After dark days, Hamas is making a comeback

On 10th anniversary of founder’s assassination, the Islamist movement’s recently freed West Bank leader is feisty and confident in an interview

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian supporters of Hamas mark the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Gaza City, on March 23, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Mahmud Hams)
Palestinian supporters of Hamas mark the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Gaza City, on March 23, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Mahmud Hams)

The past week was one of Hamas’s best recent stretches, especially compared to the difficult times the organization has experienced since the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

For months, Hamas had prepared for last Sunday’s rally, which marked 10 years since the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Buses were readied to transport the crowds; posters were hung, featuring pictures of Yassin and other celebrity martyrs; video clips were recorded. Still, organizers feared that only a modest number of participants would show up.

During the recent escalation of Gaza-Israel hostilities, only a week-and-a-half before the rally, Hamas was conspicuous in its absence from the fight between Islamic Jihad and Israel. And the Gaza economy isn’t looking good, to say the least: The tunnels are closed, unemployment is high — reaching 41% among young Gazans — and the real estate sector is shut down because of Israel’s refusal to allow building materials in.

But when all was said and done, hundreds of thousands came to the rally on Sunday. Downtown Gaza City was filled with green, and the demonstration of power was impressive.

In many ways, Hamas owes Israel a debt of gratitude. A day before the rally, Israeli police special forces entered the Jenin refugee camp and killed Hamza Abu al-Hija, (the son of Jamal Abu al-Hija, one the heroes of Hamas in the West Bank, who was arrested and jailed in 2002 for his part in several suicide bombings). Two other Palestinians were killed along with Hamza — one an Islamic Jihad member, and the other from the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade.

The killings enraged Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, especially in the refugee camps. On Saturday afternoon, a funeral procession of 15,000 marched through Jenin in a scene reminiscent of the beginning of the Second Intifada.

Jenin, too, was decked out in green. The masses moved angrily through the city, led by politicians from the spectrum of Palestinian movements, including Hamas, and accompanied by dozens of armed men. Cries for revenge against Israel were sounded again and again, as were bitter criticisms of the PA for cooperating with Israeli forces.

Hamza’s father Jamal still sits today in an Israeli prison. In 2004, I met him for the first time as part of my research for the book “The Seventh War,” about the Second Intifada. His ideology was radical and clear. He explained then Hamas’s choice to renew suicide attacks against Israel a few months after the start of the uprising. He said that Hamas wanted “to cause a change in the Israeli assumption that they could continue the occupation forever. The political negotiations didn’t lead to any change. But the attacks caused Israel to feel the pain that we felt.”

I also interviewed Sheikh Hassan Yousef, another Palestinian official in prison. Yousef claimed that it was those in the Israeli peace camp, “those who spoke about the end of the occupation and pulling back, who pushed us forward to continue suicide attacks… One of the best pieces of evidence we had of the rupture in Israeli society that our attacks were causing was the phenomenon of military refusers. We thought we should deepen this split, and the weapon of suicide bombers became a consensus in the organization.”

Sheikh Hassan Yousef. (Screen capture: YouTube via Fox News)
Sheikh Hassan Yousef. (Screen capture: YouTube via Fox News)

I met Yousef again this week, this time in his office in Ramallah. A few days earlier, he had led the funeral procession in Jenin and witnessed the crowds that gathered around the coffins. It was almost an exact reenactment of the first days of the Second Intifada, when he stood at the head of the organization’s gatherings and called for revenge.

Still, more than a few years have passed since 2000, and Yousef now sounds more pragmatic. In recent years, his son, Mosab, became a sort of celebrity. Mosab is known as the son of Hamas’s head in the West Bank who was a Shin Bet agent for 10 years. Mosab wrote the best-seller “The Green Prince,” and was a sought-after speaker across the world. The sheikh doesn’t talk about the subject, and is no longer in touch with his son. Even though I broke the story originally, he refused to break his silence on the issue to me.

Mosab Yousef, son of Hamas founder Sheikh Hassan Yousef, speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem on June 19, 2012 (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Mosab Yousef, son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a founding member of Hamas, at a press conference in Jerusalem on June 19, 2012. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Sheikh Yousef sounds confident in the power of his organization, even though recently commentators have been claiming that support for Hamas is dropping:

“These estimates are incorrect. The rallies and processions we have seen in recent months, in which most of the participants were Hamas supporters, show the clear support for the organization.

“Look at what happened after I was released from prison [two months ago]. Three days after my release, there was a reception for me in el-Bireh. Thousands of Palestinians arrived to greet me. Hamas is here in the West Bank. It is a deep-rooted public movement and not a think tank that simply discusses ideology. If our leaders haven’t been speaking to the press recently, it’s not because of a lack of support, but because the heads of the organization fear the Israeli and Palestinian security forces. Let me make it clear: I also know that, at any moment, the occupation forces can arrest me. It’s only a matter of time until they come.

“Everyone, including Israel and the PA, must recognize Hamas. Our presence. Because this reality won’t change. Continuing to pursue the leadership of the movement won’t solve a thing. Look what has happened to us since the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. You thought it would weaken us, but, in fact, the organization got bigger and stronger. You are operating against us, pursuing us and killing our people. So what exactly are you expecting from us?”

“If you think about a logical, considered course of action, you will understand that there is no choice other than operating differently,” Yousef continued. “Look what happened in Gaza. After two wars, Israel realized that there is no choice, and that it must accept Hamas’s presence in Gaza. And here, too, it must do the same. It made a tahdiya cease-fire agreement with the organization in the Strip. What does it mean? That Israel recognizes Hamas’s presence. The organization maintains the cease-fire even during difficult times and under blockade. This proves Hamas keeps the agreements it signs. It can rule the streets and there is a clear hierarchy of unified leadership.”

When I asked Yousef about Hamas’s position on any possible peace agreement between Israel and the PLO, he said that if a referendum is held on a deal, as promised by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, his organization would respect the results.

And if the agreement gives up the “right of return” for refugees to Israel?

“I am sure our nation will not give up the right of return. The Palestinian public is all for this right. In actuality, the root of the conflict is the right of return.”

During the interview, Yousef did not hesitate to criticize Egypt as well.

“We emphasized that we have no intention of interfering with internal Egyptian affairs, and we asked them to find one Hamas member who they’ve imprisoned for acting against the state. The problem is that because of the situation between them and the Muslim Brotherhood, they are sure that we are part of the organization. We are not. Ideas, yes, it’s the same ideology. But not organizationally. We keep to the conflict with Israel in occupied lands.”

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