Interview with Mousa Abu Marzook.
Dr. Abu Marzook was interviewed on four occasions from September 1996 through February by Roger Gaess, a New York-based journalist. The interviews were conducted in English in the presence of a prison official.
GAESS: You're well into your second year of federal detention here. Are you still the head of the Hamas political bureau, as far as you know?
ABU MARZOOK: [laughs] Yes.
Q: Under what circumstances had you been requested to leave Jordan?
ABU MARZOOK: There was an agreement between myself and the prime minister, Zeid bin Shaker, that if I lived there, they could ask me to leave at any time. They told me in April  that I should go, and I left that July.
Q: Do you have any idea what the U.S. motivation was for adding your name to the INS watch list?
ABU MARZOOK: Really, no. I had left the United States in early February, and when I came back I found my name on the watch list. But I didn't know the reason why and I didn't know who had put my name there. The Immigration and Naturalization Service had renewed my reentry papers in June. I think the FBI put my name on the list without consulting any other department.
Q: You've recently said that you'd prefer to face "torture and humiliation" in an Israeli jail, rather than continue open-ended solitary confinement in the U.S. What were the primary factors in your decision to terminate your legal appeal to Israel's extradition request?
ABU MARZOOK: I have been here in prison for 18 months just fighting for a hearing, a chance to respond to the allegations against me. And I've still had no hearing. I am just wasting my time here. In the beginning I thought there is justice in the United States. Now I understand that when the case of a Palestinian like me comes up against Israeli interests, they will never look at my case in a fair, neutral way. They will only serve what they think are Israel's interests. I don't expect justice in front of the second U.S. court or the Supreme Court. In the end, I'm sure their decision would be the same: to extradite me to Israel. Then why should I wait another year or another 18 months in the United States for the inevitable? It's better to face the unfounded charges in Israel because I know very well there is no case against me even in Israel.
Q: So now the decision rests with the government of Israel and the U.S. State Department. What do you think their line of thinking is right now?
ABU MARZOOK: I don't know exactly, but a State Department spokesman said that the United States is going to look carefully at the case. And the Israeli government said that the former [Rabin] government, rather than the current one, had submitted the extradition application, and that they were going to study the case again. By the way, both the attorney general and the foreign policy adviser under Rabin and Peres had said at that time that there was no basis for asking the United States to extradite me.
Q: The Israeli extradition petition argues that your activities as a key policy-maker within Hamas's political bureau tied you to a number of military operations that killed Israelis. Specifically, it alleges that you were involved in fund-raising, recruitment and planning to promote the military wing of Hamas. Is there any basis to that claim?
ABU MARZOOK: There's no basis for any of the evidence they submitted, and they are very aware that I have nothing to do with these things. But to meet the requirements of their extradition treaty with the United States, they needed to present specifics in their charges against me. So, after initially submitting a vaguely worded extradition petition that had little to say about me directly, they were forced to rewrite it three or four times. In their most recent indictment against me, they alleged many things, but without any kind of evidence. There are not even grounds for a ruling of probable cause. As to fundraising, this is not my work...I don't know how to do it, I don't have the skills or personality to do it. But the problem has been that no judge to date has felt compelled to take a close look at the evidence.
It is very difficult for the accused to win an extradition case in the United States. In the 150 years of the extradition law's existence, it's been extremely rare for anyone to win a case in front of the courts. The experts have said that the case against me is among the weakest because of the lack of connection between my actual activities and what the Israelis allege. But [in May 1996 U.S. District Judge Kevin T. Duffy] didn't examine the specific allegations against me. He only looked at the accusations in terms of whether there was probable cause to believe them or not, and when he saw 10 charges against me, he found it too daunting to challenge the Israeli petition. And for that reason he refused to listen to any kind of negotiations on my behalf. [U.S. District Judge Kimba M. Wood], the second judge, in October also issued a fast decision without looking closely at the evidence. She signed the papers, saying only that the previous ruling was OK. In essence, she suggested that I can fight the charges against me in Israel. This is the reason I say that it is very difficult to win any extradition case in the United States.
My lawyer said that if the principal of political exception doesn't hold in my case, then there'll be no basis for ever applying it for anybody else. I was charged in connection with incidents I knew nothing about. I didn't order or cooperate in or have any knowledge of the [military] operations in question. The judge simply said there is an organization named Hamas and I am one of its members, and that some part of Hamas did something that was not good, and that consequently I am responsible for that and should be extradited to Israel. Where does this kind of reasoning lead? What if any United States soldier made a mistake in Bosnia or somewhere else? Take, for example, the rape case involving the two soldiers and the Japanese girl [on Okinawa in 1995]. If you applied the same logic, then President Clinton could be charged in that case.
Q: Do you think Israel is reviewing your case because they feel the evidence against you is flimsy or because they're afraid of some violence if you face a high-profile trial in an Israeli military court?
ABU MARZOOK: There are many considerations involved. It is not only because the evidence is flimsy, and not only because somebody threatened to avenge. There is also an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to release Palestinian prisoners held in Israel. There are more than 5,000 Palestinians still imprisoned there. The objective is to free Palestinians from prison, not to jail more of them.
