R. couldn’t care less if he’s dubbed a “traitor” or a “collaborator.” Now 57 years old and working in a shop in Tel Aviv, he still feels he made the right choice, even though it led him to interrogation, torture, financial hardship and cost him his family. He contacted me at his own initiative, saying he wanted to talk about the many years he worked as an agent for the Shin Bet security service, and that his decision to reveal himself, to some extent, comes at the end of a successful rehabilitation process.
It’s only a partial success, of course. Not a few former Shin Bet agents find themselves in limbo: shunned by Palestinian society and Israeli-Arab society and not embraced by Jewish society either. Those stories that reach the media usually involve agents and collaborators whose rehabilitation has failed either partially or completely, often after they’ve sunk into crime and drugs. Many are bitter, and are sharply critical of the red tape involved in the rehabilitation directorate run jointly by the Shin Bet and the other arms of the intelligence community.
To put the complaints into proportion, the Rehabilitation Directorate has been around for 25 years and has spent billions of shekels handling thousands of cases over the years. The directorate is run by the Shin Bet but caters to agents of the entire intelligence community. It employs social workers, educators and Hebrew teachers, and despite the challenges, has had substantial success: some rehabilitated former agents even serve in the Israeli armed forces.
R. was born in the village of Sebastia, near Nablus. His father served in the pre-state Mandatory police, then turned to growing olives and fruit trees. His mother was a housewife who raised 10 children. In the 1980s the Shin Bet sent R. to infiltrate Naif Hawatmeh’s Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and during the first intifada and in the early 1990s he was a familiar figure in the organization in the West Bank, and in Ketziot Prison in the Negev. Then he was exposed, and suffered torture but with immense resourcefulness managed to free himself and went on to participate in more special operations on behalf of the Shin Bet.
After the Six-Day War, Shin Bet intelligence operatives and case officers became Israel’s eyes and ears in the occupied West Bank, each allocated a specific area. R. was trained to learn the identities of all the village residents, by their real names, while they knew him only by his “nom de guerre”. In 1985 he met “Abu Ali,” the Shin Bet case officer for Sebastia and other villages in the area. “The whole village knew who he was and he didn’t hide it,” R. says. “He would come to the coffee shop, talk with the people, and was much in contact with the mukhtar (the village leader). When I saw him, I waited for him to leave the coffee shop and then I went up to him and started talking to him. I dreamed of attending university abroad, and up to then I’d been helping my father in the fields with the tractor. He asked me, ‘Is there something you want?’ And I told him, ‘Yes, I want to study abroad.’”
Several days later, R., along with a few other residents of Sebastia, was summoned to the military administration building in Nablus. “They took our ID cards and brought us in one by one. When it was my turn, Abu Ali started asking me all kinds of questions about the village and again asked what I wanted. I said that I wanted what I told him when we met. He understood immediately and said, ‘Great, we’ll start working and we’ll arrange for your studies abroad.’ I was a little nervous and told him I was afraid that people would know. He told me not to worry and said, ‘We’ll protect you.’”
A while later R. was told to meet with the case officer in Netanya, a place he’d never visited. He traveled to Tul Karm and according to the instructions he was given, waited next to the post office and a hair salon. The Shin Bet operative picked him up in a car and drove him to the Netanya apartment of a pair of Holocaust survivors who had agreed to put up Shin Bet agents on a regular basis.
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“He always asked me to tell him what was happening in the village. He wanted to know who was talking to whom, who belonged to what organization and, especially, who was traveling abroad. He told me, ‘Whatever you want, you will get.’”
“You’ll get money and permits for your family. He gave me some money and said, ‘Don’t talk to anyone and take a taxi back now.’ His code name in the Shin Bet was ‘King.’”
How would you communicate with each other?
“There were no phones then so you’d spray an X on the wall. Above it was the date and below it the time. Then someone in the village picked up on the system so they changed the numbers.”
You didn’t realize that you were betraying your family, your friends, your village, your people?
“I was young, stupid and stubborn. I didn’t think it through. I wanted to study abroad, and for me, it was mostly just a kick. I enjoyed it. It was like a game. We’d go, walk around Netanya, meet at a hotel. Sometimes they took me along on arrests and then they’d disguise me in other clothes.”
