One of the major problems confronting the Israeli security forces during the Palestinian uprising was the disintegration, by June 1988, of Israel’s system of penetration and control over the clandestine national movement. First, the apparatus of the military government received a considerable blow with the wholesale resignation of the local police force and tax collectors during the first months of the intifada; second, in March and April 1988, the popular upheaval compelled many collaborators to recant publicly and surrender their weapons. These developments contributed to the paralysis of two major Israeli instruments of control over the Palestinians: the institutional and the coercive. The collapse of the collaborator network was particularly damaging for the authorities’ intelligence-gathering capabilities.

Israel’s system of control, which it had developed during the first 15 years of occupation, actually began to disintegrate in the early 1980s. The second Likud government (1981) attempted to overturn what it saw as Labor’s legacy of appeasing Palestinian nationalist forces, evident in the emergence of pro-PLO forces in the 1976 municipal elections and the toleration of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian nationalist press. [1] To counter the influence of those forces, the security establishment in 1981 founded the Village Leagues, an armed, pro-Israeli militia with wide-ranging prerogatives to contain and combat the nationalist movement. The Leagues never gained any local credibility: they attracted disreputable underworld figures and indulged in excesses in settling personal disputes. Disagreements within the Israeli government over the purpose of the Leagues and the means placed at their disposal finally caused their demise. [2]

The creation and liquidation of the Village Leagues coincided with the penetration of the military government and the security services by extreme right-wing elements with strong links to Gush Emunim and other Jewish nationalist sects. “Until 1975 and 1976,” observes an Israeli critic, “the security agencies, Shinbet and Mossad, obeyed an unwritten rule that extremists from the left and right should be strictly excluded. Now right-wing fanatics, especially religious fanatics, are being taken in. The old-time Shinbet agents, taken from the political center, distinguished between Arab and Arab…but very rapidly after 1977 when Begin came to power, with the injection of right-wing extremists, the Shinbet has treated all Palestinians alike, along the lines of a very famous saying now quoted in the Hebrew press, ‘The only way to know what an Arab thinks is to break his head open.’” [3]

This new policy, engineered by Ariel Sharon, aimed — in the words of military analyst Ze’ev Schiff — at doing away with the nationalist Arab leadership in the territories and succeeded in undermining the authority of that Palestinian stratum in the West Bank and Gaza (including the Arab civil service and the “moderate” mayors) which had so far mediated Israeli colonial rule. [4] Sharon’s “iron fist” policy coincided with a major land confiscation and settlement drive that affected tens of thousands of farmers who had already been harassed by the Village Leagues.

The net effect of these developments was to weaken the ability of the security establishment to penetrate the Palestinian underground. The major blow to the system, however, was dealt during the current uprising, when — between April and June of 1988 — UNLU directives called on the Arab members of the police force, tax collectors and the appointed civil servants in local municipalities to resign. Popular committees and uprising activists known as “strike forces” (al-quwat al-dariba) compelled hundreds of armed collaborators and unarmed informers to recant and submit their firearms in public meetings in mosques, churches and village squares. By mid-1988 the security establishment was in total disarray and could no longer interpret events, let alone control them.

Reorganize and Penetrate

The Israeli response to this setback was a major reorganization of its military and security apparatus in 1989 in order to deal with the new contingencies imposed by the intifada. For the first 20 months of the uprising, wrote Ze’ev Schiff, the “intifadists” (it is now a Hebrew word) had the upper hand and initiative in the field. The army merely responded under the illusion that the uprising was a passing phenomenon. The thrust of the reorganization was to regain the initiative by establishing “total coordination between the army and the security services.” [5] Every military unit included a liaison officer with the Shinbet internal security forces, and “special operations” units were set up to combat the intifada.