Q: If Israel pursued your extradition and the U.S. approved it, what kind of message would that send to the Arab world?
ABU MARZOOK: The image of the United States as a neutral party would be hurt. The United States is not going to help find a solution to the Palestinian problem by imprisoning political representatives or extraditing somebody like me to Israel.
Q: How would you want your supporters in Hamas to respond to all this?
ABU MARZOOK: I want them to be calm. The Palestinians have been fighting for their rights for most of this century. I'm unsure about my own future, but irrespective of where I am -- whether in an Israeli jail or not -- I will be working for Palestinian interests, not for myself. I can't ask the Palestinian people to do something for me. I want them to stay focused on the more general cause of Palestinian interests.
Q: To some extent, the credibility of Israel's extradition request hinges on the assumption that the political wing of Hamas has reasonably close ties to the Qassem Brigades, the organization's military wing. What degree of influence does the political wing have over the military wing?
ABU MARZOOK: They are completely separate wings of Hamas. There is no contact between the political wing and the military wing, just as there is no contact between either of them and the people on Hamas's education or health staff. Each wing of Hamas is independent and works according to its own ideas. The military wing is not a centralized organization. It formed itself as a small cell here or there without instructions from anyone else. And the Israelis know this. I don't think Israel in the past held the political wing responsible for the military's actions. For example, when the PLO and Hamas held negotiations in Cairo in late 1994, Israel gave permission to Hamas representatives from the Gaza Strip and West Bank to travel to the talks. And if you remember, a number of months ago the Israelis allowed two Gaza members of the Hamas political bureau to travel to the West Bank to speak with Hamas people there. Israel knows that there is no connection between the political wing and the military wing of Hamas.
Q: What makes the four wings of Hamas one organization? I think Westerners have a hard time understanding how a humanitarian wing and a military wing and a political wing and a religious wing can all work under one title and yet not be a unified organization.
ABU MARZOOK: We don't need to be a hierarchical organization. We are not a state with a right to conduct our own foreign policy. Palestinians don't have the statehood under which they could attempt to solve the many problems that they face. And Hamas has chosen not to be a hierarchical organization because we are under occupation and face the constant threat of security forces. We are just a segment of the Palestinians who want to help our people get their rights. So the people who can help by working in education, they will do that. The people who can perform humanitarian work will do that. The people who feel called to take up arms to fight the occupation will work within that wing. Those who can make political decisions will go in that direction.
Q: Different military cells within Hamas have at times issued leaflets making conflicting demands. Around the time of the February and March 1996 bombings, for example, a group that identified itself as the Qassem Brigades appeared open to a cease-fire with Israel while the so-called cells of Yahya Ayyash were adamantly opposed to one. If the Hamas political bureau reached a deal with either the Palestinian Authority or Israel, would the terms be respected by the military wing, given that it operates so independently?
ABU MARZOOK: You see, there is always the "environmental media" among the Palestinians. The Palestinians are deal with most of the issues. And each group has its own policies for communicating and everybody knows that. When the Hamas political bureau negotiates peace issues, it tries to give voice to the Palestinian people. The people, in turn, will acquire details about any agreement -- sometimes through the radio, sometimes through contact with others who serve as a kind of environmental media in the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- and then they will weigh what's been reached and decide how to respond. For example, when the Fatah organization decided to sign the Oslo agreement with Israel, do you think they got input from their military wing at that time? The military wing of Fatah was operating from elsewhere. But other than that, there was a decision made from within the Fatah organization, people considered it in its context and then they decided to suspend the uprising against the occupation. And this is exactly how the environmental media operates in the case of Hamas.
Q: Various newspapers have reported that Hamas has raised a substantial amount of money in the United States, for humanitarian and other purposes. Do you know what percent of the funds received by Hamas worldwide is contributed by U.S. donors?
ABU MARZOOK: The Israelis have said that Hamas has raised money in the United States and sent it to schools and hospitals. But since the '60s, money raised in the United States for Palestinians has been sent directly to these kinds of facilities. Hamas itself has never collected or received money in the United States or any other foreign country.
Q: How is the military wing funded?
ABU MARZOOK: A lieutenant of the Israeli Shin Bet [internal security service] said, "Give me $5,000 and I can run all of these kinds of operations." When you look at what they are doing, you see that they don't need much money.
Q: Do they, as far as you know, raise their own money?
ABU MARZOOK: There is no fundraising for the military wing at all elsewhere because nobody will cooperate with them, inside Palestine or outside. They act on their own; they organize themselves and they fund themselves.
Q: You've been quoted as saying in an October 1994 interview that suicide bombings are "steps on the way for a full restitution of the rights of the Palestinian people." And Hamas has generally characterized the bombings as reminders to the Israelis that they're not going to have security unless they respect Palestinian rights. In an interview in March 1996, in the New York Times, you reiterated a call you had made the previous year for a mutual cease-fire. What are your current thoughts on whether violence is an appropriate tactic for inducing change?
