RAMALLAH — Sitting in the office of Hamas’s parliamentary bloc not a mile from Mahmoud Abbas’s presidential compound, between a Palestinian flag and an oil painting of the Temple Mount, Sheikh Hassan Yousef was at ease.
A day before an arson attack, apparently perpetrated by Jewish extremists, killed a Palestinian baby and critically injured three of his family members, Yousef went to some pains to express Hamas’s potential goodwill towards serious Israeli overtures.
Released last month from a year of administrative detention served in three Israeli security prisons, the founding member of Hamas and one of its foremost West Bank leaders exuded confidence on Thursday in his movement’s attractiveness among run of the mill Palestinians.
“The extent of our popularity is the West Bank is very great, and may even be greater than in the Gaza Strip,” Yousef told The Times of Israel. During the recent festival of Eid al-Fitr, he added, he met with a group of 30 unaffiliated Palestinians and was surprised by the extent of support he received.
“I don’t think a single one of them belonged to Hamas, but they were all united in their opposition to what the PA is doing,” Yousef said, referring to the ongoing political targeting of Hamas members across the West Bank. “Moreover, they spoke very harshly of the PA. Go down to the street and ask the people yourself.”
A year after Operation Protective Edge, in the course of which Hamas and other Islamist groups fired over 4,500 projectiles into Israel and staged a series of attacks through tunnels under the Israeli border, Hamas finds itself at a crossroads. Still aching from the significant damage inflicted on it by Israel — more than 2,000 people were killed in Gaza, almost half of them combatants — and shunned by its former ally Iran for abandoning Syria’s Bashar Assad, the movement is frantically searching for new regional allies. At the moment, Saudi Arabia is its token lifebuoy.
But amid the crisis, Hamas also finds opportunity. Riding a wave of public discontentment with PA President Mahmoud Abbas — widely viewed by Palestinians as unable or unwilling to wrench concessions from Israel — a group of Hamas legislators called on the Palestinian public Wednesday to “revolt” against the PA over its politically motivated crackdown on Hamas.
Nevertheless, Yousef claimed, Hamas has no intention of toppling the Abbas regime any time soon.
Abbas has accused Hamas of planning his ouster on more than one occasion, and Israel has exposed several plots it said were aimed by Hamas at bringing Abbas down. What Yousef said was that as far as the West Bank is concerned, his Islamist movement is still on shakier ground than in Gaza, where it seized power from Abbas in a violent 2007 takeover.
‘Many, including Israel, realize that the Gaza Strip is a powder keg ready to explode at any moment,’ Yousef said
“We must be patient. That’s our destiny,” he said of Hamas, an extremist group designated by Israel and much of the international community as a terrorist organization, and committed in its charter to Israel’s destruction. “Secondly, we must carry out peaceful actions to oppose all PA measures. We will continue to be in touch with all political parties to pressure the PA to stop attacking Hamas members. In addition, the Hamas leadership abroad is in touch with influential regional forces to pressure the PA in the same direction.”
While the EU officially denies meeting with members of Hamas, Yousef said he held a number of meetings with European ambassadors and consuls prior to his arrest in June 2014 during Operation Brother’s Keeper, as Israel sought those responsible for abducting and killing three Israeli teenagers. He said Europe is gradually understanding that shunning Hamas has been counterproductive to its diplomatic goals.
“There is a change in their view of Hamas,” he said. “Some of them believe that the Quartet’s conditions [placed on Hamas to recognize Israel and renounce violence] were mistaken … Now these countries view [us] more positively.”
It is rare for a Hamas leader to speak to Israeli media, especially one who has spent 18 years of his life in Israeli jails. But Yousef said he does not boycott “any independent podium available to express our ideas.”
When Yousef apologized for not having printed business cards due to the frequency of his arrests, one of his sons — he has six, and three daughters — jokingly suggested that they should be issued with Ofer prison, north of Jerusalem, as the address.
Although Hamas is on the terror list of both the United States and the European Union, Yousef said he regularly meets with “official and non-official” European representatives offering ideas on how to turn last year’s ceasefire with Israel into something more permanent.
“Many, including Israel, realize that the Gaza Strip is a powder keg ready to explode at any moment,” he said. “If it explodes, it will happen in the face of the Israeli occupation.”
But contrary to the perception of most Israelis, the next war with Gaza could be averted through a number of straightforward Israeli measures, Yousef asserted. A long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was possible if Israel only recognized “Palestinian rights.”
“The body governing Gaza must be respected,” he said, referring to Hamas. “If the occupation [that is, Israel] were to recognize our rights and give us what was agreed upon, namely to live in a Palestinian state with full sovereignty and viability on the 1967 borders, I don’t believe that any Palestinian — be he from Hamas or from elsewhere — would want there to be any sort of problem,” he said.
Yousef may be a household name in the West Bank, but internationally — and certainly in Israel — he is overshadowed by son Mosab, who broke ranks with the movement over a decade ago to work with Israeli intelligence, who nicknamed him “the Green Prince.”
In an interview with The Times of Israel last November, Mosab Hassan Yousef called Israel’s ceasefire policy with Hamas in Gaza fundamentally mistaken, since it simply gives Hamas time to rearm, when he said it can and must be urgently uprooted. “Hamas has to be tackled at its roots, uprooted once and for all,” Mosab said. “The longer Israel waits,” he warned, “the more dangerous an enemy Hamas will become and the harder the battle.”
Earlier, during last summer’s war, Mosab slammed Hamas’s “death worship,” a description his father adamantly rejects.
“We in Hamas are not wanton,” he said. “In Islam, jihad is not an end to itself, but a means to an end … If the occupation ended its behavior towards our people and recognized our rights, no Palestinian would want to see one drop of blood shed.”
The early Friday killing of 18-month-old Ali Saad Dawabsha undoubtedly undermines relatively moderate positions like Yousef’s within the ranks of the Islamist terror group. On Friday, Hamas spokesman Hussam Badran called on Palestinians to carry out lone-wolf attacks against Israeli soldiers and settlers in response to “the unforgivable Israeli atrocity.”
Earlier this week, Hamas had called for a nationwide “Friday of Anger,” in support of the prisoners and “in defense of the Prophet.”
‘In Islam, jihad is not an end to itself, but a means to an end … if the occupation ended its behavior towards our people and recognized our rights, no Palestinian would want to see one drop of blood shed’
The Israeli defense establishment acknowledges the existence of two conflicting trends within Hamas, one pushing for “normalization” on the international stage as a legitimate political movement, and the other clinging to the armed struggle with Israel at all costs. Senior Israeli officials fear the possibility of insubordination from Hamas’s militant rank and file even if an agreement is reached with the political leadership.
Yousef rejected that scenario out of hand.
“We believe in democracy,” he asserted, with no trace of irony. “We have a system of Shura (consultation) in which we can agree or disagree. But at the end of the day, if the political leadership decides on a certain vision, it obligates everyone. We do not have conflicting factions or rebellious wings.”
The interview ended when Yousef left the office to celebrate with Muhammad Abu Tir, a Hamas member of parliament from Jerusalem released on Thursday after two years in an Israeli security prison.
Like Yousef, Abu Tir was confident of Hamas’s resilience and scornful of the Palestinian Authority. Like Yousef, he too said he would like to see a lull in the armed struggle with Israel.
“There’s nothing wrong with tahdi’ah,” Abu Tir said. “I view it as a positive prospective and support it, as long as it maintains people’s dignity and doesn’t come at their expense.”