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Roni Ben Efrat
Interview with Hamas' Muhammed Abu Tir
UHAMMED Abu Tir, 55, has spent 25 years, all told, in Israeli prisons. He finished a term just recently. Without any doubt, he was a man with lots of time on his hands. No longer. We met him on a wintry day at his house in Sur Baher, one of the 28 villages that Israel annexed to Jerusalem in 1967. It was 3 p.m., but Abu Tir had not yet eaten breakfast. He goes from interview to interview, from meeting to meeting. Number 2 on Hamas’ national list, he is expected to head the ministry devoted to freeing political prisoners.
Abu Tir is not surrounded by a team of aides. His large stone house is rather empty, following a raid by the army and police that preceded the January election. They took all his documents, as well as his computer.
He gave us a brief autobiographical sketch: “I joined the resistance in the 1970’s, while in high school. I belonged to Fatah. I traveled to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. At the University of Beirut I studied Arab linguistics for two years. In 1974 I was arrested in this very house. I got out in 1985, a year before the end of my term, as a result of the prisoner exchange. [The so-called Jibril exchange. – R.B.E.] Those prison years were the golden years of the Left and Marxism, but I was religious by nature. In the Ashkelon prison I met Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. I was involved in organizing the ‘Muslim Brothers,’ so of course I ended my membership in Fatah. A few years after my release, the first Intifada broke out, and I was arrested again in 1989 for a year. During the Gulf War I was put under administrative detention for six months. Then came a two-year sentence because of my membership in the Islamic resistance movement, Hamas. In 1998, I was sentenced to another seven years.”
Before the elections, Ismail Haniyeh [No. 1 on the Hamas list] said that Hamas has no interest in replacing Fatah, but that it only wants to be its partner in the Palestinian Authority [PA]. Did your party’s huge success in the election surprise you?
Abu Tir: We weren’t surprised by our victory over Fatah. Of that we were certain. We thought we’d win about 65 seats, and we never imagined we’d get to 74. In that respect you might say we were surprised.
Pollsters and other experts who have analyzed the election claim that it was less a victory for Hamas than a defeat for Fatah. The idea is that the splits in the Fatah ranks created a situation where many Fatah candidates were competing in each region, dividing Fatah votes.
Abu Tir: First, the surveys aren’t accurate. For instance, I followed the findings of Dr. Nader Sayid of Bir Zeit University, who predicted a clear Fatah victory. As for the divisions in the regional lists, I can confirm that in Jerusalem Fatah fielded 35 different candidates and, indeed, in this way it lost votes. But even if we take their senior candidate, Hatem Abdel Qader, we beat him by a wide margin.
We told everyone they’d be surprised. But not because we were counting on Fatah to fail, rather because we knew how to read the map. I can tell you that in Jerusalem, our whole campaign budget amounted to 180,000 shekels. Fatah spent millions. The point is that we had a great many volunteers. This was a major human effort, involving all our active members. Even Christians from Ramallah and Beit Sahur voted for us and our program.
Of course I can’t deny that Fatah, in the last few years, has become a weak organization bloated with corruption. I can say for sure that if the Palestinian people had received just a quarter of the money that poured into the PA, we would all be rich. In that case, the political situation of Fatah would look quite different. Here’s an example. Before Oslo, the average annual per capita income was $3500. Today it’s $700.
In Fatah there’s a lot of anger with Hamas. They say that the attacks you made against Israel in 1996 doomed Oslo to failure, and that because of you, Netanyahu came to power. Some say that Fatah is tempted to do to you what you did to them. How would you answer them?
Abu Tir: It’s correct that we opposed the Oslo agreement, because we didn’t see in it a program that could possibly help the Palestinian people. But there wasn’t any attempt on our part to open a civil war, because Palestinian blood is sacred in our view. And I don’t think we were any kind of obstacle to implementing the Oslo Agreement. The fact is, the agreement played itself out at the Camp David summit. But to go back to 1996, at that time we weren’t yet organized militarily. The PA arrested our members, and we had difficulty taking action. Our military work began to crystallize after the start of the second Intifada, but the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, which are close to Fatah, were also operative then. As for the relations between us now, following our victory, note that the security forces will be in the hands of Abu Mazen. If the Fatah people want to act independently against us, they’ll simply bring about the failure of Abu Mazen, and in this way they’ll harm themselves.
In 1996, Hamas refused to take part in the elections for the legislature. Now, ten years later, your position has changed. How do you explain the shift?
Abu Tir: We never claimed that the  elections were superfluous or forbidden. We boycotted them simply because they took place in the framework of Oslo, and the agreement as a whole dictated a very negative attitude toward Hamas. Remember how the representatives of all the powers met at Sharm al-Sheikh and declared war on Hamas. What’s happened since then is that conditions have changed. First, negotiations failed and the Intifada broke out. Israel in effect cancelled Oslo when it invaded all the Palestinian territories and eliminated their partition into areas A, B and C. All returned to Israeli control. Even President Arafat was under siege by the Israelis.
