January 14, 2009

Article at AFP

Israel informer rests easy on the edge of Gaza onslaught

SDEROT, Israel (AFP) – Abu Yusef has heard the roar of Israeli warplanes bombing his hometown in Gaza, but he supports the Jewish state as much as he did when he first became an informer on his fellow Palestinians.

"If it were up to me Israel would not only take over Gaza, but the rest of the Arab world as well," the 60-year-old retiree says as he reclines on the front porch of his home in
the Israeli town of Sderot near the Gaza border.

Before coming to Sderot 16 years ago Abu Yusef worked as an informer for the Israeli military, an offence for which the vast majority of Palestinians view him as a traitor
and a collaborator.

For the last eight years his new hometown has been battered by rockets launched from Gaza towns on the other side of the border, including Beit Lahiya, where Abu Yusef -- who declined to give his real name -- was born.

The onetime Gazan meanwhile enjoys a comfortable life as an Israeli citizen, collecting a pension from the government -- he won't say how much -- and living in a sprawling
two-storey house on a quiet, tree-lined street.

There are another dozen informer families living in Sderot, he says, forming a tight-knit
community that shuns the spotlight.

"If the Israeli forces were to return to Gaza and take control there I could go back, but otherwise my life is in danger," he says. Palestinian armed groups, including Hamas, have executed dozens of alleged collaborators.

Ever since Israel seized east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967, its
Shin Beth internal security agency has made use of an estimated thousands of informers to keep the occupied territories under a firm grip.

There are no official figures on how many Palestinians work as informers and security officials contacted by AFP refused to discuss the matter.

Over the years information provided by the informers has helped Israeli security forces to foil attacks, catch senior militants and assassinate others.

Some of them are recruited with money, some are intimidated into service, and some, like Abu Yusef, volunteer for the job.

Efraim Inbar, an expert on Israeli security issues and the director of Israel's Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies, says recruiters exploit Palestinian political divisions, private feuds and vulnerabilities.

"It's a very fractured society," he says, adding that Israeli intelligence agents also
often resort to underhanded methods like threats and blackmail. "We hold
them by the balls."

In August Physicians for Human Rights-Israel assembled 30 sworn testimonies of
Palestinians who said they had been pressed to become informers by Israeli security agents when they tried to leave Gaza for crucial medical care abroad.

Informers have almost certainly played a key role in Israel's ongoing war in Gaza, helping the military pinpoint the tunnels, weapons caches and booby traps that make up Hamas's hidden web of urban defences.

Israel has lost 10 soldiers since the war began on December 27 with a massive air assault, while nearly 1,000 Palestinians, including nearly 300 children, have been killed in
the same period, according to Gaza medics.

Although he has been in Israel for nearly two decades, Abu Yusef refuses to discuss what
exactly he did for the military during his years in Gaza, but said he was proud of the services he rendered to the Jewish state.

"Israel is the only country in this region that is moving forward," he says. "I have been to many Arab countries, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and none of them are like this one. The Jews
are the closest people to Islam."

On a recent afternoon he sat outside, fingering Muslim prayer beads as his six young
children studied Hebrew with a private tutor on the front porch.

He says he left another family behind in Beit Lahiya -- several children and dozens of
grandchildren living a mere 10 kilometres (six miles) from his house -- but has
not seen them since he fled the impoverished territory.

The farming town near the northern edge of Gaza has been one of the main rocket-launching areas in recent years and in the last two weeks has been pounded by Israeli F-16s and tanks struggling to halt the projectiles.

Abu Yusef betrays little concern for Palestinians caught in the crossfire and, like Israeli
officials, blames all the bloodshed on Hamas.

"They fire rockets all the time, and the Israelis waited and waited, day after day, and now there are more rockets from Iran that can travel farther," he says, adding that he has installed a bomb shelter in his basement.

"If my children are killed it will be because of Hamas," he says. "They are the ones who are killing children in this war."

Abu Yusef refuses to discuss his relationship with his Gaza family, and bristles when asked when he last spoke with them.

"I speak with them. I ask how they are, and I ask about the situation," he says gruffly. "But I live here. I am an Israeli."