Globalist: For one Hamas leader, only long term counts

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 19-Jan-05 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: International Herald Tribune

Mahmoud Zahar
GAZA For a Hamas leader in Gaza, staying alive is hard work. Israel killed Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi in airstrikes last year. That was a signal for any senior Hamas figure to lie low.

So Dr. Mahmoud Zahar lives underground. "Nobody knows where I will go at any time, not even my family," he says. On Sept. 10, 2003, his son was killed by a bomb from an Israeli plane. The attack broke his wife's back and demolished his house. "Such things are not talked about," he observes, "as if we were animals."

Just what Zahar and the rest of the Hamas leadership have in mind has become a critical issue in the post-Arafat Middle East. Mahmoud Abbas, the newly elected Palestinian leader, wants the militant group to stop attacks he believes are counterproductive. Zahar, his son dead, his associates killed, his life uprooted, feels cause for a patient hatred. He is unready to abandon the option of violence.

"Sharon is leaving Gaza because it is costing him to be here," he says, referring to the Israeli prime minister's plans to dismantle settlements in Gaza this year. "The Israelis will not go without military pressure, so we have to go on firing."

Zahar is a short, heavyset man with a glint in his pale brown eyes. He moves slowly. His speech is deliberate, his English good. In 1990, well before Hamas was designated a terrorist organization, he visited the United States at the invitation of a Minnesota hospital. His conclusion: "America is a good country full of simple people who unfortunately know nothing about what is running in the world."

What Americans should know, he continues, is that it would be "a historic mistake to consider Islam the new enemy."

"Islam is not the Soviet Union that could be destroyed from the inside," he says. "Millions are ready to stand under the Islamic flag."

Their anger, he suggests, is fueled daily by the sight of Palestinians defending themselves "against the superpower of American guns and helicopters."

"Every Muslim is deeply disgusted by Israeli military attacks against us," he adds.

Resistance is the word Zahar uses to describe Hamas's attacks and suicide bombings - resistance to what he calls Israeli aggression and occupation. For Israel, he is a terrorist with blood on his hands. That is why a bomb was dropped on his house 16 months ago in an attempt to kill him.

Between those two words - resistance and terrorist - stretches the gulf that has fed more than a half-century of conflict. Between those two words - resistance and terrorist - lurks part of the complexity of the war on terror.

Look at Zahar one way: an educated man, a doctor trained to save human life, a man indignant at the loss of his son, his home, his land. Look at Zahar another way: a terrorist ready to dispatch would-be martyrs to blow up Israeli women and children.

It is easy enough to see him one way or the other, as those who love or loathe him would. It is less easy to see the whole picture. Victim? Or murderer? Or both?

Yeats suggested the best "lack all conviction" while the worst are full of "passionate intensity." By that measure, there are plenty of the worst on both sides of this conflict. I know one thing: The peacemaker must seek knowledge. To understand, it is helpful to look somebody in the eye.

Zahar's gaze is steady. He has advice for Abbas, who is popularly known as Abu Mazen. He must clean up the "corrupt mafia" within his own Fatah movement, those who "took millions at the expense of the Palestinian people."

He must be prudent in seeking an end to Palestinian violence because "trying to disarm the military wings in Fatah, in Hamas, in Islamic Jihad will create a confrontation." He must persuade Israel to "stop their settlements, their aggression." The problem, of course, is that any gesture from Israel will depend on a Palestinian dismantlement of its terror cells, a lasting end to violence. But Zahar wonders what the Palestinians would get in return. As ever, the problem is trust.

"From Oslo, we achieved nothing," this Hamas leader says. "So if Abu Mazen stops the armed struggle, what will the Palestinian method be to achieve its goals?"

Behind the defiant rhetoric, however, some readiness to compromise seems to lurk. Hamas, Zahar says, shares Abbas's "focus on the 1967 borders." If Israel will leave Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Hamas will set aside its guns for a decade, more than a decade.

But will it recognize Israel?

"We are not yet ready," he says. "We want a long cease-fire to verify their actions. We do not trust the killers or our people."

Zahar takes the long view. Time, he says, is part of medicine. If he himself fails, "the next generation will achieve our aims." He cites the British exit from the Middle East, the French from Algeria.

"All history," he argues, "indicates one day we will prevail. People who want to achieve their goals must try negotiation, but be ready to use other means."

He smiles. The smile says there we are, it's like that, we are not in a hurry. Behind the smile lies steady anger. He cites Palestinian villages lost in 1948, he mentions that his son was to have been married three days after he was killed. He asks what "the crime is the Palestinians committed against the Jews." He asks why America does not tell Israel to leave the West Bank. He notes that Americans are advised not to go to Somalia or Yemen and, laughing, asks: "Why? Because people there admire Americans?"

I suggest the recrimination can go on without end. I suggest that the Palestinians are losing. Just look at the dusty mayhem of Gaza. Compare it with first-world Israel.

Zahar is unimpressed.

"We believe the weaker are not weaker forever," he says. "And the stronger are not stronger forever."