When Abu Omar [Arafat] died and Abu Mazen replaced him, he approached us and said he wanted to put the “Palestinian house” in order. He also committed himself to preserve “resistance” as a legitimate path. And you know, after all, mere talk doesn’t get concessions from Israel, which isn’t willing to give up anything. Without resistance, they wouldn’t have withdrawn from Gaza.
To sum up: I can say positively that the 1996 elections were an integral part of the Oslo Agreement, whereas this time the decision to hold elections came directly from the agreement between us and Abu Mazen, within the framework of the Cairo understandings, without connection to Oslo.
There are those who say that Hamas has grown moderate, and that the principal reason for this has been the assassinations of its top-ranking leaders.
Abu Tir: We are indeed moderate. Believe me, we are not against the Jews, and we aren’t against Judaism as a religion. Perhaps you saw the interview with me on Israel’s Channel 2. They asked me, with regard to the attacks, if I enjoy seeing blood and slaughter. I answered: Never! I do not like seeing blood, and that’s the truth.
We want peace, and we love it because God wants it. And you, after all, suffered deportation and massacre in Europe at the hands of the Nazis. Who can agree to such a thing? This is not acceptable in our eyes. Didn’t the Golden Age of Jewry occur under the aegis of the Islamic regime in Andalusia? So this is what I say: we aren’t against the Jews, we’re against the Occupation.
What agenda did you propose in the election campaign?
Abu Tir: We had a clear headline: change and reform. We want to change the painful reality in which the Palestinian people finds itself and abolish the corruption that has spread in the society. Our first priority is to set the Palestinian house in order, to erect a new structure for the organization of Palestinian liberation and for the national Palestinian council. We want to act on the issues of education and health and improve the social situation. We want to develop the legal system and to ensure its independence, as part of the war on corruption. We want to eliminate unemployment and poverty.
I didn’t hear in your words any of the issues that are connected to negotiations with Israel.
Abu Tir: I didn’t get the question.
You are now the leaders, the PA is in your hands. You answered our question about the agenda, but we only heard you relate to internal Palestinian matters. Our question is, how will you manage against Israel and America? How will you deal with the demand that you recognize Israel as a precondition for progress?
Abu Tir: The problem is not one of recognition. The talk of recognizing Israel has been going on since 1974. Arafat recognized Israel. He condemned terrorism and violence, and I ask you, what did Israel give in return? Israel isn’t serious. I hear and you hear all the Israeli leaders calling Jerusalem the eternal capital of the Jewish people. That means there won’t be a withdrawal from the Jerusalem of 1967. To us that says they just want to kill time. If there were to be an Israeli withdrawal from Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, and if an independent Palestinian state were to arise, all the armed factions would unite in a national army. It would be like what Ben Gurion did when he gathered in all the splinter groups.
Tomorrow morning you’re in office. Israel is obligated to transfer to you the money from taxes and customs, and it refuses. What will you do? There’s also the question of the Palestinians who work in Israel. Does Hamas want them to go on working there? What about the contributions from Europe and the US? All that necessitates a certain amount of coordination with outsiders, no?
Abu Tir: On the question of the money, the donor nations have said that they’ll withhold it, but we’re not a people that can be humiliated. We’re not going to beg for charity, and we won’t ask them to rescue us. Secondly, those are rights that we deserve, and I say it’s a scandal that the money would go [in the time of the previous regime] into the pockets of the corrupt, no questions asked. Why not give the money to reliable people, people with clean hands? And I want to stress something important. We don’t need that money for military purposes. When we say that it will go to health, it will go to health. When we say it will go to welfare, it will go to welfare, to the legal system, to the building of the legal system. We don’t put the money in our own pockets, and we don’t buy arms with it. For that there’s a black market, and those who want it go there.
If they cut off the money, there are other ways to get it. We have the Arab world and the Islamic world, the Gulf States and others. Last night in Sudan, the Sudanese women contributed their gold to Khaled Mashal, who was visiting there. [Mashal heads Hamas’ international political bureau. – R.B.E.] We don’t need the money of the donor nations, even if it is our right to receive it.
Maybe things would be easier for you if Fatah would do the negotiating with Israel and you would deal with internal matters.
Abu Tir: [Smiling] What to do, we took it all.
Exactly. So what will you do?
Abu Tir: We’ll form a government. Afterwards, everything has its solution. We’ll find the way.
Are you optimistic?
Abu Tir: Very. Even though I know that Israel and the US are plotting against us.
You’re referring to the article that appeared in the New York Times about an Israeli-American plan to destabilize your government and bring about new elections.
Abu Tir: Yes, I read it. And it won’t surprise me if they fail, because they are constantly losing while we continue to gain. When the street sees what they are doing to us, its love for us will increase. We’ve established a state without a state. We have institutions and schools, a network of welfare, hospitals and universities. What we have built the PA didn’t build. In our devotion and strength of will, we are confident that the money will come. I myself won’t find it shameful in the least to take a broom and sweep the street, even if I should rise to the top of the PA. The greatness of a man is measured from within. That’s the proper standard.