SDEROT - On Friday afternoon, Amin* climbs the hill. He comes here -- alone -- every week. This time, it’s raining, and Amin is wearing a green anorak with a cap pulled down over his face.
Although he is not yet 60, Amin looks like a bent old man. He doesn’t stay long when he reaches the top – visibility today is poor.
Behind him is the Israeli city of Sderot, where he lives. Ahead is the Gaza Strip, where he used to live. You can’t make out the sea today, just a few high-rises and the minaret of a mosque.
Amin comes to this hill a few hundred meters from the border every Friday to check back with his old life. "I can’t go back. One step over the line and I’m a dead man,” he says in Hebrew. He looks younger up close.
To the Palestinians, Amin is a collaborator. He delivered information about Gaza to Shin Bet, the Israeli Secret Service, for over 20 years. He says he’s saved lives.
He didn’t start spying on his neighbors out of conviction: "The Palestinians accused my brother of collaborating, and killed him," he says. That’s not unusual: suspicion is rife in the Palestinian territories, and accusing somebody of collaboration is often a pretext for settling old scores.
Amin wanted to avenge the death of his beloved brother. That was 40 years ago. Then he started to have doubts about the actions of Palestinian terror groups. Slowly he came around to believing he was doing the right thing.
In 1994, Amin was betrayed, and he spent three years in prison where he was tortured. He was finally able to buy his way out and fled to Israel. He was allowed to bring his wife and five youngest children with him, was given a residence permit and even a modest pension from the Israeli government. The deal came with a house, too – of all places in Sderot, so close to his old home.
"When we moved here, things were quiet," he recalls. Then the rockets started falling. A few years ago, one fell in his garden, injuring his son.
"But when the Israelis fire back, they may be injuring my other sons” – the ones he had to leave behind because they were already married when he fled to Israel.
Bodies dragged through the streets
What Amin knew as he climbed the hill this particular Friday, and heard the explosions in what used to be his home, was that this military offensive would have been impossible without Palestinian informants. Somebody had to have informed on Ahmad Jabari, leader of the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades. Nobody knows exactly how many Palestinians work for the Israeli secret service all told, perhaps thousands.
Theirs, no doubt, is a dangerous life. Seven alleged collaborators were put to death without trial last week in Gaza, and a gruesome video on the Internet shows one of their bodies being dragged through the streets by a motorcycle. Amin is disgusted by the images. He refuses to say what information he passed on to the Israelis. "But I regret nothing."
On good days, Amin believes he’s got a good life in this small Israeli city predominantly inhabited by Sephardic and Russian Jews. He feels proud of his small but successful business, of the fact that his children can converse with their Jewish friends in Hebrew. One of his sons works for the Israeli secret service – another collaborator, the Palestinians would say – but Amin says he’s proud of him.
Ask Amin about the Hamas rockets and he could be confused for one of his Israeli neighbors. In fact maybe even more blunt: only taking back Gaza can bring an end to the conflict, but nobody in Israel is prepared to do that, he says. He’s sure that Hamas will never stop using terror.
But there are other days when Amin feels unbearably homesick, when his loneliness becomes painful. That’s when he misses the pastries his grandmother used to bake, and the smell of the sea – in Gaza it smelled like freedom. On days like that when he hears Arabic music he closes his window.
Amin says he has no problems with his mostly Jewish neighbors. "Some of them don’t trust us," says the corpulent man. "But things are good here."
There are about a dozen Palestinian informants and their families in Sderot. Thousands of former spies have been resettled by the secret service in Israel, most of them in areas with a mix of Arab and Israeli residents where they won’t attract attention. However, not all of them have been as well looked-after as Amin.
Information for cash
The corrugated iron roof at Mahdshub’s* house leaks. It’s dusk, and in this run-down neighborhood of Lod, where you can get any drug you want, the evening’s business is starting to pick up for the prostitutes.
Mahdshub too was an Israeli spy, albeit not a voluntary one. As a young man he was caught stealing from his employer’s till. The price for not having charges brought was spying for the Israelis. At first it was just little stuff, like telling them where a neighbor worked, or somebody’s license plate number. And he was paid.
"But once you’ve taken money, there’s no going back. Then they’ve got you," says Mahdshub, sporting a wool cap inside to protect himself from the draft from a broken window.
The recruiting methods of the secret service were tantamount to blackmail, he says. Sometimes travel or work permits were promised, or there were threats to ruin the reputations of women in the family by circulating vile rumors.
Small-time criminals doing jail time were able to get early release if they agreed to spy. And the pay wasn’t bad. He earned good money, he says, until somebody turned him in. "This is what the Palestinians did to me for spying," he says as he rolls up his shirtsleeve.
He runs his fingers along a large burn scar on his arm. He was only tortured for two days – then somebody he knew, somebody with good contacts, was able to get him out of prison.
"Since then, I haven’t been able to sleep, I can barely work," he says sinking deeper down on his plastic chair. He says that every day he regrets ever dealing with the Israelis. Sure, the theft would have cost him job, but going with the Israelis messed up his entire life. He doesn’t have health insurance, he says. “The Israelis pressed me like a lemon and then threw me away.”
His contact promised him that Allah would never forget his good deeds for the Israelis, and gave him $1000. The money is long gone.
He misses his family – he had to leave his wife behind when he fled. He spoke to his mother a couple of times but then his brother got on the phone and said: “To us, you’re dead,” and hung up.
Mahdshub says he has a recurring dream about paying a secret visit to his village. It begins as a beautiful dream, he says, where everybody is happy to see him, there’s a big family celebration, and everything is just the same as in his childhood. Then suddenly he’s in a dark prison cell with his torturers, and he wakes up covered in sweat.
Doesn’t he have any other dreams, some hope in his life? "Peace would be good," and it sounds as if he means his own first and foremost.
*Not their real names