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In Israeli Colonel’s Death, Lives of Intrigue Emerge

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For years, Hassan abu Sheireh charmed the elderly Jewish residents of the posh Jerusalem retirement home where he was a handyman.

He joked with them in Hebrew, told stories about the Bethlehem refugee camp where he lived and griped about corruption in the Palestinian Authority. Many invited Abu Sheireh into their apartments to share meals, or gave him small gifts to take to his children.

The 32-year-old handyman and the residents of Nofeh Gilo remained close even after fighting erupted in September and gunmen in Bethlehem and other nearby West Bank villages began shooting at the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, where the retirement home is situated.

Abu Sheireh told his friends that he was as disgusted as they by the violence convulsing their two communities. Even when Israel banned most Palestinians from entering the Jewish state, he kept coming to work.

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But Abu Sheireh didn’t show up as usual the morning of June 17. Instead, according to the Israeli army, the handyman gunned down Lt. Col. Yehuda Edri, the highest-ranking Israeli officer to die in nine months of fighting with the Palestinians, before being killed as he tried to escape.

Residents of Nofeh Gilo were stunned to see their beloved handyman’s face flashed on their television screens that night, identified in news reports as Edri’s killer. But along with the shock of what Abu Sheireh had done came a second shock: the revelation that for years, he had been an Israeli agent.

Edri, Israeli media reported, was the top Israeli military intelligence officer in the West Bank, veteran of a secret unit, once called 504, that recruits and runs agents for Israel in the Arab world. Abu Sheireh had been reporting to him for months, perhaps years.

“He was a very gentle person,” recalled an 85-year-old Nofeh Gilo resident, who said she wanted her name withheld because she’s so upset and frightened by the turn of events. “I just can’t believe it.”

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Told that her interviewer would visit Abu Sheireh’s family, she asked that they be given a message. “If you would just tell his wife that there are people here with tremendous sympathy for her. Tell them that we grieve for them and that we loved him.”

At least they loved the man they thought Abu Sheireh was. Now they ask themselves whether they ever really knew him. Was Abu Sheireh a hero who risked his life for years to supply Israel with information that may have thwarted terrorist attacks? Was he a betrayer of their trust, a man who feigned friendship with them as he worked as a double agent and plotted to kill a respected intelligence officer? Or was he a victim forced to take on a suicide mission because Palestinians discovered that he had betrayed them?

Mostly, residents and their families wonder at how little they understood this man many counted as a close friend.

“I’m not sure what I believe anymore,” said Sheila Raviv, who spent hours chatting with Abu Sheireh in the last two years during visits to her parents-in-law at Nofeh Gilo. The last time she saw him was the night before he killed Edri, a night in which he greeted her husband, Zvi, with the usual round of hugs and back slaps.

“Everyone is very sad and very shocked,” Raviv said. “When suddenly you realize that everything you believed was wrong, you wonder about it.”

A few miles south of Gilo, Palestinians, too, are wondering what to think of Abu Sheireh. The Palestinian Authority has declared him a shahid, or martyr to the Palestinian cause. There is no higher honor in Palestinian society. After Israel returned Abu Sheireh’s body to his family Wednesday, he was buried in a martyrs cemetery.

But in Al Azza refugee camp where Abu Sheireh was born, some mock the effort to portray him as a hero of the Palestinian nationalist cause. There, people note bitterly that if what the Israeli army and Palestinian security officials say is true, their neighbor informed on them for years before his death.

“The camp is boiling like a pot of food on the flame,” said one elderly camp resident, who spoke on condition that his name not be used because he feared retaliation from Abu Sheireh’s family. “Everyone is wondering what damage this man caused, and who he has left behind him to continue his work.”

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Palestinians estimate that there are tens of thousands of collaborators living among them, some providing Israel with a steady stream of information about the whereabouts, habits and vulnerabilities of key militants. During the current uprising, the Jewish state has used that information to kill field operatives in what the Israelis call “targeted operations” and the Palestinians call assassinations.

The Palestinian Authority considers the act of informing a capital crime, punishable by death.

According to one Palestinian version of what happened to Abu Sheireh, Palestinian security officials uncovered his work for Israel and offered him a choice: be killed for his betrayal, or redeem himself by killing his handler. There have been a handful of such killings before, during the first Palestinian uprising that began in the 1980s. In some of those attacks, the killers managed to escape. Abu Sheireh may have believed that he, too, would survive.

Militants who are lionizing Abu Sheireh offer another version. They say that Abu Sheireh’s conscience was plagued by his betrayal of the Palestinian cause. He came to them and confessed his crimes, and volunteered to kill Edri to redeem himself. Palestinian newspapers published a final will and testament, dated June 5, that tends to back this version of events.

“I will execute a heroic operation as soon as possible, and I hope it will bring honor to you and to every Palestinian,” the will says. “Please do not forget my children or my family after me so that I may rest in my grave.”

Few Palestinians believe that Abu Sheireh actually wrote the will.

According to Israeli news reports, Israel’s intelligence services still aren’t certain whether Abu Sheireh was sent by Palestinian security or acted on his own in killing Edri. The army spokesman declined to let any intelligence officer be interviewed for this story.

“When you are manipulating sources who are effectively betraying their own nation or their own organization, you are dealing with a very complex emotional issue,” said Yaacov Perry, former head of Israel’s General Security Services, which handles internal intelligence. “There comes a time when every source feels that there is no way back.”

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What is known is that Abu Sheireh persuaded the 45-year-old Edri to meet him on a road inside Israeli-controlled territory but close to Palestinian-controlled territory.

Edri took two bodyguards with him that morning. In apparent violation of operating procedures that call for the bodyguards to intercept an informer and frisk him before allowing him to approach his handler, all three Israelis were in their yellow van when Abu Sheireh pulled up. He got out of his car, walked to the van, pulled a pistol from his waistband and shot Edri in the face. He then shot one of the bodyguards in the jaw before running. The second bodyguard chased Abu Sheireh into an olive orchard before gunning him down.

Edri, the father of six, died within minutes of the attack. He received a hero’s burial that night on Mount Herzl, in Jerusalem’s military cemetery. According to news reports, his family didn’t know that Edri had been an intelligence officer until members of his unit arrived at their home in a West Bank settlement near Jerusalem to inform them of his death.

“Since the intifada started last September, Yehuda worked day and night,” the unit’s commander, who didn’t identify himself, said at Edri’s funeral. “He brought intelligence that saved the lives of many civilians. We take a vow to continue his work and to do this sacred work to the best of our abilities.”

At Al Azza refugee camp, Abu Sheireh’s family struggles to understand how the man they knew as a devout Muslim and quiet family man died in a blaze of gunfire.

His cousin Zeid denies that the handyman was a collaborator.

“All the people here, they loved Hassan,” Zeid Abu Sheireh said, sitting in the mourner’s tent and sipping bitter coffee with a visitor. “He was very religious, he prayed at the mosque, he never did anything bad. We were shocked when we were told that Hassan had killed an Israeli officer. Nobody knew that he would be a martyr.”

By dying a martyr, Abu Sheireh secured for his family a $200-a-month pension from the Palestinian Authority and the chance to be seen not as the relatives of a traitor but the family of a hero.

He will miss the cousin he grew up with, Zeid abu Sheireh said. Still, he insisted: “I am happy. The man Hassan killed was responsible for killing many, many people. He was like a disease: If you don’t kill him, he will kill you.”

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