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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

Interview with a Terrorist?
February 2, 2000


The name strikes fear around the world. Hamas. The Islamic Resistance Movement. They're the "terrorists" with whom governments pledge not to enter into negotiations. They're the suicide bombers that walk onto busses or crowded streets of Israel and blow themselves up. They're the extreme Palestinians who still will not recognize Israel's right to exist as a state, and who believe that a "Jihad," a holy war, is necessary to drive the Jews out of all of Palestine.

So I figure, what the heck, I'll go see what these guys are all about. If I survive, it should be a good story, right? If not, well, it will be an even better story!

Of course, my Israeli friends thought I was insane to want to talk to these guys. My Palestinian friends also looked at me like I was crazy. They're Muslims, too, but not everyone interprets the Koran in such an extreme way. "Whenever there is a terror attack, Sheik Yasin, the founder of Hamas, appears on television, offering congratulations to the family of the bomber for his success in the Jihad," Kevin's Israeli girlfriend Tamar explained to me. "It's sick, and it is really upsetting! They are killing innocent people, and then they celebrate it! Sometimes the bombers even film themselves before the attack, explaining why they are about to do the bombings."

Hamas believes that no part of Palestine should be compromised, and that the Zionist occupation of Palestine should not be recognized. The Movement feels it is imperative for the people of Palestine, as well as all Arabs and Muslims, to prepare themselves to fight the Zionists until they leave Palestine the way they migrated to it.

When I got to the Gaza Strip, I could understand why this is the place where such strong resistance was born. In this small, overcrowded, and impoverished strip of land, with a 65% refugee population, anger and frustration have been stewing for years. Until very recently, entering or leaving the strip was almost impossible, and Israeli soldiers heavily guarded the land. There is inadequate housing, sanitation, and education, and almost no jobs.

Face it, wouldn't you be a little angry if you had grown up in such a situation? The "Muslim brotherhood" organization was already there, and had been waging armed struggle against "the Zionist occupation" since 1940. But, the Hamas movement began with the beginning of the intifada in 1987. It didn't really gain a name for itself, though, until 1991, when the Hamas political party added a "military wing." And that's when all the attacks began.

Click image for larger view
Ishmael Abu Shanab: spokesman for the Hamas

It took a while for me to find the place where I was supposed to meet Ismael Abu Shanab, the spokesman for the Hamas political wing in the Gaza Strip. After asking directions a million times, I finally found my way to his plain, almost empty office, in a dreary building in downtown Gaza City. I had trouble reconciling my image of a terrorist--face hidden in a keffiyah, eyes crazed--with the man in front of me. Wearing a suit and tie, Ismael turned out to be an engineer, who went to college in Colorado.

He welcomed me, and was glad to learn about the Odyssey. "I feel it is good to present our case to Americans, because I noticed while I was in the United States that there is a lot of misunderstanding and ignorance about the Middle East. The Israeli press all the time brainwash Americans by the media they own and control, telling them that they are the victims and Palestinians are the terrorists, while the real truth is vice versa -- they are the terrorists and we are the victims."

The truth is, he was a really nice guy, and most of what he proceeded to tell me made a lot of sense. Even though he is the spokesperson for Hamas, what he told me differed in some very big ways from what I read on the Hamas website. That could be because he really is more moderate than the official Hamas party line, or because he tries to be more moderate when talking to people from the States. For example, the Hamas website says: "The land of Palestine is a blessed Islamic land that has been usurped by the Zionists; and Jihad has become a duty for Muslims to restore it and expel their occupiers out of their land."