These units, which routinely operate in civilian disguise, include the infamous Shimshon and Cherry units, which gained notoriety as early as the fall of 1988 for hunting down and liquidating activists. Military reorganization entailed substantially relocating professional army units and border police to the West Bank and Gaza, while reducing the number 40 of army reservists there. This reduction was explained by the unpreparedness of the reservists in dealing with civil disobedience; it surely had also to do with the fact that they tended to transmit the psychological traumas of the intifada to the Jewish civilian population at large. [6]

The need for the “professionalism” enunciated by Israeli military analysts tends to camouflage the fact that Israel was facing a historic crisis of control — a fact better recognized by the military staff than by the political elite. Chief of Staff Dan Shomron, for example, declared in early 1989 that “there is no such thing as eradicating the intifada, because in its essence it expresses the struggle of nationalism…the participation of large numbers of civilians in violence has created what physicists call ‘a critical mass.’” [7] Shomron, no left-winger, sent shock waves through the Israeli establishment by comparing the situation in September 1989 with that of Algeria on the eve of France’s withdrawal, and suggested that Israel’s political and military echelons draw the proper conclusions from this analysis.

To recoup the loss of its intelligence network, Israel’s security establishment resorted to two courses of action: They tried to rebuild a clandestine network of collaborators, recruiting especially in the prison system through an entrapment procedure known as ‘asafir (“birds”) and, on the level of discourse, they disseminated well-crafted forgeries of the directives (bayanat) of the Unified Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU), forgeries that were often hard to distinguish from the genuine items.

The prison system had been a common recruiting ground for collaborators before the uprising, but the collapse of the collaborator network in 1988 compelled the authorities to concentrate on prisons to compensate for the damage done to its intelligence activities. The presence of tens of thousands of militants and trained cadres of the clandestine movement in such prisons and detention centers as Ketsi’ot (Ansar III), Junayd, Dhahriyya, Nablus, al-Far‘a, Katiba (Ansar II) and Kfar Yuna offered a challenge and a temptation for security agents to use new methods of entrapment.

The ‘asafir system combines several variations on a theme, the essence of which is to send the unyielding militant to a make-believe prison cell after a prolonged (and unsuccessful) interrogation. There, he or she is received warmly by a group of “political prisoners” (in reality trained collaborators) whose task it is to lull the prisoner into a sense of false security and entrap him or her into revealing clandestine contacts and activities. Most of the collaborating ‘asafir were themselves recruited from the prison population (quite often from among sentenced petty criminals), and are promised money and reduced sentences in return for posing as political prisoners. [8]

A parallel collaborator network exists outside the prison system. The detailed testimony of a prisoner held at the Megiddo detention camp, published and circulated within the prison underground network in August 1989, is an intriguing account of a Shinbet entrapment system which combines prostitution and blackmail to compromise political activists on personal grounds. [9] The wide-scale use of these methods, combined with the massive turnover in the incarceration of political prisoners (thousands of whom were below the age of 18), yielded results. Collaboration became endemic within the underground by the first quarter of 1989. By midsummer, bands of armed collaborators were roaming the territories, terrorizing villagers and assisting the security forces in the arrest and interrogation of suspected activists. The nationalist movement responded with a strategy of counter-intimidation, leading to the killing of a growing number of collaborators (mostly armed operatives and informers but also “moral deviants”). [10] More than 200 collaborators have been killed since the beginning of the intifada, most of them in the spring and summer of 1989.

The security forces attributed the increased attacks to “the consolidation of the ‘strike forces’ and the ‘popular army’ which are playing increasingly dominant roles as enforcement arms of the uprising.” [11] But obviously their own contribution to this change was paramount. “The days when the mukhtar helps soldiers [in pursuing] wanted persons are gone,” an Israeli military source said. [12] Collaborators provided the answer. Although the IDF has denied establishing a militia of collaborators, it became clear by mid-1989 that counterrevolutionary armed elements were not acting on their own.

The IDF scenario was apparently a reenactment of the intercommunal fighting that typified the latter part of the 1936 rebellion (especially the 1938-39 period), when the British armed Palestinian militias to combat rebels. [13] Interviews with victims and activists suggest that the security forces have trained Palestinian collaborators in organized groups operating either as gangs or along the model of the South Lebanese Army. Recruits typically include discredited informers, land dealers and petty criminals. [14]

Since most of these groups have been exposed, their utility has been limited. More often than not they galvanized whole neighborhoods and villages (Ya‘bad, Abu Sukhaydim) around the national movement by creating a visible local enemy. To bolster their counterrevolutionary offensive, the Israelis needed an effective ideological weapon as well. For this they turned to the national movement’s own instrument: the clandestine leaflet.

