Arafat bypasses courts to execute Palestinian 'spies'

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Preferring to avoid the controversial trials that have condemned nine alleged collaborators to death, Yasser Arafat's intelligence operatives are now murdering Palestinians suspected of spying for Israel, killing at least 20 men in the past nine months, at least six of whom were more than 50 years old.

Palestinian police no longer investigate the "mysterious" killings of men believed to have worked for Israel's Shin Bet intelligence service, who in some cases helped the Israelis to murder Palestinian militants; many of the Palestinian killers have been masked, at least one victim has been gunned down by men wearing Palestinian police uniforms while another was killed by fellow prisoners in a Majido prison in Nablus – under the full control of Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

The respected Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group in Jerusalem has compiled a list of men officially arrested by Mr Arafat's authorities since December of last year, showing that only two of the 13 men charged with collaboration have been executed. Four were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment – two to life – and seven others had death sentences commuted. Since the 1993 Oslo Agreement, however, 18 Palestinians have died in Palestinian prisons – often under torture by interrogators trained by the CIA – and, since the intifada began last September, 20 others have been murdered.

Bassem abu Sharif, a special adviser to Yasser Arafat, is quite candid about the 20 deaths. "These people who were shot, they were killed by intelligence, under orders, because of very certain information and recorded confessions," he told me in his Ramallah office yesterday. "All these people were shot by Palestinian intelligence in areas not under our security control. All were shot in Areas B or Areas C (under joint Palestinian-Israeli control or sole Israeli control) where they were protected by Israeli security. These had to be clandestine operations but it was official – the same way security people like the CIA liquidate people."

Most of the murder victims were shot after allegedly "setting up" fellow Palestinians – in some cases relatives – for liquidation by Israeli death squads or by Israeli helicopter-fired missiles. Adnan Fathi Sultan, for example, was shot in the neck and chest by armed men who dragged him from his Bethlehem home on 17 December last year because they believed he had colluded with the Israelis to murder Yousef Abu Sway on 12 December.

Kassem Khleef, found dead at a checkpoint near al-Ram on 12 November, had been accused of providing Shin Bet with the movements of Hussein Abayat, who had been assassinated three days earlier.

Only 10 days ago, 68-year-old Jamal Eid Shahin – the oldest victim so far – received a call at his house in Beit Sahour from men wearing Palestinian police uniform; they asked him to follow them into the street. There, they shot him 11 times and reportedly assaulted his corpse with a hammer. Sabri Said Abu Asab, who was 25, was shot down by masked men in his store at Qalqilia refugee camp. Samir Abdel Aziz Bakri, aged 46, was shot with nine bullets by masked men as he slept in his Nablus home. All were accused of collaborating with Israel.

"Why did the killings increase lately?" Mr abu Sharif asked rhetorically. "Because when we (the Palestinian Authority) got into Palestine in 1993, all these people who were collaborators – there were around 5,000 in all – fled to Israeli security. Gradually, the Israelis forced these people back to our areas so they could use them again. You see, they were 'supervisors' who had their own network, and sometimes they were accompanied by Israeli Special Forces who speak good Arabic and dress like us. They were promised protection in our areas. Some are still now in our areas. But our intelligence did a very good job. We understood the Israeli plan."

Mr abu Sharif is not insensitive to the tragedy of collaboration. In the Palestinian town of Tulkarem, Mr abu Sharif says, Israelis regularly bought lamb from a butcher called Abu Mohamed. They asked why he didn't buy better lamb from Jordan. Abu Mohamed said he needed a licence. "I can get you a licence," one of the Israelis said. This is how it happens – Palestinians are dependent on Israel for licences to import, papers to move through the West Bank, to go to Israel, to travel abroad. The Israelis use these things to make people work for them.

Sometimes the Palestinians don't even realise they are working for the Israelis. So, how to deal with this? Such people are usually discovered by their neighbours because of their sudden wealth or ability to import or travel. But it is very dangerous to let public opinion decide these things. Last week, there were demonstrations to lynch these people. All those people officially detained are interrogated and will get a fair trial. In Nablus this week, there were tapes and confessions and the accused man did not deny he was guilty of collaboration. He confessed.

Bassem Eid, the director the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group in Jerusalem – who is totally opposed to capital punishment – is not impressed by confessions. "The civil courts are not functioning," he says. "Judges and employees of the civil courts are not being paid. The only kind of Palestinian courts which function now are the state security courts. You can hold a court in a police office. The judge is a military figure. I agree that some of these collaborators have committed crimes against the people. These people should be charged and punished – but not in the way the Palestinian Authority is doing."

The two men officially executed by the Palestinian Authority for collaboration with the Israelis in the murder of two Palestinians – Majdi Mikkawi and Allam Beni Odeh – were both shot by firing squad last year, one of them in public. "Now the Americans are protesting about the Palestinian security courts," Mr Eid says. "They are calling them 'unfair trials'. But when the courts were established in 1995, (then US Vice President) Al Gore congratulated Arafat on the establishment of the courts.

"The Americans were happy enough when they wanted Hamas and Islamic Jihad people brought before these courts. But now they condemn them as unfair when they are used to try Israel's Palestinian collaborators."