself agreeing with Segev’s thesis–that the British were more pro-Zionist than many Israelis have traditionally believed–but unsure about the proof. Segev’s great narrative skills are also his Achilles’ heel: the fabric of his story is too tightly woven. Where are the messy contradictions and ambiguities that characterize history? This is not the question one is left with after reading Cohen, another great storyteller, whose narratives accommodate the inconsistencies and variations that history is made of. Cohen distinguishes himself even more from Morris, who in Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999 (1999) chronicles the history of national institutions while eliding the people’s history of Palestine. The significance of unearthing the people’s history is that it often brings to light a story less amenable to hegemonic perceptions and existing paradigms, if only because the people talk in many voices: they contradict the dominant ethos, they resist authority, they tell the truth, they lie.

If, for instance, Morris presents the 1948 war as a conflict between Jews and Arabs, Cohen documents numerous cases of Palestinians refusing to attack Jews. This unwillingness to do battle pervaded the country. In December 1947, Cohen writes, “the inhabitants of Tulkarm refused to attack Jewish towns to their west, to the chagrin of the local Holy Jihad commander, Hasan Salameh. Sources in Ramallah reported at the same time that many were refusing to enlist, and reports from Beit Jibrin indicated that ‘Abd al-Rahman al-‘Azzi,” the head of a very influential family, “was doing all he could to keep his region quiet. The villagers of the Bani-Hassan nahiya southwest of Jerusalem decided not to carry out military actions within their territory, and the people of al-Maliha refused a request from ‘Abd al-Qader al-Husseini to attack the Jewish neighborhoods of Mekor Hayyim and Bayyit va-Gan.” In these places as well as in many others mentioned in the book, Palestinians did not feel that war with the Jews would advance their interests. In some cases local Palestinian leaders were collaborators; in others, fear of the Jewish forces was the source of reluctance; and in still others it was friendship that had survived many years of national strife. “Palestinian Arab interest in fighting the Jews seems not to have been very high,” Cohen concludes.

In the late 1990s, in the midst of writing Army of Shadows, Cohen stumbled on an array of documents in the Israeli State Archives that had been declassified by mistake. Whereas most of these files dealt with thieves, brothels and numerous petty crimes, some relayed sensitive information about the employment of Palestinian informers during the 1950s and ’60s. Before the archivists’ error was discovered and the material reclassified and sealed, Cohen managed to read and take extensive notes on thousands of files, which provided him with a unique glimpse into the clandestine techniques used to recruit and deploy Palestinian citizens as undercover agents within their own communities. Cohen revealed the guarded secrets of scores of Palestinian collaborators in the sequel to Army of Shadows, Aravim Tovim (Good Arabs), which was published in 2006 and stayed on Ha’aretz‘s bestseller list for thirteen weeks. Pickups filled to the brim delivered the paperback edition to Palestinian villages throughout Israel, where people waited impatiently to peruse the book. Many of them turned first to the index to see whether family members or acquaintances were implicated, making Aravim Tovim probably the only book written in Hebrew that is read backward–that is, from left to right.

Like Army of Shadows, Aravim Tovim, which covers the years 1948 to 1967, questions pervasive truths. In 1948, during what Israel calls the War of Independence and the Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” the vast majority of Palestinian leaders and intelligentsia either fled or were expelled from urban centers. The relatively small percentage of Palestinians who stayed put were unorganized rural dwellers who found themselves in a new state that did not want them. They were ultimately granted citizenship but were nonetheless considered a fifth column and forced to live under the Emergency Regulations, which restricted the movement of Palestinian citizens within the Jewish state until 1966. For years, it has been a widely held assumption that the first generation of Palestinian citizens of Israel was timid, afraid to challenge the Israeli government and demand basic rights. Such is the story told in Coffins on Our Shoulders: The Experience of the Palestinian Citizens of Israel (2005), in which Dan Rabinowitz and Khawla Abu-Baker distinguish the 1948 generation of Palestinians from their grandchildren, “the stand-tall generation,” which Rabinowitz and Abu-Baker describe as being assertive, confident, determined and possessed with a sense of entitlement.

But is this really the case? The same mistakenly declassified archival files that Cohen used in Army of Shadows to open a window on Palestinian collaboration also reveal the existence of ongoing Palestinian resistance to Israeli rule. I vividly recall my friend Fareed Ghanem, a Palestinian Druse from Mghar, calling to tell me that he had just finished reading Aravim Tovim and that his father, Qassem, who was a schoolteacher in the early 1960s, figures in the book. Qassem Ghanem appears in a chapter about the governmental Committees for Arab Affairs, the major objective of which was to monitor and control the Palestinian minority within Israel. Cohen quotes an Israeli memo about Qassem Ghanem’s hometown. Mghar, the memo states, had been “known in the past as outstanding in its loyalty to Israel, [but] recently nationalistic activities and incitement against the government have been exposed. At the center of these activities,” the memo continues, “are a group of teachers who in broad daylight oppose the government…. The village notables and collaborators stand helpless in light of these activities and are certain that if the culpable teachers were harmed a bit it would do a great deal towards pacifying the spirits in the village and restoring the calm.” Cohen goes on to suggest that the Regional Committee for Arab Affairs invoked the Emergency Laws in order to fire Qassem, together with two other teachers, from the education system.

