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Just before sunset on April 30 one of Gaza’s most loved teachers Awad al-Keek drove slowly away from his school.
He may have heard the foreboding whump of an Israeli Apache attack helicopter as it swept in low through the hazy spring sky. Others in the southern town of Rafah certainly did. The Apaches are always a soundtrack of trouble brewing, invariably followed by a crescendo of explosions and sirens.
Saleh Awad, a plump father of nine from a poor nearby neighbourhood, listened and watched with great trepidation. Using an Israeli SIM card in his Palestinian phone, he had just called his handlers at the Jewish state’s intelligence headquarters in Tel Aviv and told them al-Keek was in the car with the local brains trust of the militant group, Islamic Jihad.
The boom that followed left one of Islamic Jihad’s darkest secrets in shards of flesh and twisted metal. Al-Keek, the chief rocket engineer of Islamic Jihad, was dead. So were four of his colleagues.
The month since has revealed a series of bitter realities for all stakeholders in the tragic arena of Gaza; the UN Relief and Works Agency which paid al-Keek’s teacher’s salary for at least the past two years, the shell-shocked locals of Rafah and hunted militants among them, and the Israelis who have since seen Awad – one of their most valuable informants – caught, exposed and condemned.
Al-Keek’s family was still in mourning and UNRWA still in crisis when Islamic Jihad launched the hunt for whoever gave up their most crucial scientist. As the militant group was pasting a martyr’s poster depicting al-Keek’s smiling face alongside a logo of its military wing, the group’s footsoldiers were asking angry questions all over town.
The body of the gentle, Western-leaning man of education by day and warlord by night was shrouded in an Islamic Jihad burial cloth as hooded men shouldered it through the hot, forsaken streets of Rafah to the crowded graveyard nearby. But al-Keek’s wife and two daughters wanted little to do with the sheiks and militant chiefs who came to pay their respects. They feared their husband and father’s clandestine role in life would haunt them in death. And it has.
UNRWA has suspended his family’s access to his pension pending the results of an investigation, even though the family disavows his links to militancy.
The family’s denials matter little on the streets where al-Keek’s poster takes pride of place on lampposts, concrete walls and shopfronts already covered with yellowing images of other dead men.
Written in Arabic under the logo of Islamic Jihad’s military wing, the Jerusalem Brigades, is a tribute that reads: “The martyr and the leader Awad al-Keek, the leader of the manufacturing and engineering unit who was assassinated by the enemy’s cowardly planes in Rafah on 30/4/2008.”
As is often the case when the game is up, Islamic Jihad, like other Gazan militant groups, was more than willing to reveal what their slain comrade had done even though his assassination again exposed their security failings.
The curse of collaborators has crippled militants’ ambitions in Gaza almost weekly for the past two decades. But rarely had a snitch been able to do this sort of damage.
Al-Keek had been making rockets for the two years he was a science teacher at the School for Refugees, where he had recently been promoted to deputy headmaster. Under the cover of night in a local warehouse, he had apparently set up a production line that churned out well-engineered rockets, with steadily improving range and targeting abilities.
From southern Gaza, the rockets had been shuffled to the frontlines of the northern Strip from where they were fired incessantly into Israel by militants who daily ran the gauntlet of rockets fired from drones and Apaches and shells shot from tanks. No weapon had wreaked more terror on Israelis than the type of rocket engineered by al-Keek. All over Israel, they are known colloquially by the name Gazans long ago gave them: Qassams.
Awad was at home when the hooded men from The Jerusalem Brigades burst through his door in mid-May. A series of street whispers had led them to him, and he was talking within days. What he had to say confirmed his interrogators’ darkest suspicions and provided answers to how at least five other of the group’s chieftains had also been hunted down, many in the months before al-Keek was blown up.
“My name is Saleh Awad,” he began awkwardly in Arabic during a forced video confession. “I live in Rafah. I am a refugee from Semsen (a former Arab town in what is now Israel). I am married with nine children. I used to work in the Palestinian intelligence. I started working with the Israelis on July 1 2007 a few days after the takeover of Hamas. My contact was an Israeli intelligence officer ‘Sami’.” Continuing with the downcast eyes of a soon-to-be-dead man he said: “I rejected the idea when he first called me. I said yes on the first of July. He asked me to buy an Orange (Israeli network) SIM card. But I said I already have one and he asked me to call him so that we know each other’s number. He gave me a password that we were to work by.”