ABU MARZOOK: That interview question was not about suicide bombs; at the time I was talking about the Palestinians who had been slaughtered in Jerusalem by the Israeli army. Second, the Hamas policy has never been at any time to target civilians -- at any time. What's happened for the most part is that operations have been carried out against Israelis in retaliation for things done to Palestinians. There were no Israeli civilians killed until Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinians in a Hebron mosque [in February 1994] and Israeli soldiers, to subdue the resultant expressions of outrage in the streets, killed another 24. Then some Hamas people decided to revenge the killings. And more recently, the bombings [in February and March 1996] came after the Israelis assassinated many people, in particular [Hamas master bomb-maker] Yahya Ayyash.
There may be one difference in perspective between Palestinians and Israelis in that Hamas has always considered Israeli settlers as part of the military occupation, rather than as civilians, because the settlers carry arms and have arrested and killed people, and confiscated Palestinian land and homes in order to build settlements. But the Hamas policy is not to target civilians. And in April '95 my statement was that Palestinians and Israelis should both stop killing civilians. That statement was welcomed by Secretary of State Christopher. If you look at the past six years, you'll see that 250 Israelis, most of them soldiers, have been killed. During the same period, Israeli occupation forces and civilians have killed 1,500 Palestinian civilians, among them 400 children; among the slain children, 45 were infants.
In any case, people under occupation have a right to resist that occupation. The Palestinians have had their land occupied for approximately 30 years. They have the right to fight to be free like other people so that they can determine their own future without foreign interference. You can't characterize what the Palestinians are doing against the occupation as violence. In reality, it is a form of resistance. If there was no occupation, there would be no resistance.
And 83 people last year died because Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, opened a tunnel under the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Maybe people outside Palestine don't understand completely what s going on there, and they only hear about the problem when clashes occur between Palestinians and Israelis. But the situation there is terrible. The Israelis are continuing to confiscate Palestinian land for settlement construction. And anyone who leaves Palestine for a longer period than allotted by the Israelis is unable to return home. In my case, for example, the Israelis in December 1969 permitted me to leave the Gaza Strip to study in Egypt. But when a problem developed in Jordan in the '70s between Palestinians and Jordanians, and I couldn't return to Gaza, then I lost my residency there. Now more than 250,000 Palestinians have similarly lost their residency permissions and have been barred from going back to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Should anyone have to accept this kind of situation?
Q: In April 1996, Arafat charged that Hamas military commanders based in Jordan had in essence declared war on the Palestinian Authority. Is there any basis for that allegation?
ABU MARZOOK: There are no Hamas military people at all in Jordan. The military decisions are made in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, though there is really no tight organization there and no central commander. You know, the only Hamas person in prison outside Palestine is me. Nobody belonging to Hamas has been imprisoned outside Palestine for military crimes or anything like that.
Q: Then what do you think the motivation is for saying that there are military commanders in places like Jordan and Syria?
ABU MARZOOK: If you look carefully at what the Israelis said in the past, you will see what their motivation is. At first they insisted to the United States and United Kingdom that Hamas leaders were issuing orders from their countries. When the Israelis couldn't produce evidence to support their claims, they turned their focus on Jordan and after that to Syria. Sometimes they try to create links with Iran. And they do that only to transfer the problem from their own shoulders to others. Because if they acknowledged that the orders came through Hamas cells in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, then that would mean the situation was their responsibility. And they don't want to carry that responsibility in the eyes of their own people, so they say the orders originate from outside.
Q: Is that Arafat's motivation as well?
ABU MARZOOK: The same thing. What's he going to do? There is a lot of pressure on Arafat to clamp down on people in his area of administration. And he doesn't like to do that so he tries to transfer the problem to the outsider. That is usually the case in the Middle East, so it comes as no surprise.
Q: With regard to the bombing operations in early 1996, was there ever, do you think, a consideration from Hamas's viewpoint that these would help to elect Netanyahu? I ask because some observers have contended that Hamas saw the election of Netanyahu as serving its long-term interests.
ABU MARZOOK: No, I don't think Hamas decision-makers planned to intervene in the Israeli election under any kind of circumstances. They never gave much thought to the Israeli election campaign. The bombings happened because the Israelis killed Yahya Ayyash, and Hamas fighters decided to respond to that.
Q: You've probably read the analyses of journalists and other observers who've written during the past few years about the various splits they said were occurring within Hamas. What are your thoughts about what you've read?
ABU MARZOOK: They've been saying this for longer than the last couple of years. Since the founding of Hamas, they've spoken about splits among its membership in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in the outside and inside. But the splits never happened in the past, and I hope that they don't in the future. Hamas is a united organization and it would be very difficult for anyone to divide it in any way.
Q: What are Hamas's basic demands in terms of a settlement with Israel?
ABU MARZOOK: Hamas was established as a resistance organization primarily to resist the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel's withdrawal from these areas is the basis for the settlement of any issue. This is what Hamas wants.
Q: Why has Hamas rejected the Oslo accords as a negotiating framework?
