Twilight Zone / A Borderline Existence

Mahmoud Shaniq, known as a collaborator, is now living at an IDF checkpoint, barred from returning to Israel and too frightened to go back to the West Bank.

Tom Hanks lived in an airport. Mahmoud Shaniq lives at a checkpoint. Hanks was in a movie, Shaniq is doing it in real life. When push comes to shove, though, it's more comfortable to live in a modern airport terminal than at an Israel Defense Forces checkpoint in the occupied territories. It is not clear why the character played by Hanks chose to live in the airport in the film "Terminal." However, it is perfectly clear why Shaniq chooses to live at the checkpoint: he has no other choice, because he wants to go on living. He is barred from moving to the west of the checkpoint, which is Israeli territory, and he is convinced that if he takes a few steps to the east, toward the West Bank, he will be liquidated immediately. Shaniq is known in the West Bank as a collaborator with Israel.

Shaniq has been living at the Jabara checkpoint, on the main road to Tul Karm and Nablus, for the past month. Upon his last release from an Israeli prison, where he was held on a charge of illegally being in Israel, he was dumped at the checkpoint and is afraid to cross it. He is certain that the distance between him and death is a few steps. He is living on a razor's edge.

In the meantime, the soldiers at the checkpoint have adopted Shaniq: he is their collaborator-mascot, their pet. There are checkpoints in the territories where the soldiers have adopted a stray dog; here they have adopted a good Arab. They supply him with food and water, 24-hour-a-day protection and a place to lay his head, like a protected tenant.

His home is his prison. Shaniq lives in the checkpoint lockup, a sealed metal cell, 2 x 2 meters, which is intended for Palestinians illegally present in Israel (known by the Hebrew acronym shabahim) who are caught at the checkpoint. The soldiers call him "bro" and he calls them "bro" right back. "Bro, get these mice out of here," one of the soldiers said this week when he saw the wretched shabahim peeping into his lockup-home. The shabahim, a group of grim-looking men dressed in tatters who tried to find a day's work in Israel, must now spend hours in the sun Shaniq has taken over their cell. He is deathly afraid of them. One of them has already gestured threateningly at him with his hand, as though to say, "You just try to come out of here ...

A checkpoint mouse, he lives in dread. From time to time he peeks out of the lockup, frightened, his eyes darting to and fro, hustling to get water from the tap, scurrying back into his protected space, his lair. On the metal floor of the lockup sits all his property: two handbags, clogs and running shoes, a bottle of water and a white towel that he has hung out to dry on the sealed window. A volunteer from Machsom Watch a group of women who monitor checkpoints to try to prevent human-rights abuses organized him a thin IDF mattress, a sleeping bag and a sheet: his bed. Flies buzz around his voluntary cell, which is hot and stifling. After the last of the miserable shabahim is released at the end of the day, after enduring hours of hazing and humiliation, Shaniq will remain. Day and night at the checkpoint, this is his home. He has been here a month already, and no solution is in sight.

A life in the gutterThis week, as we sat in his lockup-home, he told his story, a life story of dubious collaboration with Israel, which he denies, and appalling abuse which has been his lot over the years. Shaniq has spent most of life in the gutter. His whole body,from the large scar that traverses his skull to the many cuts that crisscross his hands and feet, tell a story of abuse he has undergone at the hands of his people, who suspect him of selling his soul to the devil since his early youth. Where his skin is not lacerated by cuts, it is covered with tattoos. Even his close family has severed contact with him, as though seeking to rid itself of the mark of Cain that it wears by proxy. A few days ago, he says, when he called home, his mother slammed down the receiver. "Go your own way, you have your God and he will safeguard you. We want nothing more to do with you," she said and slammed the receiver, cutting him off from the last warm human contact in his persecuted life.

