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Arab Infighting Evident as Uprising Drags On : ‘Hit Teams’ Expose Explosive Rifts in Intifada

Times Staff Writer

As 50 menacing teen-agers in black pants and white T-shirts marched double file, their grim-faced leader called out a cold warning to bystanders huddled in the alleyways of the old city here.

“Collaborators, this is your final warning,” he said, pressing a megaphone to his lips. “If you don’t repent, we cannot be responsible for your safety.”

The message Friday was more punctuation than advice: It came too late for a pair of Arabs stabbed to death in Nablus during the past week. The body of one was found in a butcher’s shop hanging on a meat hook; the other was dumped on a pile of rotting vegetables near the market. According to Nablus residents, the victims were punished for cooperating with Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Two more reputed collaborators have been killed in villages elsewhere in the West Bank during the past eight days.

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May Be Coincidence

The four deaths significantly increased the number of Palestinians known to be executed for alleged betrayal. In the nine-month Arab intifada, or uprising, against Israel, nine others apparently have been fingered as traitors and killed. It is not clear whether the increase in killings is anything but coincidence, however.

In any event, the threats and the week’s outcome hint at explosive tensions among Arabs as the uprising drags on inconclusively. At least 240 Arabs have been killed by Israeli soldiers during the revolt, and thousands have been arrested.

Rifts have developed among Palestinians on what their goals are: a Palestinian state at peace alongside Israel, or Israel’s destruction. One West Bank Arab was brutally murdered 10 days ago--not for collaborating with Israel but because he worked for an Islamic fundamentalist group that opposes the uprising’s self-styled Unified National Leadership for the Uprising in the Occupied Territories.

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Even some sympathetic observers fear that the kind of Arab infighting that has marked numerous Middle East conflicts will break out. In the 1930s, a Palestinian revolt against British rule was fraught with intra-Arab violence.

‘A World Apart’

“The occupied territories are isolated and a world apart. It is not surprising that there should be sudden jolts. It is surprising that there are not more shocks, that Arabs in the face of an enemy who does not bend have not turned on themselves,” said a Palestinian scholar familiar with the development of the uprising.

There is perhaps no Palestinian city more tense than Nablus, the largest town on the West Bank and one with a long history of battling military occupiers--Assyrians, Macedonians, Romans, Christian Crusaders and now Israelis. In Nablus, the heart of the revolt beats among the winding streets and narrow passages of the casbah, the city’s old central district of crumbling arches and rambling tenements.

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Gangs of youths, in the manner of the black-clad brigade, march through the casbah and wave crudely carved clubs at mute bystanders. Members of self-styled “hit teams” deliver polite but firm form letters to suspected traitors to let them know they are being watched. Graffiti on stone walls advertise the punishment: “Death to Collaborators.”

It is in the casbah where the bodies of the two most recent victims were found. Accounts of their alleged crimes typify the rationales for such killings.

Abducted by Masked Youths

Adjli Rushdi Thalji, still in his pajamas, was found hanging in the butcher’s shop Wednesday. He had been taken from his home the night before by masked youths who, according to residents of the casbah, told the family he would be back soon.

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A pair of men, who declined to give their names but claimed to be helping to organize the uprising in Nablus, explained that although Thalji, 30, was unemployed, he seemed to enjoy a comfortable income that they suspected could come only from Israeli intelligence agencies.

Thalji, it was also rumored, acted as a middleman in land deals between Israelis and unwitting Arabs. “He would go to a landowner, someone illiterate, and get them to sign a document, tricking them by saying it was to assure their water rights,” said one of the local rebels. “It turned out the man was selling their land.”

Such a charge could not be confirmed, although the accusation itself is enough to stir emotions on the West Bank. The accumulation of land by Israelis angers Palestinians who feel their national birthright is being sold out from under them.

Last Saturday, Assad abu Rosh, 35, was stabbed to death in the Nablus vegetable market and thrown on a nearby trash pile. A clergyman at a local mosque explained that Abu Rosh once belonged to the Palestine Liberation Organization and served time in jail. During 1985, “something happened” that caused Abu Rosh to spy on his cellmates for the Israelis, the clergyman said.

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“Prisoners returned from military interrogation and boast that they told the Israelis nothing. Then they would tell all to Abu Rosh, thinking he was a friend,” he added. “Abu Rosh then informed the Israelis.”

True or not, the tale sounds plausible to many in Nablus who believe that Israeli intelligence services use convicts to spy and inform.

“People must think the charge valid,” said Abu Aram, a pharmacist in Nablus. “Otherwise, there would be complaints about the killing.”

Three Written Warnings

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Throughout the West Bank and Gaza, suspected collaborators receive up to three written warnings from neighborhood committees that oversee the anti-Israeli revolt. A “hit team” member in Nablus showed a reporter one such letter. It was destined for a pimp who procured prostitutes for brothels in Israel. The political crime of working when a rebel strike had been called was given equal weight with the moral crime of selling women into prostitution.

“After watching you through our committees, it has been made clear that you betrayed home and Islam. You sent people to work in Israel, breaking the general strike and encouraging prostitution,” the letter warned.

“This is the final warning. You can be saved. We are watching you.”

The “hit team” member said the man could avoid harm by going to a local mosque and publicly repenting. Collaborators can also repent, although such an event is rarer.

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The Israeli government has made few public comments about the slayings of suspected collaborators. Lt. Gen. Dan Shomron, the Israeli military chief of staff, told the Foreign and Security Affairs Committee of Israel’s Parliament that Arabs were committing murder in the guise of punishing collaborators.

Israeli officials privately boast that their intelligence network among Arabs has held up well during the uprising. As proof, they point to a recent raid on the town of Qalqiliya, where soldiers rounded up about 200 Arabs suspected of rebellion. An army spokesman said the soldiers carried lists, supplied by informers, of residents who threw rocks or engaged in other attacks on Israeli civilians or soldiers.

Palestinians retort that because of threats and actual executions, most Israeli collaborators are too frightened to work for the enemy.

“We are out on the street, and they are not,” asserted a youth in Nablus.

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