ABU MARZOOK: Hamas, from the beginning, has said that this kind of agreement doesn't work. Oslo is a vaguely worded document that by its very nature will never free the Palestinians from Israeli occupation. It will never put the Palestinians on the road to an independent state. For an agreement to work, the problems must be resolved prior to the first step of implementation. To negotiate issues step-by-step means that decisions will ultimately be made by the stronger party, which is Israel right now. The Palestinians will accomplish nothing from Oslo, and we had told Yasser Arafat that from the start. And if you look at what's going on in the West Bank and Gaza Strip right now, you'll see that it's the very thing we warned Arafat about. The Israelis had at every point contested fulfilling their agreement to withdraw from Hebron. What about the area that's been designated Area B, where Israeli forces now control security matters and the Palestinians oversee a civilian administration? If so many complications were attached to Israel's withdrawal from a city of 100,000 to 120,000 Palestinians, what will happen in this other area that comprises 50 percent of the West Bank but has only a few thousand people? Are the Israelis going to withdraw from this land? I don't think so. Even a Peres government would not be willing to make the necessary compromises. And what about the question of Jerusalem? The issue is not about whether the tunnel [near Al-Aqsa mosque] is open or closed, but about who controls the area. The Israelis say that the area belongs to them and that they don't want to share decisions on Jerusalem with anybody. That's why they opened the tunnel, not simply to attract tourists to the area but to underscore their intention to retain total control over the city.
We've opposed Oslo because we knew the problems it posed. And Hamas doesn't stand alone in this position. Most of the Palestinian people, even in the Fatah organization, are against the Oslo agreement. The agreement was implemented in the Palestinian areas because of outside forces, because of Israel, Egypt, the United States. It was not a Palestinian decision. What we in Hamas said at the time was, if it's to be a Palestinian decision, let the Palestinians vote to accept or to reject the Oslo agreement.
Q: Do you see anything positive having been accomplished during the last three years?
ABU MARZOOK: Yes. When Palestinians return to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it's good. When Israel withdraws from towns in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it's good. But I don't think Arafat will achieve his future goals under the Oslo treaty.
Q: What options did Arafat have in 1993 on the eve of signing the Oslo accord? He was faced with a kind of stalemate with Israel.
ABU MARZOOK: The Palestinians were in Palestine before the PLO and they will be there after the PLO. The question is not, what was the future for the PLO?; the question should be, what is the future for the Palestinians?
Q: What are the alternatives to the Oslo agreement?
ABU MARZOOK: It's very simple. The Israelis should withdraw from the Gaza Strip and West Bank and leave the Palestinians alone. This is what the Palestinians are fighting for. There are 3,000,000 people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and they want to be free like other people. The Israelis want the land but they don't want the Palestinians there to be part of Israel, so as a solution they're trying to impose a form of self-rule that would leave the Palestinians without any control over their own land or water or borders. That kind of solution doesn't work. If the Israelis withdraw, there will be no more problems.
Q: But do the Oslo accords necessarily undermine what can ultimately be achieved by the Palestinians?
ABU MARZOOK: Netanyahu, after his election, said that whether Israel withdraws or not from Hebron is its own decision to make, that it only involved a piece of paper. When the Palestinians are stronger than Israel, we can negotiate what we want.
Q: So what are Hamas's options in terms of getting the peace process more aligned toward what it wants?
ABU MARZOOK: This question won't be resolved in four years or five years or 10 years. The Israeli dream of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine took 4,000 years. And what is the fate of Israel if the Palestinians don't get their state? What's the future for Israelis among 300 million Arabs in the Middle East if they retain control of the area by force? If you are looking only two or three years ahead, it is very difficult to see a solution. But if the problem remains, everybody will begin to think in a different way. And if the Palestinians start thinking in a different way, there will be a lot of problems coming in the Middle East. Even in the last several months, Palestinian leaders, including Yasser Arafat, have talked about a new uprising.
Hamas now is carrying the Palestinian hope, and it will struggle to realize the Palestinian identity and achieve independence. If Hamas is successful, that's good. If those Palestinians who were elected [in January 1996] in the West Bank and Gaza Strip decide on another course of action that is good for the Palestinians, we will back their decision. We will never make any agreement on behalf of the Palestinian people without their support or before the people elect us to lead.
Q: Under what conditions would Hamas enter into negotiations with Israel and what would it seek from such a dialogue?
ABU MARZOOK: Hamas has no interest in any kind of dialogue with Israel right now. What Hamas wants right now is a dialogue with the Palestinian Authority, so that there can be peace among the Palestinians. If Hamas spoke with Israel now, the Palestinians would be speaking with two voices. No, the Palestinian Authority will talk with Israel, but we can advise them according to the situation. Hamas wants to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, and in turn the Palestinian Authority can then decide what they want in their negotiations with Israel. And if the Palestinian Authority accomplishes something good for the Palestinians, we will welcome that because that's what we want too. But if they agree to something harmful, we will let them know that that is not in the Palestinians' best interest.