He was born 36 years ago in the Yasmin neighborhood in the Old City of Nablus, one of 13 children. He attended school until fourth grade and was then thrown into the work force, helping his father, who sold used clothes in the market, to provide for the family. He was arrested for the first time at the age of 16, for throwing stones. He says he was not guilty: "I was young and I confessed." Three and a half months inside. A few months later he was arrested again on a similar charge. In Hebron prison, he relates, he once looked at the watchtower and already his comrades accused him, for the first time, of collaborating with the prison authorities, an accusation he has not been able to shake off to this day.

First punishment: at night the prisoners gave him a bad beating. "I was between death and life." They beat him with a squeegee handle on the head here is the scar on his head and all over his body. They told him: We will bury you here. He said to them: "Yes, I worked with the Shin Bet. I told them tales." Shaniq admitted to collaborating with the Shin Bet security service. He says he did it under torture. They poured coffee on his head to stop the bleeding.

The mark of Cain was on him when he returned home to the Old City of Nablus after being released. The whole city knew he was a collaborator. "You know how the prisoners are. They told on me. Mahmoud was here, he told us he works with the Shin Bet. Stories like that." He names those who informed on him.

The sounds of the checkpoint in the background: Get up, sit down, come here, get away, there is a permit, there is no permit. Threats began arriving at his home in Nablus. One night masked men showed up and removed him from the house and warned him: You're a collaborator. You turn us in. We'll show you. "I began to be treated badly in Nablus. No one would say good morning or good evening to me. I was alone, I didn't talk to people."

One night during the first intifada, after he had gained notoriety, masked individuals entered his home with hatchets. On another occasion he was seized and taken for interrogation by Fatah people in the city. In fact, he recalls, members of all the organizations in Nablus interrogated him and abused him. "'Tell us who you worked with.' Here, they cut my hands. They broke my nose, cut my face next to the eye and tore my ear." His body and his face confirm everything he says. His ear is glued to his head, there is a scar next to his eye. "I told them: Yes, I worked a bit here, I helped a little there. They tied my hands and feet, I knew my time to die had come. But I managed to get away. I managed to escape from them a few times. God watched over me so they would not kill me."

He realized that he had to leave town fast. He fled to Jordan, spending two years there, working with his brother, a tile layer. But he found no rest there, either. Another collaborator, he says, was arrested in Jordan and informed on him. He was arrested and interrogated by the Jordanian security service. "The interrogator told me: Tell us how you worked with the Israeli Shin Bet. Samar said that you worked with them. I said: I did not work with them. He said: Listen, tell us and shorten your time here or we'll really let you have it. I said to him: Do you want a story by force? He said: We have information about you."

He was placed in solitary confinement for two days. The Jordanian interrogators poured sewage into the cell, he says, and he had to lie on the rubbish. They kept asking him if he was ready to talk. On the second day, the Jordanian interrogators made him squat on his toes, and whenever he fell he was beaten with a stick that he chose himself from a variety of sticks that he was offered. Maybe there is an exchange-of-information agreement between the Israeli and Jordanian security services.

After 20 days of abuse, he cracked: "I told them all kinds of tales. I accused myself for no reason." He told them what he told them and the next day he was expelled from Jordan.

'Find yourself another place'Back in Nablus, Shaniq tried to start his life over, as he puts it. But he could not shake the suspicions. After a time he had to flee again, this time to Turkey. He says he asked the Shin Bet to help him get out of Nablus, even though he was not a collaborator: "An officer named 'Ibrahim,' the Shin Bet man who was responsible for the Yasmin neighborhood, told me: You've been burned. I said: If I'm being accused, I'm ready to help you. I have no other choice. 'Ibrahim' said to me: Go find yourself some other place. I know everything about you. If I let you go back to Nablus, it is your death. A pity. You're still young. Escape to somewhere and live. Ask the Civil Administration for a permit. He helped me get to Turkey. A Jewish person helped me and our people are stupid, they want to murder me." He spent four days in Istanbul, without knowing anyone there and without speaking the language, until he returned.

