With the death of Yasser Arafat, the leadership of the Palestinian movement has been thrown wide open. While the central question is who will replace Arafat as the president of the Palestinian Authority, a related question is whether the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), whose principal component is Arafatâ€™s Fatah, will remain the preeminent Palestinian political force. The Islamist group Hamas is acknowledged by many to be the second most influential force among Palestinians. Indeed, according to the Economist (October 2, 2004), Hamas “now matches Fatah in popularity” and “even in traditionally secular towns like Nablus, it is now, says the former mayor, himself a Fatah man, the most popular movement.” This is, of course, according to several specialists on Palestine, a simplification of the realities of Palestine, given that other currents such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) also represents a major force in Palestine.
In the wake of Arafatâ€™s death, Hamas has declared itself in favor not only of presidential but also parliamentary elections on January 9, 2005, though it said it will not put up a candidate for president. The Economist also claims that “some” Hamas people say “that they would declare a truce and even accept a temporary two-state solution, perhaps for 50 years, while continuing to argue peacefully for one state in which Jews could liveâ€¦”
But what is Hamas? What accounts for its growing popularity? What is its relationship to the PLO? These were among the questions that prompted Focus staffers Walden Bello and Marylou Malig to search out and interview Hamas leader Usamah Hamdan during a recent visit to Beirut.
As we drive frantically on Beirutâ€™s hilly streets to make sure weâ€™re on time for the interview with Usamah Hamdan, someone in the car remarks, “Well, I hope the Israelis donâ€™t decide to kill him today, while weâ€™re meeting him.” The gallows humor is prompted by our knowing that Hamdan is the most wanted man in Lebanon, one who has been marked for assassination by Israel.
Hamdan is the representative of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, in Lebanon and Syria. Hamas is associated in many peopleâ€™s minds with “suicide bombings” of Israeli military and civilian targets. Widely condemned as a terrorist tool, the bombings have altered the military situation considerably, leading one Hamas leader to describe suicide bombing as the Palestiniansâ€™ “F-16.” Israel has retaliated by systematically assassinating leaders of Hamas and other groups in the Palestinian resistance. A member of the Central Committee of an organization that is said to be Israelâ€™s Enemy No. 1, Hamdan has seen many of his comrades fall victim to Israeli operatives, including Hamasâ€™ last two top leaders, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi, both of whom were killed within a month of each other by helicopter-launched missiles earlier this year.
Following the twin suicide bombings that killed 16 Israelis in Beersheba on August 31, the Israeli government reiterated its policy of reserving the right to strike at Hamas leaders living outside Palestine. Hamdan is one of the likely targets, as is the currently top-ranking Hamas figure, Khaled Maashal, who lives in Damascus, where most of Hamasâ€™ strategic planning is done, according to the Israeli government. Indeed, a few weeks after we did this interview, on September 26, senior Hamas official Ezzedin al-Sheikh Khalil, was assassinated by Israeli agents in a car bombing in Damascus.
When we enter the interview site in a suburb of Beirut, we are asked to hand over our mobile phones–a wise precaution since the Israelis have been known to locate their prey via signals emitted by the phones. Surprisingly, however, the security seems light, with hardly an armed bodyguard visible in the premises.
We are prepared to see an older man, but Hamdan looks like he is in his late thirties. Hardly looking at all like the stereotype of the terrorist, he is cordial, sharing a number of jokes with our party while treating us to an impromptu breakfast of cheese-filled pita bread and strong coffee. After a few minutes, he tells us he is ready to answer any questions we may have. “You can be as frank as you want,” one of our interpreters tells us.
Israelâ€™s Unilateral Withdrawal
Q: Israel says it is withdrawing from the Gaza and much of the West Bankâ€“ how does Hamas view this? Do you consider this a victory?
A: I believe any withdrawal from our land, no matter how small it is, is a victory for the Palestinian people. But the Israelis want the Palestinians to pay a political price. They want us to give up the right of return [to Israel]. They want to keep one-fourth of the West Bank. We will not accept these conditions. We will continue our resistance. We have sacrificed for the last 56 years. What difference will another 10 to 15 years make?
Q: Israel is continuing to build the wall despite global opposition. How does Hamas plan to deal with this?
A: The World Court of Justice made the right decision. It is most important because Israel really just wants to take the land. They are taking 21per cent of the West Bank bordering Jordan, but there are no security problems there. The international community has to continue pressuring Israel to stop and to destroy what has already been built. They plan to complete the wall by March 2005. They are building one kilometer a day, and they say it will take them 250 days to complete it. And they think of everything, like painting the wall with “artworkâ€™ so that people cannot write on it. But this wall will not prevent our resistance or put a stop to our activities.
Q: Weâ€™d now like to turn to suicide bombing. As you know, it has been widely condemned. Others have said it is no longer that effective. What do you think?
A: First, we do not call it as such. And it is only one of the many tactics we use. We will use it when it is effective for a specific time and place. We choose the right place and time for this. People should realize that there are many cinemas, buses, coffee shops in Israel, but we choose only a few specific places and at specific times. We do this as a message to the Israeli government that if there is no security for the Palestinian people, there will be no security for the Israeli people. There will be none until there is a complete withdrawal from all occupied land, until there is an end to the occupation. In the last four years this has only been 12per cent of our operations â€“ this is not a major tactic.
Relations with the PA and PLO
Q: How does the Hamas view and relate to the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) and the Palestinian Authority?
A: First the Palestinian Authority â€“ this was a result of the Oslo Agreement. We rejected the Oslo Agreement because it changed the objective from that of securing Palestinian rights to that of providing security for the occupation. Thus, we did not participate in the presidential elections. Now, the peace process is deadlocked. The Israelis occupied 45 per cent of the Gaza. Oslo did not solve the problem.
But we will not fight the Palestinian Authority; Israel is the enemy. In fact, we help the Palestinian Authority by providing services for our people. Throughout the years, we have assisted with millions of dollars for infrastructure and services. We will not participate in the Palestinian Authority but we help out in the political process in our own way.
On the PLO â€“ this was established in 1964 by the Arabs who wanted to turn Palestine from an Arab issue into a Palestinian issue. The PLO has become corrupted. We no longer know its real structures. It no longer has any real political vision.
But we donâ€™t allow ourselves to be used in the struggles within the PLO, for instance, in the recent efforts by some to promote [Palestinian Prime Minister] Ahmed Qureia, at the expense of Arafat.
But if there is reform and there is a Palestinian leadership elected on a clear and acceptable basis, we would be open to sharing with the PLO.
Life and Death
Q: Israel has a policy of assassinating leaders of Hamas. How do you personally feel about this since you are on their list? Do you feel like youâ€™re living under a death sentence?
A: I am on two lists, one with six names and another with 12 names. But I am living my own life normally. I eat breakfast with my children, I always try to do this because this is when I can talk to them and ask them about their day and their plans. I visit my friends and my friends visit me. I just recently went out with my children to swim in the sea. You just die once, and it can be from cancer, in a car accident, or by assassination. Given these choices, I prefer assassination. My friends are more worried for me than I am.
The brief interview ends with Hamdan telling us that he looks forward to inviting us soon to a “liberated Palestine.” As we bid goodbye, we have the distinct impression that this young, intelligent leader of one of the Palestinian Resistanceâ€™s most feared organizations, knows he is living on borrowed time.