Hamas's people and the Palestinian Authority should talk so that they can together resolve any kind of question or dispute among the Palestinians -- like what was done in December  when the Palestinian Authority decided to schedule elections and Hamas agreed to an arrangement to work with it in that context. For several months there was no kind of [Hamas military] operation in the West Bank or Gaza Strip or Israel. There was nothing. Everything held until the other side decided to kill somebody [Ayyash] with a booby-trapped telephone. Then Hamas fighters opted to continue their work, and the agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority unraveled and we had to start from the beginning.
Q: How would you assess Arafat's leadership style and the performance to date of the Palestinian Authority's security forces?
ABU MARZOOK: You see, Arafat's style is like that of most of the Arab governments in the Middle East right now. They are centralized, and the president or the king or the prime minister, whoever is in charge, controls everything. Arafat is one of them.
But the question of security is a completely different matter because Palestinian forces right now face two problems: responsibility for the security of Israeli forces as well as responsibility for the security of the Palestinians themselves. The pressure that Israel has put on Arafat to enforce security has essentially meant that Palestinian decision-making is now in the hands of Israel. Aid from international donors should be channeled directly to the Palestinians' needs rather than through the security forces, as is now the case. Arafat's forces have arrested people without justification; they've imprisoned them without charge and have abused their rights. Even Palestinian human-rights leaders have been punished. And I think this presents a big problem, not for me but for Yasser Arafat himself. Because I think Arafat is going to lose control of the security forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Q: So what will that mean?
ABU MARZOOK: That means that Palestinian security forces will feel free to make decisions without any reference to the Palestinian Authority, and that will pose a dilemma for the Palestinians.
Q: Do you think Arafat wants something different in the long run than Hamas wants?
ABU MARZOOK: I think Arafat wants an independent state in the whole area of the Gaza Strip and West Bank. But when Arafat decided to accept the Oslo agreement, he made the wrong decision.
Q: And when you say "West Bank," you include East Jerusalem in the West Bank?
ABU MARZOOK: Yes, of course. Jerusalem is more important than the Gaza Strip for a very simple reason. Few people may have heard of Rafah or Khan Yunis or the other small cities of the Gaza Strip, but if Israel were to retain control over Jerusalem, it would be a crime not only against the Palestinians; it would be a crime against one billion Muslims. Nobody in the Islamic world could accept leaving Jerusalem under Israeli occupation. Even Christians wouldn't accept that.
Q: It's been reported that you led a Hamas delegation in secret talks with the U.S. that began in Amman in 1991.
ABU MARZOOK: The talks were not secret. The United States had asked that they be secret but we refused to deal with any party in the U.S. embassy in Amman on those terms.
Q: What was the purpose of those talks? What were both sides seeking?
ABU MARZOOK: They wanted to know more about Hamas. You see, we never close our mouths to discussions; we want to talk with everybody. We've talked with a number of Western representatives in Amman, from Spain and the United Kingdom and from France and Germany, as well as from the United States. They asked about Hamas's policy, about what we stand for and what we want. And we asked them to support the Palestinian cause and an independent Palestinian state. Aside from that, we wanted them to know about Hamas, in that we represent an important segment of the Palestinian people.
Q: Given that Hamas has resisted becoming a formal political party, what ties, if any, does it have with Al-Khalas, the Islamic National Salvation Party, which was announced in Gaza in March of last year?
ABU MARZOOK: The people who established this party, most of them are members of Hamas. They formed that party on their own initiative; it was not the decision of Hamas. Those people decided that they wanted at this time to participate on a political level in Palestinian affairs, and Hamas has not objected to their doing so. But Hamas itself is not just an organization or party of the Palestinians. Hamas is the carrier of Palestinian hope, and it will never surrender the Palestinian future for any kind of deal like the Oslo accord.
Q: I'm wondering what role that party sees itself playing.
ABU MARZOOK: You can't apply a customary American framework to this situation. The Israelis right now control the Gaza Strip and West Bank, and they can decide who enters and leaves. They can arrest anyone and put them in jail for as long as they like. And up to now, Hamas has been declared an illegal organization in Israel. That means that anyone who acknowledges their membership in Hamas can be jailed for six months to a year simply on that basis. For these reasons, you will see numerous formulas adopted by Hamas people. They will say they do not belong to Hamas, or that a decision to create this party or that has not been a Hamas decision, because they want to avoid arrest, they want to avoid problems with either the Israelis or the Palestinian Authority. Even the Fatah organization, which signed the Oslo accords, has not yet transformed itself into a political party. They know the Oslo agreement doesn't work, and they don't want to change their identity and ultimately lose everything. That's been Hamas's decision as well.
Q: So the particular political party that's been founded is not the one that Hamas would put together if it were to move in that direction?
ABU MARZOOK: No, if Hamas decided to form a party it would not be like Al-Khalas. It would be a huge Palestinian party. Hamas is favored by more than 40percent of the Palestinians. Its representatives have won the most recently held elections -- at Bir Zeit University, the Palestinian's oldest university, and among the Gaza Strip employees of UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency], the Gaza Strip's largest organization. I think Hamas would win any election held in the West Bank or Gaza Strip at this time. That's why Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority have decided to postpone most of the elections that they had promised two years ago. They're afraid that Hamas would win.