And then things went wrong
The Shin Bet wanted to keep R. close, so instead of studying abroad he was asked to go to school in the West Bank. R. wanted to attend Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, where a lot of his friends went. However, the case officer ordered him to study at An-Najah University in Nablus, but then in 1987 the first intifada erupted, the university was shut down and all the plans went awry. “Abu Ali instructed me to infiltrate Hawatmeh’s Democratic Front because I had ties there from Bir Zeit,” says R.
During the intifada, R. headed a three-member cell and gradually moved up in the organization and in the popular committees that were established throughout the West Bank. He oversaw the distribution of fliers, rock-throwing at Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers, waving of PLO flags – activities that typified the Palestinian struggle in those days, for the most part avoiding the use of live weapons and bombs.
Eventually, R. was arrested by the Border Police in the course of an operation and he and his cohorts were sent to Ketziot Prison. The Shin Bet warned him not to get in touch. He spent six months in detention, where he and his companions soaked up Hawatmeh’s Marxist indoctrination. Upon being released, he smuggled out 16 letters – in his stomach. When he excreted them, they were first shown to the Shin Bet. Then he swallowed them again on the way to their destination in Nablus and abroad. “It wasn’t anything too interesting. Problems between Fatah and the Democratic Front,” he says drily. Yet such feats enhanced his standing further and he became a member of the organization’s national committee.
The Democratic Front paid him 800 dollars a month. The Shin Bet paid him about half that. Together it made for a decent living.
Two major operations in which R. took part involved revealing grenades that terrorists planned to use in attacks. The Shin Bet congratulated him on his accomplishments and rewarded him too, with a handsome bonus.
“I believed I was working with the best people in the world,” he says. But it turns out he was mistaken. In 1992, after one encounter, a Shin Bet operative drove him in a car with Israeli license plates and let him off by his village near dawn. One of the locals noticed and R. was taken in for questioning by Fatah.
“I was invited to a meeting – I was told there were some problems with Hamas and we had to arrange a sulha (reconciliation). When I showed up, I was in for a shock. Five guys with guns arrested me. For three days I was interrogated in a cave. They beat me with sticks. They choked me until I couldn’t breathe. They hung me upside down from a tree, naked. It was February so I also got frostbite, but I didn’t confess. I claimed that I was involved in theft but that I didn’t work with the Shin Bet. Luckily, my interrogators were illiterate. Eventually, my brother came with two armed men from the Front and freed me,” he says. Only later did he learn that he had been exposed because the Shin Bet screwed up, he explains.
A doctor friend treated R.’s injuries and once he had recovered somewhat, he found a way to contact the case officer who quickly extracted him and had him housed at a hotel in Tel Aviv for some months.
“The Shin Bet questioned me for a long time because they suspected I might have become a double agent. They repeated the same questions dozens of times. It caused me to have a nervous breakdown,” R. says. “Ultimately, they cleared me.”
He underwent a lengthy rehabilitation process through the Shin Bet which included a monthly modest salary, new identity, Israeli residence and a work permit. Then he went back to taking part in special operations to recruit agents and collect information, R. says. He is emphatic that he never participated in any assassination missions.
Since then, R.’s life has had its ups and downs. He opened a restaurant, went bankrupt, fell into debt and was living from hand to mouth until a case officer and social workers from the Rehabilitation Directorate came to his aid several months ago. They helped him handle his debts and buy an apartment in south Tel Aviv that will be his until his death.
However, he has no contact with most of his family, except for a younger brother and two sisters. His parents have both died. “My father never talked to me about what happened. He kept it to himself. My mother talked a lot and said to me, ‘It’s okay. The important thing is that you marry an Arab woman and have a child.’”
Did you fulfill her wish?
“I never married.”
“No one would let a good Arab woman marry me, and having a child wouldn’t be good because his life would suffer. Arabs would call him ‘son of a traitor’ and Jews would call him ‘son of an Arab.’”
Do you regret what you’ve done in life?
“Not really. I’m only sorry that I hurt my family. My sisters divorced because of me. I know the Arab people – they’ll forgive anything, but what I did is unforgivable. Still, I feel that I did contribute to Israel.”