The Work Of Assassins

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Israel's best weapon, however, remains Palestinian collaborators. When Mohammad Nawawra was arrested in 1990 for throwing a Molotov cocktail at an Israeli army jeep, Shin Bet agents persuaded him to work for them. Over subsequent years, he supplied information on car thieves and extremist preachers in mosques. By last fall he was receiving about $250 a month for his services. Then his Shin Bet contact asked him to start watching Hussein Abyat, an officer in General Intelligence, an arm of the Palestinian Authority. On Nov. 9, Nawawra called in a series of reports to the Shin Bet. In the last call, he said Abyat was headed toward the town of Beit Sahour in his hunter-green Mitsubishi pickup truck. Nawawra saw an Apache helicopter circling, then the two rockets that killed Abyat as he drove.

Last Monday night, activists from the Tanzim militia tried to storm the Bethlehem headquarters of Palestinian Intelligence. They wanted to lynch Nawawra, who had been arrested earlier that day after Palestinian Intelligence became suspicious of him. The next day, two of Nawawra's distant relatives went to visit him in jail. They tried to smuggle in a pistol, intending to kill him to protect their clan's honor. They failed, but they needn't worry too much. Nawawra will be tried before the State Security Court this week. Sources close to the court tell TIME that Nawawra has confessed and will be sentenced to death. The execution will probably be carried out quickly, as soon as Arafat gives his approval.

Arafat will be under pressure to do so to satisfy the public outcry over collaborators whose work has helped Israel cramp the style of Palestinian fighters. But Amin Medani, chief technical adviser in the Gaza office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, argues that Israel's hits could lead to a situation in which rival Palestinian gangs can accuse anyone of collaboration as an excuse to rub someone out. That might prompt a nightmare mixture of killings and retributions that could only make an already chaotic situation worse. "It's not acceptable to have mob justice," says Medani.

It's not the first time Israel has used assassinations. After Israeli athletes were killed at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Mossad hit squads tracked down in Europe and Lebanon members of the Black September terrorist group responsible. But they also mistook a Moroccan waiter for the terrorist group's kingpin and assassinated him in Norway in 1973. Last week Prime Minister Barak, under pressure to halt the violence before Israel's Feb. 6 elections, defended the current hits in a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Committee members say Barak told them, "We're at war. A state facing a terrorist threat has to wage a struggle." Palestinian Cabinet minister Hassan Assfour calls it the "true criminal face of the Israeli government."

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