Q: How does the Hamas political bureau decide whether or not the organization will take part in any particular election? Based on reports of the talks between Hamas leaders and the PLO that concluded in Cairo in December 1995, it appeared that Hamas was split almost 50-50 on whether to participate in elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council that were set for the following month in the West Bank and Gaza. Then it made a final decision to boycott the elections.
ABU MARZOOK: Right now the people in Hamas are not in one geographical area. Some are in the Gaza Strip, others are in the West Bank, and there are some outside Palestine. The people from all these three areas together discuss any issue and then they reach a decision for the organization. In any discussions, everyone is free to speak out on what they believe. In Hamas, we don't put tape over people's mouths. But in the end the decision is one, and everyone respects it whether or not it would be their personal choice. In Cairo, many Hamas people believed that it would be a good idea to participate in the election, and there were others that said, no, it wouldn't be good because that would mean recognizing the Oslo agreement and we will never give up on this point. Then they conferred together and decided not to participate. If 51 percent decides not to participate, that means a majority, and 100 percent will abide by the decision. That is the democratic way, and it is something Hamas always tries to emulate.
Q: What was your own preference regarding electoral participation?
ABU MARZOOK: In my opinion, we, Hamas, should not have boycotted the voting, but as you see, the decision was different. And I still say the same thing. Since its inception, Hamas's custom has been to share in all Palestinian elections in any part of Palestine, whether municipal, or in universities, or whatever. Maybe the next time around 51 percent will vote to participate, and Hamas will then take part in elections. I'm in favor of any kind of election among the Palestinians because you need to let the people choose their representatives and indicate their preference on issues that will shape their future. The Oslo agreement itself should be put before the Palestinian people for a vote. No one can sign on behalf of the Palestinians without their consent. When the Israeli leaders signed the Oslo agreement, they went back to their parliament to debate its terms and to accept or reject it. The Palestinians should have been accorded the same process. Before Yasser Arafat signed that agreement, he should have presented it to the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip and West Bank and to Palestinians abroad -- in Jordan and Syria and Lebanon -- and asked them whether they backed him or not. If they decided no, then he shouldn't sign; if they decide it's OK, that it's good for the Palestinians, he would be free to go from there. Instead, after he signed the agreement, then he told the Palestinian people, OK, I did something good for you.
Q: Some people interpreted the voting in January 1996 as an OK to the Oslo accords. They saw it as the equivalent of the Palestinians accepting Arafat's negotiating direction.
ABU MARZOOK: No, Palestinians didn't say OK to Oslo. There was no question on acceptance or rejection of the Oslo agreement. There was no question like that. The decision was about the choice of a delegate, about who your representative would be in the Palestinian council. That was the only question facing voters at that time.
Q: Ultimately, how would the Palestinians ratify a final treaty with Israel in terms of answering this kind of problem? Would there be a referendum?
ABU MARZOOK: No, I don't think the Palestinian Authority in the service of Yasser Arafat and his companions will ever take the issue to the Palestinian people, not even to those people [legislators] who were elected [in January 1996]. Even though Arafat and his circle have no right to do anything with the final agreement, I think they will decide final terms in the same way as they did with Oslo and Oslo II. That's assuming we negotiate the final agreement at all, because the Israelis right now have shown little inclination to move forward on negotiations.
Q: Numerous other Hamas leaders have also endorsed democracy and they've talked about political pluralism, but some observers fear that that's merely a tactical stance. They fear, for example, that Hamas would use democracy to gain power and then kick away the ladder of democracy after they've attained it.
ABU MARZOOK: [laughs] But where is there any proof for that assertion? They said that in Algeria when the government canceled election results there [after Islamists appeared headed for a landslide victory in early 1992]. They've also said that in Egypt and elsewhere, but is there any instance in the past of Islamists winning an election and then canceling the democratic means to be elected? When the people have collectively made a decision, everyone should respect that decision. And I assume Hamas will respect whatever the people decide at any time. It is the non-Islamic parties that have been the ones to take power and then dismiss democracy. Shura, the Arabic word meaning democracy, is an integral part of Islamic ideology. Under shura, no government or no leader has the right to govern unless they have been elected by the people. Dictatorship is incompatible with an Islamic state. Take [Islamic] Sudan, for example. I think that Sudan, in its last election, was the only country in the Middle East to allow voters to choose from among many candidates in its presidential balloting. The others, Egypt and Syria, for instance, offered people only one nominee and told them to vote yes or no. And always the official government result is that 99.9 percent of the people have said yes. But in the case of Sudan, more than 20 people ran for president, and the elected president, Bashir, got something like 60 percent, not 99 percent. I think that if the opposition runs a strong candidate against Bashir next time, they may well win.
Q: Has Hamas been presented fairly in the American press?
