As dawn broke on March 22, 2004, an Israeli helicopter gunship hovered over the al-Mujama al-Islami mosque in
As dawn broke on March 22, 2004, an Israeli helicopter gunship hovered over the al-Mujama al-Islami mosque in
Yassin and al-Rantisi are just two of the more prominent Palestinian political leaders and militants assassinated by
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Like Army of Shadows, Aravim Tovim, which covers the years 1948 to 1967, questions pervasive truths. In 1948, during what
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
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
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
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
Today a request to exit the Gaza Strip to receive medical treatment, visit a dying relative or study in the