He went back to Nablus and was forced to flee yet again. His next haven was Romania. He spent a few days there and returned again. He then spent a year and a half in Nablus, not budging from his house. "Terrorists would come: We want Mahmoud. Everyone wants Mahmoud. I felt that I could not stay in the house." He heard about a friend from Nablus who was living in Romania, and his family persuaded him to try his luck there a second time. "I went to Romania like a blind man. I worked there for two years. I sold goods, I bought goods. My visa ran out. You have to go back, they told me."

By the time he returned the Palestinian Authority was in control in Nablus. He took a taxi from the airport to Ramallah, but the taxi driver recognized him and took him straight to the headquarters of Palestinian Preventive Security in Ramallah.

"Leave the pole alone," an Israeli soldier barks through a loudspeaker at an exhausted shabahnik who was leaning on a pole. Shaniq was transferred to Nablus, where he was arrested by Preventive Security. "They said: Ahalan (welcome) Mahmoud, ahalan collaborator, ahalan collaborationist." His eyes skitter nervously. Everyone who walks past the window sparks great fear in him. "Tell us who you worked with, we know all about you. There are masked people who interrogated you and we have it all. You don't have to lie. You have to tell." Shaniq tried to defend himself: "They [the masked people] did not understand me. Is there any way you will understand me?" he relates, using soldiers' slang in Hebrew. "They said to me: Tell. I said: I did not work with the Israeli security service. All my life I helped my father. I have no connections with anyone. They told me: Throw all that crap out the window and talk serious. I said: It's not crap."

The interrogators of Preventive Security in Nablus, two of whom were his former classmates, started to abuse him. Again he slept amid rubbish for three days, again he was beaten, trussed and hung upside down from the ceiling, and locked in an office cupboard. Again he confessed to things he did not do, he maintains. They accused him of killing an activist from the Black Panthers, the most militant organization in Nablus during the first intifada. He said he was in Jordan at the time and asked his family to provide proof of that. His brother went to Jordan to get evidence that would support his alibi, without which he would have been executed.

He spent a year and a half in a Palestinian prison and came out alive. "They told me: You will not live here with us. You have to get out. I said: I have nowhere to go. They told me: We don't care. Let the Israeli security service help you. There is nothing here for you to live for. They took me to the governor and he said: You are expelled from here. Go to Israel, that is your nation. We are not your nation." One of his brothers drove him to the Taibeh checkpoint, where he took his leave of him: "Mahmoud, you have a God. You will get along in life."

Shaniq started to live in Israel illegally. First in Taibeh, then in Tel Aviv. His universe was the old Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. He took odd jobs and lived in a series of apartments. For a time he lived with a woman from Russia, who was mentally ill, he says, looking after her in return for lodgings. For about two years he lived on the margins of the city, on the margins of its margins, until police detectives arrived at his last apartment, at 18 Peretz Street in the south of the city. "I told them: I have nowhere to live. I cannot go into the West Bank and I cannot go to Jordan. I have no nation. I have no flag. I have no place to go. People say I am a collaborationist; I am not, but I was burned."

That was the start of his cooperation with "Eran," a Jaffa detective. Shaniq admits he helped the police. He received a document that made it possible for him to stay in Israel and in return supplied the police with information about small-time drug dealers and purse snatchers, but also about shabahim, fellow Palestinians, especially during the period of the suicide bombing attacks. "Everyone knew about me the Shin Bet, the police antiterrorist unit, the detectives, everyone." After he got involved in a brawl, the arrangement with him was canceled and his permit to stay in Israel was taken from him."I went back to the way I was in the beginning. There is no checkpoint that did not know me. Every time the police caught me they dumped me at a checkpoint and there I told the soldiers my story." In 2003, he was sentenced to six months in prison for being illegally present in Israel. After his release he was caught again and sentenced again. In prison he was always considered "in need of protection." On September 18, he was released for the last time from Ashmoret Prison and came here, to the Jabara checkpoint. He has been here ever since.