ABU MARZOOK: Overall, the media have not done a bad job. While some of the media have focused on Hamas's military wing and accused it of terrorist activity, others have pointed out that Hamas has a political wing, as well as a humanitarian wing that provides social services to the people. Sometimes the media describe Hamas in a harsh light because some people who write about it lack information. But the Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip know the truth. If you went there and asked about Hamas's people, you would find that they are widely trusted because of the help they have given to the community. They are the people who built the schools, the universities, the clinics. And they are among the best-educated Palestinians. Look at the  Hamas members whom the Israelis accused [in December 1992] and kicked out to South Lebanon. Among them were 100 university professors and 90-something physicians.
Q: When Hamas people press for an Islamic state, what do they have in mind?
ABU MARZOOK: An Islamic state that comprises freedom for the people, freedom for society, and justice and equality for everyone. An Islamic state would be more just than any other kind of state under any kind of circumstances. But sometimes people who thought they were establishing an Islamic state have instituted only a form of repression. That is not an Islamic state. There is no 100 percent Islamic state in existence today. An Islamic state should primarily guarantee human rights. That is the kind of state we are looking for.
Q: What's the difference between that kind of Islamic state and a Western state that's for human rights for everyone?
ABU MARZOOK: You see, the reference point for the laws is completely different. It is not different on the level of freedom of speech or other human rights. The difference relates to how a society is grounded. In the West, most rights are derived from the perspective of the individual. In contrast, under Islamic law the individual has some rights and the overall society has some rights.
Q: Could you give me more of a sense of what the rights of society are in an Islamic state?
ABU MARZOOK: The economic structure of an Islamic state would be 90 percent similar to that of a Western state but it wouldn't be identical. An Islamic economy, for example, wouldn't have an interest-rate mechanism. We think that many problems are caused by the interest-rate ideology that is central to Western states. It is in areas like this that most of the differences between Western and Islamic states would be found.
Q: Here in the United States, a great number of Christians, Jews, Unitarians like myself would prefer to live in a country where all of us -- Muslims, Christians, everyone -- had equal rights and equal opportunities. In the Islamic society that you would prefer, would that same kind of situation prevail?
ABU MARZOOK: Yes, of course. In Islam, all citizens have the same rights, the same right to vote, the same right to hold any kind of position in the government.
Q: My question must sound a little disoriented to you but, if the United States were living more according to its stated ideals and had more of an equitable distribution of income and solved some of its other problems, how substantially different would that be from an Islamic society? Islamic people here can by their own choice live according to laws that prevail in what you referred to as an Islamic society.
ABU MARZOOK: No they can't, because the United States is not an Islamic state, and they can't apply Islamic law here. Muslims in the United States can practice their religion in a free way, but Islam is not only an individual decision. In Islam, there are also some laws that govern the people as a whole. If you came to an Islamic state and you wanted to apply Islamic law, you could. But for most of the law, there is not much difference between Western and Islamic societies because in most of the areas around which people organize their lives, the laws are the same.
Q: Is Sharia, Islamic law, in an Islamic society instituted for everyone? Do Christians have to follow it?
ABU MARZOOK: No. In Islamic law, there are certain laws that Christians wouldn't have to follow. For example, in an Islamic state, it is against Islam to drink alcohol. Muslims are subject to a penalty if they do. But Christian people, since their religion doesn't proscribe it, have a choice of whether to drink alcohol or not, and the government is obligated to respect whatever option they choose. Everyone in an Islamic state, just as in the United States, should have the right of free choice.
Q: So a Westerner should have nothing to fear about living within an Islamic society?
ABU MARZOOK: No, and non-Muslims have been living in Islamic societies for thousands of years. If they had experienced fear, there would be no Christians living today among the Muslims, but you can't find any Islamic state that is without Christians or Jews.
Q: What are the major Western misconceptions of Islam?
ABU MARZOOK: When people in the West hear somebody speak in the name of Islam, they think that that is necessarily Islam. When they see some people or some government doing something in the name of Islam, they think that is Islam. This is the biggest misconception among Westerners. For example, when they saw the Taliban movement [in Afghanistan] imposing certain restrictions on women, they thought that Islam required that interpretation. You can't say that that is Islam because Islam is something quite different. When Westerners saw the forms of punishment meted out in Saudi Arabia, they said that that is what Islam entailed. Islam is not like this. Islam has an encompassing role that aims to enrich people's lives. You can't take an isolated part of Islam that's based solely on what some people might understand Islam to be and generalize on that basis about the whole of Islam.
Q: The Taliban in Afghanistan have imposed an interpretation of Islamic law that prohibits women from working or attending school, and from appearing in public other than in full-length veils. They've banned movies and television and music, not only Western music but also Afghan folk songs, and Taliban militiamen are said to have smashed whatever musical instruments they've come upon. I'm wondering what kind of dialogue groups like Hamas and the Taliban could have. It seems to me that Hamas has more in common with the West than with the Taliban.
ABU MARZOOK: No, all the Muslims have things in common because they understand each other. We understand the Taliban's behavior and how they think. And some of us also live in the West, and for that reason we are able to understand how Westerners think, and we can talk with them as well.