This relatively minor incident, which takes up no more than seven lines in Cohen’s book, conveys a sense of the vast covert world of informers and operators, backed by government offices, responsible for fragmenting the Palestinian minority and cultivating Palestinian Arab support for the Jewish state. While many Israelis–Jews and Palestinians alike–already had a sense that these shadowplays were part of the state’s history, Aravim Tovim supplies the evidence. Case after case is summoned to illustrate how collaboration permeated all aspects of Palestinian society. The schools were a major arena for spying. Students squealed on teachers, teachers informed on colleagues and principals reported on their students. Other arenas where collaborators operated included mosques, where an imam might criticize the government; cafes, where friends might discuss recent political events; and even weddings, where Palestinian nationalist songs were at times sung. Big Brother’s eyes and ears were always on the alert.

Cohen’s riveting chapter about the Jewish-Arab Communist Party illustrates especially well how the mechanisms of control were put to use. During the first two decades of Israel’s existence, the Communists were practically the only ones to fight for egalitarian treatment of the Palestinian minority. They also led the campaign against the expropriation of Palestinian land and fought for the right of refugees to return to their villages. Cohen shows how every dirty trick in the game was used to sabotage their efforts. Collaborators were tapped not only to listen and report but also to burn down Communist clubs and offices, to violently attack Communist leaders and to sway votes in municipal councils. Aravim Tovim proves for the first time that allegations voiced by the Communists fifty years ago about the dirty tricks of the government and its agents were true.

The intelligence agencies recognized that it would be easier to control individuals than to manage a politically conscious and organized public. Therefore, they instructed their subordinates to prevent the establishment of municipal councils, sports associations, neighborhood clubs and the like, while simultaneously using an array of methods to create friction and strife among different Palestinian families, neighborhoods and villages. The objective was to create endemic distrust among the indigenous inhabitants, to monitor public opinion and to identify Palestinians who could potentially act against the state. By frightening and silencing the population, the different government agencies hoped to fabricate the Israeli-Arab, a “new Arab” whose first and only loyalty was to the Jewish state.

By chronicling the deep penetration of Israeli collaborators into all pockets of Palestinian life, Aravim Tovim ends up–perhaps necessarily–producing a people’s history of Palestinian resistance within Israel, since collaboration is, after all, firmly linked to the existence of resistance. First-generation Palestinians did not keep their heads low, and through their resistance they achieved a number of things. One was their ability to hide and defend thousands of Palestinian refugees who, after the 1948 war, infiltrated back into Israel. Despite clear government injunctions to surrender such “infiltrators” and the ongoing work of hundreds if not thousands of collaborators, about 20,000 refugees, who at the time made up approximately 15 percent of the Palestinian population in Israel, managed to settle down and ultimately received citizenship.

The second achievement involved the establishment of numerous Palestinian municipal councils, despite the Committees for Arab Affairs’ stated policy of crushing all efforts to establish such councils. The third has to do with Palestinian collective memory. The Israeli Ministry of Education, together with the Israeli security services, tried to undermine Palestinian nationalism by attempting to prevent the development and dissemination of a national historical narrative. School curriculums were limited to a Zionist interpretation of events, while any form of Palestinian nationalistic expression was vigorously suppressed. Yet despite all the state’s efforts, Cohen shows how ongoing grassroots defiance guaranteed that the national history of the people was not erased.

Considering the prominent place of resistance in Aravim Tovim, it’s not surprising that those first-generation Palestinians who participated in such activities in the 1950s and ’60s are not only proud to read the book but are also insisting that the “stand-tall generation” read it too. This is one reason the book made it to the bestseller list. Another reason has to do with the fact that many Palestinians read the book as a manual for understanding the current situation in Gaza and the West Bank. In this sense too, Aravim Tovim cannot be separated from Army of Shadows. Both books describe the methods and tactics used by Israel’s security agencies to penetrate, fragment and control Palestinian society through the production of profound distrust. In turn, they provide the necessary background for understanding how Israel effectively exploits existing conditions in order to recruit collaborators.

Today a request to exit the Gaza Strip to receive medical treatment, visit a dying relative or study in the West Bank or abroad is often contingent upon one’s willingness to collaborate. In early January a number of patients were referred from Gaza–where they could not receive medical treatment–to Maqassed Hospital in East Jerusalem, and received permits to leave the region. At the border, though, they were interrogated by Israeli security service officers, who demanded that they become collaborators. According to Hadas Ziv of Physicians for Human Rights, Israel, those patients who refused had their travel permits annulled and were sent back home. While these patients managed to resist the temptation to collaborate, despite their medical ills, others do not. The persistence of collaboration is a result of not only the historical processes Cohen eloquently describes but also the harsh conditions under which Palestinians currently live.

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