War of the Bayanat

The UNLU has directed the uprising through a series of periodic manifestos (bayanat) which define the current political objectives of the movement as well as the monthly agenda and tasks for activists and the general population. An operational section of each bayan determines strike days and targets of civil disobedience for that period. [15] The security forces attempted to disrupt the UNLU’s directives through a series of forged circulars of their own, to which they signed the UNLU’s name. The forgeries aimed to manipulate that part of the originals that contained the monthly strike schedule and calls for specific resistance activity.

In a survey of clandestine leaflets circulated by the Unified Leadership, Salih ‘Ata suggests two main objectives for the campaign of disinformation embodied in the forged bulletins: 1) to split the national movement by pitting one section against another, and 2) to exasperate relations between the movement and its popular base by issuing directives of an extreme character. The fact that the first forgeries featured the secular/religious divide in the movement is indicative of the mindset of their authors. An attack on the Communist Party (“this atheist party established by world Jewry in order to control the riches of the peoples”) appeared under the signature of a fictitious organization, al-Murabitun fi Ard al-Isra’ (Guardians of the Holy Land), as early as the end of January 1988. A week later (February 2), a series of “counterattacks,” attributed to the Palestine Communist Party, denigrated the fundamentalist movement and its leadership in response. Both the PCP and the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) issued circulars denouncing the forgeries. [16]

Excessive demands on landlords, industrialists, shopkeepers and consumers are recurrent themes in the forgeries. Directive 23[f] (f=forged), distributed on August 5, 1988, is typical: “The UNLU calls on landlords to stop pressuring tenants to pay their rents; wholesale merchants and shopkeepers are to reduce their retail prices substantially; industrialists are to pay workers full wages on strike days.” [17] The objective here appears to be to exasperate people’s endurance by lumping together, in exaggerated terms, actual appeals made earlier by the UNLU in different contexts. Eventually the Israelis expected to elicit a cynical popular response to “unreasonable demands” by the leadership.

In some cases, however, the forgeries overdid the demands to the point of exposure. Directive 12[f], for example, made the following appeal: “The Unified Leadership salutes you and calls on you to execute the following directives: 1) All landlords and store owners are requested to forgo collecting rents for two months, beginning March 1, 1988. 2) Treatment and medicines are to be dispensed free of charge in all hospitals. Doctors are to treat patients at nominal fees to ensure that the burdens of the uprising are borne equally. 3) Lawyers who are still defending political prisoners are cautioned not to ask for excessive fees, considering that the PLO is compensating them for their work. 4) Industrialists in the Occupied Territories are called upon to rehire workers who have given up menial labor in Israeli factories and committed themselves to armed struggle.” [18] The crudity of this bulletin is not typical of the series and betrays some of the motivations behind its manufacture. Note here the mixing of defeatist innuendo (“lawyers…still defending political prisoners”) with mocking reference to the rhetoric of radical groups (“armed struggle”). Most forgeries are considerably more sophisticated and cunning. An examination of 22 available fake directives suggests a pattern of deception that can be grouped along the following themes:

1. Corruption. This centers on the exposure of alleged financial corruption in the political leadership, attacks on its lifestyle and reference to the embezzlement of funds allocated for the injured, the martyred, and the detainees and their families. [19] In most cases the distribution of these leaflets coincided with the jailing of local political activists for alleged distribution of PLO funds to “fan the flames of the intifada.” [20]

2. Treachery. This includes nationalist and “leftist” attacks on the PLO leadership for allegedly making too many concessions to Israel and the United States. An especially ferocious campaign was conducted after the November 1988 meeting of the PNC and the declaration of Palestinian independence. Bulletins were distributed all over the Occupied Territories, signed either by the shadowy United National Front in Occupied Palestine (UNF) or attributed to existing groups such as the Abu Jihad Battalions (Fatah-affiliated youth) or Fatah-Uprising (i.e., the Abu Musa faction). On January 6, 1989, the UNF declared that it had established itself (from, among others, “progressive Islamic forces and loyal [sic] elements from the Democratic and Popular Fronts who have not sold out”) to put a stop to the “liquidationist conspiracy” concocted by the PLO. [21] Another UNF circular distributed at the time of the PNC meetings was adorned with a smiling and crowned caricature of Arafat, jewels glittering all over his kaffiyya. “Hurray to his excellency, our new president,” the leaflet announced. “The curtains are closed, and the stage is set for a new treachery in our revolution, which will justify the entry of [Arafat] into formal negotiations with the Zionist enemy.” [22]

