Arab collaborators who assisted Israel feel neglected

FUNDUK, West Bank — Sadek Billeh says he is not afraid.

The 47-year-old Palestinian has spent nearly half his life supplying Israel with intelligence information about his Arab brethren.

In the Palestinians' eyes, he is a collaborator — and over the years, a long list of people like him have been executed for cooperating with Israel.

Indeed, this month the bodies of two Palestinians were found in the self-ruled West Bank town of Ramallah. They were murdered because they had been involved in selling land to Jews.

Billeh began supplying intelligence to Israel in the mid-1970s.

But he walks around the village of Funduk, near the Palestinian-controlled town of Nablus, with little concern that a vengeance-bent assassin could come for him at any time. Pointing at his forehead, Billeh declares: "When the time comes, the bullet will hit. But only Allah will determine when the time comes."

Along with thousands of other Palestinians who have collaborated with Israel over the past 30 years, Billeh has seen better days. His cooperation with the Israelis led to the detention of security suspects, but he says it proved useful to other Palestinians as well.

Some turned to him to "cut red tape" in their appeals to the Israeli authorities for building permits, work permits and exit visas for travel to Jordan.

In exchange for cash, Billeh obliged.

"I used to be more important than the military governor of Nablus," he boasts.

He collected enough money to build a small plant that manufactured fluorescent lamps. However, after the intifada began in 1987, the Palestinian leadership ordered a boycott of his business. The $100,000 factory was forced to shut down.

The next blow came after Israeli forces withdrew in late 1995 from the main Palestinian cities, including Nablus. Israeli intelligence found Billeh and many other informants no longer useful.

"They have dumped us after the Oslo Accords," says Billeh, referring to the series of Israeli-Palestinian agreements, beginning in 1993.

"We had often known of terrorist conspiracies in advance and prevented them," says Avi Mashriki, 54, a veteran collaborator from the West Bank town of Tulkarm. "Now there is no one to put on the warning signal."

Mashriki, who converted to Judaism in 1989 and moved to Israel, says that "the Israelis have taken off their own antennas in the West Bank," referring to Palestinian informants. "This has done serious damage to Israel's intelligence grip in the territories."

The former head of the Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence agency that handles Palestinian informants, disagrees.

"Israel has a sufficient number of so-called antennas in the territories to supply its intelligence needs," says Ya'acov Peri. "But the Arab collaborators who have been exposed can no longer be considered a valuable intelligence asset."

After the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian accord, the Jewish state offered hundreds of collaborators the chance to resettle in Israel, and many accepted.

By 1994, the Shin Bet set up a special rehabilitation administration to deal with this special group of new immigrants — Arabs who had betrayed their own people.

"We were driven by humanitarian motives," recalls Peri, who headed the Shin Bet at the time. "We felt obliged to help those people who could no longer stay at their original homes."

The rehabilitation administration takes care of some 1,000 collaborators' families who now live in Israel. But at least another 3,000 have settled in Israel without legal permits because they are afraid to stay in their homes, according to collaborators.

Those who resettled legally have been receiving financial assistance from the Israeli government that in some cases has reached hundreds of thousand of dollars, according to sources in the Shin Bet.

Billeh, meanwhile, has remained in Funduk, which is located in an area of the West Bank that remains under Israeli control.

Whether or not Funduk will ultimately be transferred to Palestinian rule is still to be decided in future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But while Billeh would like to leave, he charges that Israel has refused to grant his adult children residence permits.

"I will not leave my children behind," he says. "I am their security."