Every time Awad called his handler in the Israeli domestic security service, the Shin Bet, he was to start his conversation with a two-word password which would let his handler know he was not calling under coercion. The password was “Yousef Ward”, he said.
Awad was told to turn up at an arranged spot on the border fence and collect his payments. After he facilitated his first assassination he collected $US400 ($426). In early April he received a similar sum for giving up an Islamic Jihad rocket launcher named Osama al-Hoby.
The price on the Islamic Jihad men’s heads is measly compared with the sums being forked out for terror targets in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. Iraqis who provided information about men named on the US military’s infamous deck of cards in 2003, were routinely paid rewards of $US1 million. The head of Hezbollah’s military wing, Imad Mugniyeh, who was slain in Damascus in February, was worth $US5 million to whoever served him up.
The price on al-Keek’s head has not been revealed, though it is unlikely to be anywhere near the bounties being paid for the region’s other big fish.
But relativities are starkly different in Gaza, which has been under a crippling siege for more than two years. Most Gazan public servants have been on a reduced salary, if they are paid at all, since last June, when Hamas seized outright control of the Strip during a brief and brutal power struggle that tightened the Israeli-led boycott.
Even the $US400 for his first job proved a weighty sum for Awad. Each target he offered up earned him more.
“I told the intelligence officer that (al-Hoby) person works with the Islamic Jihad and launches rockets and so he asked me to follow him,” he continued. “I first followed him by motorcycle as he went to Khan Younis (a city in central Gaza). The second day I watched him hiding towards Tal Al Sultan neighbourhood and I gave (the handler) information about what al-Hoby’s car looked like. When the Israeli rockets struck, al-Hoby was killed instantly along with another Islamic Jihad member, Karam Hammad.”
With both men out of the way, Awad was requested to deliver the main prize. “He asked me to follow Awad al-Keek and I told him that this person works with Islamic Jihad as the engineer of heavy weapons and was producing rockets.”
Before he was finally tracked down, Awad went on to provide information about a weapons depot in a local mosque near his home. “Sami called me that day about 4pm asking me about the situation, and I told him everything was still there and that there were some Palestinian policemen sitting there as well. He called me again about an hour before they shelled the mosque. I also gave him some information about three tunnels in Rafah (which had been used to smuggle goods and weapons from Egypt).”
The seven policemen out the front of the mosque were killed and the weapons silo levelled.
In mid-May, Awad was forced to make his final call to his handler. With Islamic Jihad recording the conversation, he said: “I can’t talk to you today, I’m tired and sick.” The spook replied: “I didn’t like the way you talked to me yesterday, what is the password.”
“Salah, Salah,” Awad replied. The Shin Bet immediately knew the game was over.
Summary executions of accused collaborators have been common in both Gaza and the West Bank, and Awad was initially slated to be shot straight away. However, the senior leadership of Islamic Jihad intervened, sending him and another captured local ringleader of informants, Saleh Abu-Zayed, to the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, which deals with internal security in Gaza.
“This cell was one of the most dangerous in the Gaza Strip because of the length of time they had been dealing with the Israelis and the quality of the information they had provided them,” said Sheikh Nassiz Azzam, a joint-leader of Islamic Jihad in Gaza. “Abu Zayed had been dealing with them for 12 years. Awad was not that long, but his help was immense. He was directly responsible for the killing of the leader al-Keek and he did huge damage to the cause and the Palestinian people.”
Explaining the unusual step of handing both men over to what serves as a justice system in the legal vacuum of Gaza, he continued: “Everybody is dealing with this cautiously. There is great sensitivity over this file and we don’t want anyone to exploit the issue of collaborators for their own ends. After we interrogated them we handed them over to Hamas. We have conclusive evidence that they have committed many acts of sabotage and have been directly responsible for killing many members of the resistance.
“Awad admitted he had monitored and followed al-Keek and played a direct role in his murder. We have asked (Hamas) to give a heavy sentence as a deterrent and to protect the resistance and Palestinian society.”
Awad remains in a security prison in northern Gaza where his fate will be determined within weeks. He is way out of his handler’s reach and kept away from his family, who now face a lifetime of shame in Rafah.
UNRWA, which screens employees for militant links and asks them to sign contracts that vow no ties to political violence, or terror, is looking at how it can further tighten screening measures.
Even in a place so accustomed to betrayal, the fate of the furtive teacher and the doomed spy are haunting the landscape.
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