3. “Dialogue With the Enemy.” Along with attacks on the “treasonous” resolutions of the Algiers PNC, a spate of forged circulars, mostly attributed to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the UNF and the Revolutionary Communist Party, attacked meetings between Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals in the first half of 1989. Since these attacks appeared at a time when groups such as the PFLP were involved in internal criticism of the dialogues, they were for a while regarded as genuine until their alleged authors denounced them as forgeries. Later a distinction was introduced in genuine PFLP circulars and graffiti between “dialogue with progressive Israelis,” which was apparently approved, and meetings with government and military government figures, which were condemned. [23] This was at a time when UNLU bulletins were calling for wide-scale meetings between Israeli and Palestinian peace forces. [24] Simultaneously, the military government and the Jerusalem police called in several activists (including Faisal Husseini, Sari Nusseibeh, Ghassan al-Khatib and Zahira Kamal) and investigated their relations with peace activists in Israel.

4. Total Anarchy. A recurrent theme projected by the Israeli counteroffensive was the breakdown of law and order resulting from the mass resignation of the police force, tax collectors and municipal government staff. “The UNLU warns,” declared directive 13[f] on March 4, 1988, “those opportunist elements which knock on your doors soliciting contributions for imaginary organizations, taking advantage of the resignation of members of the police forces, that the hand of justice will reach them.” [25] The disengagement with Jordan in August 1988 occasioned another forgery which, while welcoming King Hussein’s decision, played on the anxiety of West Bankers for their economic future: “Our steadfast people would like to know, in the aftermath of dismissing tens of thousands of civil servants from their jobs, who will support their children, womenfolk and the elderly? And what will happen to our passports [with the declaration of a Palestinian state]? Will they be canceled, renewed or will the residents of the West Bank and Gaza become the victims of the Zionist ghetto?” [26]

5. Beware of Forgeries. Some of the most cunning fake bulletins listed the names of collaborators who were already exposed by the national movement, alongside the names of prominent citizens who were not affiliated with any political grouping. [27] The intention here, it seems, was to cast suspicion on the judgment of the clandestine movement over the issue of collaboration, and to create an impression of arbitrariness and personal rivalry. Another approach involved a leaflet warning the public against several “fabricated” political groups (e.g., the Phalanges of Victory, the Vanguards of Popular Committees), most of which are bogus organizations — except one, the Abu Jihad Battalions, a main affiliate of Fatah. [28] This occurred at a time when the security forces were aware of internal disputes between two Fatah factions in the Nablus region. Interfactional conflicts were thus utilized to label one or more of the rival groups as an arm of the authorities.

A Question of Style

There is no doubt that the effectiveness of the forgeries lies in their capacity to appear credible, while simultaneously subverting the trajectory of the revolutionary movement. The success of the deception lies in its approximation of the original circulars after the fabrication is added. Even committed militants are known to have been taken in.

In most cases the language, timing and layout copy the genuine item. Occasionally they are exact replicas of the originals with only a few words or one sentence altered. A good example is directive 36[f], issued on March 14, 1989, in which one line was inserted into the original directive calling on people to mark “Saturday the 18th as a day of solidarity with the members of the Unified Leadership who were arrested last month.” [29] Since the authorities had made major arrests of activists that February, they sought to create the impression that the central leadership of the movement had been caught.

There were even cases when reality — to paraphrase Umberto Eco — was imitating forgery. Fake bayanat were distributed one or two days before UNLU circulars hit the streets, and when the latter appeared they literally corresponded to the forged ones, insinuating that the leadership had been penetrated from within. Eventually it was learned that the security forces were intercepting drafts of forthcoming circulars being transmitted to the Palestinian leadership abroad by facsimile machines. Those drafts were then altered, printed and distributed before the UNLU had the chance to circulate the originals. [30]

At the center of this campaign lies the challenge posed by the civil insurrection to Israel’s continued hegemony in the Occupied Territories. A situation in which a substantial section of the urban and rural population is fully mobilized by the popular committees of the intifada makes it very difficult for forged leaflets to reach their targets effectively, let alone deceive them. Most fake bayanat are recognized as forgeries not because of their contents but because of the enigmatic manner in which they are distributed (often thrown from speeding vehicles at night). In contrast, UNLU directives are mostly distributed by hand, by people known to the receiver or to the community.

