GAZA — Days after Israel's "elimination" of four senior Hamas commanders, the "hunt for traitors" is in full swing inside the Islamic organization. At least 24 suspected "collaborators with Israel" have already been executed, but the hunt continues.
The same happened for several weeks in 2009, immediately after Operation Cast Lead. It led to the hasty trials of 32 supposed "traitors," among them a 15-year-old. In 2012, shortly after Israeli forces killed Ahmad Jabari, operational commander of the Hamas armed wing known as the al-Qassam Brigades, several other people were shot dead. The body of one of them was dragged at full speed through the streets of Gaza City by a motorbike.
The "eliminations" carried out in the last days of the recent Operation Protective Edge, in particular the assassination of Hamas financial chief Muhammad al-Ghoul — killed Sunday in an airstrike — demonstrate that Shin Bet (Israel’s interior security agency) and Aman (its military intelligence) have access to first-hand information. These are collected by technological means, but also by collaborators on the ground.
Since the Six-Day War in 1967, Shin Bet has been recruiting thousands of well-integrated Palestinians who know their environment, but only a few dozen have been discovered. "Generally, those that Hamas brands as "traitors' before shooting them dead in public are not part of our informants because they are always where nobody expects them to be," explains Lior Akerman, a former Shin Bet senior official. "They have first-hand tips and they're generally beyond suspicion."
In the early 1980s, in addition to the "moles" who infiltrated Palestinian organizations, some 2,000 machtapim (Hebrew for collaborators) operating in the Gaza Strip were among the "Village Leagues," a sort of militia that acted as a stand-in organization for the occupying authorities by engaging in trafficking and extortions.
But why do these Palestinians choose to become collaborators? "Because I prefer democracy to terrorism," replies 36-year-old Soufian (not his real name). This short black-haired man is a former hoodlum from the region of Nablus, in the West Bank, having left his parents' home when he was a teenager. Now retired, he claims to have helped the Israeli army arrest wanted Hamas leaders and "saved lives" by preventing attacks. "It's true that I was paid for it," he says. "But I put my life in danger for years. Compared to that, money doesn't mean anything."
Soufian is mum about how he was recruited. But the circumstances suggests that Shin Bet intervened to have an Israeli criminal investigation against him dropped. In exchange for his services, of course.
Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations regularly denounce alleged Shin Bet blackmail against vulnerable Palestinians as a means of obtaining information. Among those targeted are also Gazans who wish to apply to foreign universities, relatives of prisoners who want to be able to visit them in Israeli jails, or others who with loved ones in need of hospital treatment.
Some Palestinians also claim to have been contacted directly by phone, and even by email or Facebook. And yet, the sources "fished" in that manner or by coercion are rarely reliable. "They always drop you the first chance they get, even if you give them money," says "Captain Danny," a former Shin Bet officer turned private detective in Tel Aviv.
"Of all the collaborators I had to deal with, the most efficient were those who acted in full knowledge and were not greedy. Of course, they betrayed their relatives and loved ones for money, but they were no mercenaries. They knew what they were doing and were aware of the risks."
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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