Q: But what would you say to the Taliban at this point?
ABU MARZOOK: Just to stop fighting. There's a very difficult situation in Afghanistan now, and the Taliban are fighting for control of the country and to punish those they see as guilty. But human life is more important than all the things they are fighting for. They have to stop fighting. This is the first thing they should do right now because many lives are being lost for no good reason.
Q: Sheik Ahmad Yasin, the founder of Hamas, remains imprisoned in Israel. He was jailed in 1989 and later convicted by an Israeli court for involvement in the killing of two Israeli soldiers. What do you think of the charges that were filed against him and the trial he received?
ABU MARZOOK: He can't kill because he's paralyzed. He can't move his head or his legs; he can't move anything except his tongue and his mind. But the accusation at that time said that the people who had killed the Israeli soldiers had taken their orders from Sheik Yasin. And he admitted that he had ordered the Palestinians to resist the occupation, and that he himself would continue to fight against that occupation. Then he got a life sentence.
Q: There have been reports that his health has deteriorated in recent months, Do you think his continued incarceration serves anyone's interests?
ABU MARZOOK: No, I don't think so, and I think Netanyahu is going to release him soon.
Q: With Clinton now into a second term, what is the Arab side looking for in terms of what hopefulness might emerge from this new U.S. administration?
ABU MARZOOK: The American government tends not to put foreign-policy questions very high on its agenda, perhaps because most Americans don't care that much about foreign policy. What's good about the Clinton administration is that it's used to dealing with Middle East problems, but with the departure of Secretary of State Christopher and the change in State Department personnel, that advantage has largely been lost. I don't think there's too much difference between the way Democratic or Republican administrations handle the Middle East. Always they back the Israeli position, irrespective of what position the Israelis take.
Q: Do you think there will be a test on some particular issue, like the settlements?
ABU MARZOOK: With the United States in its current role of mediator, it is very difficult for them to offer suggestions on how to move the process forward. They only want to facilitate negotiations between the two parties, the Israelis and the Palestinians. And this policy is in itself very dangerous for the Palestinians, because the Palestinians do not have enough power to initiate anything without the backing of America or some other superpower. But the Israelis have all means at their disposal and, as a consequence, the Palestinians can regain only those rights that the Israelis feel inclined to give. And though the U.S. position in the mid-70s was that the settlements are illegal, now they characterize the settlements as simply an obstacle to the peace process. So in some respects the problems have gotten worse.
Q: Have we moved away from the land-for-peace framework of 242? Is that part of the problem?
ABU MARZOOK: They've shelved all of the United Nations resolutions: [General Assembly Resolution] 191 [which gives Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes in Israel or be compensated for their losses], 242, all of them. The reference point for them now is the Oslo peace settlement. This imposes a severe handicap on the Palestinians because most of the statements in the Oslo agreement are very vague. When you come to a statement and its wording is vague, how will that statement be applied in reality? By default, whoever controls the area will have the power to be the final arbiter on what any particular statement means or doesn't mean.
Q: I keep reading articles in which people say something to the effect of, "Hey, this guy ABU MARZOOK, I mean, he's been in the U.S. for 14 years. What's he been up to?," as if to imply that you've been involved in international intrigues here. What would you like to say about the nature of your time spent in the United States?
ABU MARZOOK: When I came to the United States, I came to continue my education; that's all. I didn't come here for business. I finished my Ph.D. in engineering in December '84. I carry travel documents [including a U.S. green card], but it is very difficult for me to take my wife and kids elsewhere because I lost permission to return to my home in the Gaza Strip and my family doesn't have residency in the United Arab Emirates, which I have. My wife and two of my kids have permission to return to Gaza as residents, and my other four children are American. So we have a family problem. There is no country where we can all live as a family except the United States. This is the reason we are here. If I could return to the Gaza Strip, I'd prefer to live there. If my family could live with me in the UAE or a third country, we might prefer to go there. But there's a second reason why I'm in the United States, and that is because it is a free country. You can speak freely here, and there is freedom of movement. It's been good to live in the United States. There was no problem, until what happened in July 1995.
Q: There have been comparisons suggested between your own role and that of Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. What's the correlation, if any, in your own mind?
ABU MARZOOK: There are many similarities. Gerry Adams is the political leader of a party that has two wings, a military wing and a political wing. I am the leader of the political wing of Hamas, which has another wing, a military wing. In the United Kingdom, Gerry Adams' group is considered a terrorist organization, and Israel views Hamas as a terrorist organization. But the United Kingdom itself treats Gerry Adams as a politician, just as the Israelis deal with Palestinians in the Hamas political wing as politicians, and allow them to travel and join each other in negotiations. Those are the similarities between Sinn Fein and Hamas, and Gerry Adams and myself. The difference is that when Gerry Adams comes to the United States, they welcome him at the White House. In contrast, they put me in prison.
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|Title Annotation:||Arab-Israeli Affairs; head of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas political bureau|
|Publication:||Middle East Policy|
|Date:||May 1, 1997|
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