As in any cat-and-mouse game, roles may be reversed. On January 13, 1989, for example, on the occasion of the first anniversary of the uprising, a circular addressed to “the honorable citizens of the territories” and signed by the “IDF Area Commander,” announced an “act of surrender:…having exhausted all the means of repression at our disposal, and realizing that more arrests will merely create more committed militants hardened by the prison experience, we have now come to the conclusion that a new leaf must be turned. What is the way out of this debacle? Let us get together, Israelis and Palestinians, and strengthen the process of peaceful coexistence by creating its conditions in this holy land. For this we propose: On your part cease the activities of the uprising; on our part we suspend all acts of repression and release all prisoners. Together we shall then build the bridge of peace and love.” [31] This “parody of the fakes” is a rare Palestinian contribution to the literature of psychological warfare. Perhaps it is not much of a hoax or a parody, and certainly it is not a convincing forgery, but unlike its rival counterfeits it seeks a genuine humanness in its adversary.

Hidden Agendas

The timing, style and content of the forged leaflets indicate a considerable investment by the security forces in the production of counterrevolutionary material. The variety in style and unevenness in the quality of bulletins suggest a multiplicity of authors and strategies. It seems certain that in every region the security forces have responded to local assessments of their objectives in disrupting and containing the revolt. But it is equally obvious that general strategic considerations were also at work. To the extent that we can generalize about these considerations we can make the following points:

1. The forged material reflects the pre-intifada conception of the underground movement as narrowly based, elitist and extremely factionalized.

2. Tales of the leadership’s financial corruption are seen as the most effective means of spreading discord within the movement and alienation from the public.

3. The thrust of the movement is perceived, official pronouncements to the contrary, as spontaneous and volatile, and it can therefore be pushed to undertake extreme acts which would atomize it and discredit its political initiatives internationally. A substantial number of forged bulletins attack Arafat’s (and the PLO’s) territorial compromises and meetings with Israeli political figures and peace activists.

4. Considerable effort is invested in emphasizing the slavishness and dependence of the “internal movement” (i.e. the UNLU) on directives from the PLO leadership abroad. This tendency appears in later forgeries as the controversy over elections and the formation of a Palestinian negotiating team became pressing issues in 1989.

So far these tactics have had only limited success in disrupting the movement, owing to the effective coordination between the four main factions within the Unified Leadership. An implicit agreement reached by the end of 1989 between the UNLU and the Islamic Resistance Movement signaled a halt to factional confrontations and facilitated coordination of strike days. During the early part of the uprising, the UNLU’s ability to impose internal discipline and maintain effective coordination among its factions strengthened the newly found unity and hastened the breakdown of the collaborator network. Since then, however, this network has been reestablished, compelling the movement to resort to defensive measures against collaborators. Although successful, some of these actions included excesses which, at least on three occasions, prompted reprimands by the UNLU against local “strike forces.” To be sure, the continued success of the national movement in maintaining its overall unity and internal discipline is contingent on its ability to pass the severe test of a second penetration by an adversary intent on recovering its “eyes” and thereby its control over the continuing struggle.


