April 4, 2002
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – The leaders of Hamas, the militant Islamic movement
responsible for the most deadly suicide attacks in Israel in the last week, are
pleased and satisfied just now. “Our spirit is high, our mood is good,” said
Ismail Abu Shanab, one of the organization’s principal leaders.
By their estimation, the organization’s two recent attacks – the one on
Passover night in a Netanya hotel that killed 25 people at a seder, and the
other in a Haifa cafe that killed 15 – were the most successful they have ever
made. That is true partly, Shanab said, because Hamas is now using
weapons-grade explosives instead of homemade bombs manufactured using
fertilizer, a fact the Israelis have confirmed.
“Forty were killed and 200 injured – in just two operations,” said surgeon Dr.
Mahmoud al-Zahar, another Hamas leader.
What’s more, Hamas believes the Palestinian Authority has given up on
negotiating with Israel, negotiations that Hamas virulently opposed. That has
led to a budding alliance between Hamas and Fatah, the organization headed
by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, despite years of bitter and sometimes
Arafat “is Palestinian and I am Palestinian,” said Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the
spiritual leader of Hamas. “We have the same problem now. Israel is our enemy.”
Sammy Abu Samhadanah, a Fatah commander here, said Hamas was carrying
out attacks “because they did not want a peace agreement.” “But now,” he
added, “we have a common enemy.”
Hamas, the second-most popular Palestinian movement, behind Fatah, is
directed by a “steering committee,” as Zahar put it, with five principal
members. Interviews with four of them – a cleric, an engineer and two medical
doctors – showed a leadership unyielding, determined and increasingly
confident of achieving their goal, the eradication of Israel as a Jewish state.
They are almost welcoming of the Israeli attacks in the West Bank because
they believe the military campaign will generate more recruits for Hamas.
Already, the leaders say, they have more than enough recruits for suicide
The political leaders, as they call themselves, are obviously prosperous and live
openly in large, comfortable homes here in Gaza City with big families. The
exception is Yassin, who uses a wheelchair and lives in a compound in the
slums of the city with guards, assistants and office workers.
If Israel attacks Gaza, as it has areas of the West Bank, these men would likely
be principal targets.
The leaders insist they are not involved in directing specific attacks. But they
say they do decide when their followers should attack and when they should
back off. Last fall, just after Sept. 11, the steering committee decided that “our
resistance in Israel might be confused with what was happened in the U.S.,”
said Abu Shanab, the engineer. So the suicide bombing and other attacks were
“It lasted three weeks,” said Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the fourth leader. But then
after a particularly bloody day in Gaza during which Israelis killed several
Palestinians, Rantisi added, the attacks resumed.
On October 3, gunmen burst into an Israeli settlement in Gaza, Alei Sinai,
where they shot and killed a young couple and wounded 15 others. Hamas
Rantisi, who appears in public more often than any of the others, said in order
to generate attacks, he makes public statements that are heard by his
followers, as he did recently when he said in a television interview: “The gates
of resistance are open totally.”
Those statements are heard by Hamas’ military wing, he said. Some analysts
here suggest the leaders’ roles are actually more direct. During the 45-minute
interview in Yassin’s compound, for example, aides twice brought him urgent
news about developments in Ramallah, and he issued clear, direct orders.
The goals of Hamas are straightforward. As Yassin put it, “our equation does
not focus on a ceasefire; our equation focuses on an end to the occupation.”
By that he means an end to the Jewish occupation of historical Palestine.
Hamas wants Israeli withdrawal from all of the West Bank and Gaza, the
dismantling of all Israeli settlements and full right of return for the four million
Palestinians who live in other states. After that, the Jews could remain, living
“in an Islamic state with Islamic law,” Zahar said.
“From our ideological point of view, it is not allowed to recognize that
Israel controls one square metre of historic Palestine.”
Shanab insisted he was not joking when he said, “There are a lot of open
areas in the United States that could absorb the Jews.”
Referring to the suicide attacks carried out
by their followers, Rantisi said: “It is the most effective strategy for us.
“For us it is the same as their F-16,” the attack fighters used by the
For them, the crowning achievement so far was the attack on Passover eve.
“That was a great success,” said Shanab. “We don’t have an army, but we
showed that one person can do more than an army – and in the middle of a big
alert by the Israelis.”