But Mr. Abu Shanab told me, "We consider all of Palestine as Palestinian land. We do not accept even negotiation, it is the truth. But there are people who are sharing this land. We have to care for all of those who are living on this land. Not to give all to the Israelis and leave the Palestinians to suffer. If we can solve the refugee problems, and they withdraw to the 67 borders and release all prisoners, I think these are acceptable to the Palestinians to start living together and developing a prosperous future on their land. We will keep a good neighborhood, we will build on our society, we will take care of our own affairs."


intifada - Arabic for "shaking off," the intifada is the name given to the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli population that began in 1987 in the Gaza Strip
keffiyah - cloth covering the lower part of the face
suicide bombers - people willing to die in an effort to set off a bomb to hurt others
Hiroshima - the target (Aug. 6, 1945) of the first atomic bomb ever dropped on a populated area. The bomb was dropped by the United States during WWII; almost 130,000 people were killed, injured, or missing, and 90% of the city was leveled

Hmm…very curious. But, enough of the politics, we all know what I want to talk about. It's what every journalist who comes here is really interested in. "What's up with the bombs, dude?" I wanted to ask him. I kind of skirted around the subject for a while, waiting for him to really come out with the radical stuff. He continually stressed the fact that the military wing is separate, and is based on volunteers who fund, plan, and execute attacks on their own initiative. But I don't think he was saying that because he doesn't believe in them. He is a member of the Hamas, after all. However, Shanab does have to be very careful what he says. He's already spent eight years in an Israeli jail for being a member of Hamas. Now, under the Palestinian Authority, suspected terrorists are imprisoned and, I've heard, often tortured as badly as they were in the Israeli prisons!

Anyway, here are the bits and pieces of what he had to say about suicide bombers and armed struggle.

"That was 1996 and before, which was a reaction to the Israeli military policy against the Palestinians. Rabin had a policy of breaking the bones of our children to prevent them from throwing stones. You see how horrible this is? When they occupy our land, and then do this..."

"Hamas began in 1987 as a popular organization to resist the occupation. While the intifada continued, I think the people themselves developed their own means of struggle. First, they were without anything in their hands. Then they developed stones, then a knife, like the ones in the kitchen. Then they developed a gas bomb. Fourth, they started to get guns, as far as they can, because they are not easy to get.

"Until they found that, in all circumstances, they die. So the best way to face death is to make your enemy suffer like you are suffering...and it started the car bombs and bombs in bags around the body. This is the utmost we can do to face people with tanks, to face people with all military means."

The propositions for the [peace] settlement included the following concessions which, up to then, had been fundamental issues in the conflict with Zionism.

  1. Recognizing the Zionist entity and its right to exist on the land of Palestine.
  2. Giving up to the Zionists, part, or rather the greater part, of Palestine.

"What about the civilians injured by these bombs? Are they victims?" I asked, wondering if everyone in Israel was considered guilty just for being Israeli.

"Civilians, yes, they are victims. Like our children are victims. I blame the Israeli occupiers. They refuse our freedom. The rule is, an eye for an eye."

"Remind the Americans of Hiroshima. Remind the Americans why they did Hiroshima. They couldn't not punish the Japanese without such a strong type of punishment for what they did at Pearl Harbor. The man [bomber] dies to tell the whole world how the Israelis are attacking us. To tell the whole Israeli community to support its withdrawal from the Occupied Territories."

When I asked if he thought that the bombings would continue, he told me that it will all depend on the Israelis. Like the people at Kiriat Arba, the Jewish settlement I visited near Hebron, the Hamas does not support the peace process. I asked him about that, too.

"I think they are wasting their time from the Palestinian side. The Israelis know what they are doing. On the one hand, they are keeping the Palestinians busy. On the other hand, they are making expansions on Palestinian land. I cannot imagine how Palestinians can sit with Israelis while, at the same time, the Israelis are expanding their settlements on Palestinian land."

We talked for about an hour. It wasn't the thrills and excitement I expected from "meeting a terrorist," but it was interesting. Still, I'm not sure how much of the stuff he told me was really what he or the Hamas believes, and how much was just the stuff they tell journalists to keep up a good face. The quotes above were the most radical statements Shanab made. So, unfortunately, my curiosity isn't really cured. Every time I hear about a bomb going off in a Tel Aviv bus station, or wherever, I'm going to wonder, "What do they really think they're going to achieve by that?"


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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