Killing of alleged collaborator exposes Palestinian tensions

NABLUS, West Bank (AP) — 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 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. A crowd of Palestinians swelled around al-Ghaleeth’s bloodied body. “Collaborator!” they yelled. “Spy!”

The scene had an eerie familiarity, Mohammed said, reminiscent of the first and second Palestinian uprisings against Israeli occupation: Paranoia turning Palestinians against each other. Vigilante violence spiraling 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. Ordinary Palestinians accuse the unpopular self-rule government of collaboration with Israel for coordinating with Israeli security forces.

“It was chaos,” said Ghassan Daghlas, a Palestinian Authority official.

The next morning, as word spread that al-Ghaleeth had been building a house in a nearby village, 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 Lions’ Den, which has risen to prominence in the past year, seemed to take responsibility. After news of al-Ghaleeth’s death broke, the group declared that “the traitor was liquidated,” and said it was a warning to others.

A grainy video purporting to show al-Ghaleeth confess 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 video of him having sex with another man as blackmail.

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

Two members of the Lions’ Den, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said that after months of suspicion, they caught him surveilling another militant and detained him. “He confessed to everything after 30 minutes, maybe in hopes we wouldn’t kill him,” one said.

The confession has evoked the fraught judicial processes of grisly executions in the Gaza Strip — both those considered legal and those with little or no due process. The ruling Hamas militant group has publicly killed 33 suspected collaborators and criminals since 2007, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.

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

Now Israelis and Palestinians are in the midst of one of their region’s bloodiest phases in two decades. As of Tuesday, 105 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank and east Jerusalem this year, according to an Associated Press tally, about half of them affiliated with militant groups. Palestinian attacks against Israelis have killed 20 people, all but one of them civilians, in that time.

Over recent months, the Israeli army claims to have killed most key commanders of the Lions’ Den.

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. “Everyone suspects everyone.”

On Instagram, al-Ghaleeth looks like any other 20-something Palestinian — 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 Lions’ Den “martyrs” sprinkled in.

Rumors abound about how he aroused suspicion. Some say he always covered his face with a keffiyeh scarf, as though trying to hide. Others talk of his apparently sudden wealth that allowed him to build a large house even though he once swept streets for cash.

“We all knew he was an agent,” said Nael, a 52-year-old cafe owner whose nephew, a leader in the Lions’ Den, was killed last year. “We have a sense for these things.”

Despite Israel’s sophisticated technology for surveilling militants, former intelligence officials say Palestinians remain a crucial asset.

Over the years, Palestinians have been blackmailed into service — threatened with having behavior exposed that’s forbidden in their conservative Islamic communities, such as alcohol use, gambling or homosexuality. Others are recruited when seeking permits to get medical treatment in Israel.

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, as did the Israeli military.

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

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.

Whether the authority will hold the gunmen accountable remains unclear.

Nael, the 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.


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

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