[1] Menahem Milson, “How to Make Peace with the Palestinians,” Commentary (May 1981), pp. 25-35; Shlomo Gazit, The Stick and the Carrot: Israel’s Military Rule in Judea and Samaria [Arabic translation] (Jerusalem, 1987), pp. 126-127 and 163-178.
[2] Salim Tamari, “In League with Zion: Israel’s Search for a Native Pillar,” Journal of Palestine Studies 48 (1983), pp. 41-56.
[3] Israel Shahak, “The Present Situation in Israel,” in Alexander Cockburn, Corruptions of Empire (London: Verso, 1988), pp. 257-258. See also Moshe Ma’oz, Palestinian Leadership on the West Bank (London: Frank Cass, 1984), pp. 198-209.
[4] Quoted by Ma’oz, op cit., p. 199.
[5] Ze’ev Schiff, “The Israeli Army Slowly Internalizes the Lessons of the Intifada,” Ha’aretz [translated in al-Quds, October 3, 1989].
[5]6 Ibid. See also Ze’ev Schiff, “The Israeli Army and the Intifada,” al-Quds, June 22, 1989.
[7] Jerusalem Post, January 1, 1989.
[8] For a detailed discussion of these methods, see Butulat fi ‘Aqbiyyat al-Tahqiq (The Arab Center for Research and Publication, Ramallah, 1988), pp. 21-30, 236-239. See also ‘Abd al-Sattar Qasim, al-Tajriba al-I‘tiqaliyya (no publisher indicated, Nablus, 1988).
[9] Investigation Committee at Megiddo Prison, The Confessions of Hussein Muhammad Hassan Brahgeit [stenciled affidavit], undated [August 1989?].
[10] Michal Sela, Jerusalem Post, May 5, 1989.
[11] Joel Greenberg, Jerusalem Post, May 5, 1989. Both Greenberg and Sela were among the few reporters who covered this phenomenon with a considerable degree of objectivity. The bulk of the Israeli (and international) press, with very few exceptions, was either hysterical or simply deceptive about it. The Arabic press was muzzled on the subject.
[12] Michal Sela, Jerusalem Post, September 26, 1989.
[13] Joel Greenberg, Jerusalem Post, May 5, 1989.
[14] Michal Sela, Jerusalem Post, September 25, 1989.
[15] For a review and analysis of the early circulars, see ‘Abd al-Jabbar ‘Idwan, Anyab al-Kharuf (The Sheep’s Fangs), 1989.
[16] Salih ‘Ata, “The War of the Bulletins in the Uprising,” al-Yawm al-Sabi‘ (Paris), July 24, 1989.
[17] UNLU, Directive 23 [forged], August 5, 1988.
[18] UNLU, Directive 12 [forged], March 31, 1988.
[19] UNLU, Bayan Jamahiri [Mass Communication], [forged], distributed widely in Nablus and other northern centers, August 6-8, 1989 (undated). See also Progressive Forces in Occupied Palestine, Bayan Siyasi [Political Communication], [forged], September 28, 1988.
[20] Joel Greenberg, Jerusalem Post, August 9, 1989.
[21] United National Front in Occupied Palestine, With the Unity of the Masses We Will Foil the Conspiracy [forged], January 6, 1989. See ‘Ata, op cit.
[22] UNF, Congratulations, Your Excellency [forged], (undated, distributed in late November 1988).
[23] See, for example, “A Political Communique Concerning Dialogue with Representatives of the Occupation Forces,” signed by Fatah-Uprising, PFLP-General Command, the Palestine Communist Party (Revolutionary), distributed in Ramallah and Jerusalem, dated February 1989. UNLU, Directive 44 [genuine], August 15, 1989. Unlike the forged attacks, this directive clarified that meetings with Israeli figures are objectionable if they are aimed at giving legitimacy to the Shamir election plan. Directive 45 [genuine] reiterated its objection to meeting with Israeli officials but called on Palestinians to intensify meetings with Israelis for the purpose of widening the circle of those who support the right to self-determination (September 5, 1989).
[24] UNLU, Directive 45 [genuine], September 5, 1989.
[25] UNLU, Directive 13 [forged], March 4, 1988.
[26] UNLU, Directive 23 [forged], August 5, 1988. In the original circular, of which this one is an imitation, the UNLU issued a salute to Israeli doctors and journalists which was excised from the forged one.
[27] The Abu Jihad Battalions, Circular on Collaborators [forged], undated, distributed in Ramallah, June 1989. See also, Committee for Popular Resistance, Warning to the Collaborators!!! [forged], undated, distributed in Ramallah and al-Bireh, June 1989.
[28] UNLU-Strike Forces, A Communique on Forged and Poisonous Bulletins [forged], August 3, 1989.
[29] UNLU, Directive 36 [forged], March 14, 1989.
[30] On the use of the facsimile during the uprising see ‘Idwan, Anyab al-Kharuf, pp. 13-14.
[31] IDF Regional Commander, An Announcement to the Public [forged], January 13, 1989.

How to cite this article:

Salim Tamari "Eyeless in Judea," Middle East Report 164-165 (May/June 1990).

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