The momentous events in Gaza and Israel the past week brought back to my attention an interview my former colleague Marylou Malig and I did with a Beirut-based leader of Hamas nearly two decades ago that was published in the Indian periodical Frontline.
Beirut’s reputation for being the crossroads of politics of the diplomatic and the not-so-diplomatic kind is well deserved. If you wanted to meet the people who were carrying the fight to Israel, the folks the Israelis were really, really pissed off about, you went to Beirut to find them. In late 2004, I took advantage of an anti-imperialist conference on the Iraq War in Beirut to seek a meeting with Hamas via contacts in the militant Muslim organization Hezbollah. Not surprisingly, though Hezbollah was Shiite in its sectarian affiliation and Hamas was Sunni, the two were close allies. It was in this way that Marylou and I got an appointment to see Hamas’ top agent in Lebanon.
The meeting took place a day after we visited Sabra and Shatilah, two refugee camps for Palestinians in Beirut, that had been the site of the horrendous 1982 massacre of thousands by Christian allies of Israel, the Phalangists, under the watchful eyes of the Israeli Defense Forces commanded by Ariel Sharon. Over 20 years had passed, but among the people we met, memories of the massacre were still fresh, and sites were marked and slogans were painted to remind residents and visitors of the bloody affair.
As we drove frantically on Beirut’s hilly streets to make sure we were on time for the interview with “Usamah Hamdan”—most likely a nom de guerre–someone in the car remarked: “Well, I hope the Israelis don’t decide to try to kill him today, while we’re meeting him.” The gallows humor was prompted by the fact that Hamdan was reputed to be the most wanted man in Lebanon, one who had been marked for assassination by Israel.
Knowing it would be historic, I took detailed notes of the meeting that I later put together in this article for the progressive Indian magazine, Frontline.
Usamah Hamdan is the representative of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, in Lebanon and Syria. Hamas is associated in many people’s minds with “suicide bombings” of Israeli military and civilian targets. Widely condemned as a “terrorist” tool, the bombings have altered the military situation considerably, leading one Hamas leader to describe suicide bombing as the Palestinians’ “F-16”. Israel has retaliated by systematically assassinating leaders of Hamas and other groups in the Palestinian resistance. A member of the Central Committee of an organization that is said to be Israel’s Enemy No. 1, Hamdan has seen many of his comrades fall victim to Israeli operatives, including Hamas’ last two top leaders, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi, both of whom were killed within a month of each other by helicopter-launched missiles earlier this year.
Following the twin suicide bombings that killed 16 Israelis in Beersheba on August 31, the Israeli government reiterated its policy of reserving the right to strike at Hamas leaders living outside Palestine. Hamdan is one of the likely targets, as is the currently top-ranking Hamas figure, Khaled Maashal, who lives in Damascus, where most of Hamas’ strategic planning is done, according to the Israeli government. Indeed, a few weeks after we did this interview, on September 26, senior Hamas official Ezzedin al-Sheikh Khalil, was assassinated by Israeli agents in a car bombing in Damascus.
When we enter the interview site in a suburb of Beirut, we are asked to hand over our mobile phones — a wise precaution since the Israelis have been known to locate their prey via signals emitted by the phones. Surprisingly, however, the security seems light, with hardly an armed bodyguard visible in the premises.
We are prepared to see an older man, but Hamdan looks like he is in his late 30s. Hardly looking at all like the stereotype of the terrorist, he is cordial, sharing a number of jokes with our party while treating us to an impromptu breakfast of cheese-filled pita bread and strong coffee. After a few minutes, he tells us he is ready to answer any questions we may have. “You can be as frank as you want,” one of our interpreters tells us, and we begin the interview:
Israel says it is withdrawing from the Gaza and much of the West Bank – how does Hamas view this? Do you consider this a victory?
I believe any withdrawal from our land, no matter how small it is, is a victory for the Palestinian people. But the Israelis want the Palestinians to pay a political price. They want us to give up the right of return [to Israel]. They want to keep one-fourth of the West Bank. We will not accept these conditions. We will continue our resistance. We have sacrificed for the last 56 years. What difference will another 10 to 15 years make?
Israel is continuing to build the “separation” wall despite global opposition. How does Hamas plan to deal with this?
The World Court of Justice made the right decision. It is most important because Israel really just wants to take the land. They are taking 21 per cent of the West Bank bordering Jordan, but there are no security problems there. The international community has to continue pressuring Israel to stop and to destroy what has already been built. They plan to complete the wall by March 2005. They are building one kilometer a day, and they say it will take them 250 days to complete it. And they think of everything, like painting the wall with “artwork’ so that people cannot write on it. But this wall will not prevent our resistance or put a stop to our activities.
Suicide bombing has been widely condemned. Others have said it is no longer effective. What do you think?
First, we do not call it such. And it is only one of the many tactics we use. We will use it when it is effective for a specific time and place. We choose the right place and time for this. People should realize that there are many cinemas, buses, coffee shops in Israel, but we choose only a few specific places and at specific times. We do this as a message to the Israeli government that if there is no security for the Palestinian people, there will be no security for the Israeli people. There will be none until there is a complete withdrawal from all occupied land, until there is an end to the occupation. In the last four years this has only been 12 per cent of our operations – this is not a major tactic.
How does the Hamas view and relate to the PLO and the Palestinian Authority?
First, the Palestinian Authority. This was a result of the Oslo Agreement. We rejected the Oslo Agreement because it changed the objective from that of securing Palestinian rights to that of providing security for the occupation. Thus, we did not participate in the presidential elections. Now, the peace process is deadlocked. The Israelis occupied 45 per cent of the Gaza. Oslo did not solve the problem.
But we will not fight the Palestinian Authority; Israel is the enemy. In fact, we help the Palestinian Authority by providing services for our people. Throughout the years, we have assisted with millions of dollars for infrastructure and services. We will not participate in the Palestinian Authority but we help out in the political process in our own way.
On the PLO. This was established in 1964 by the Arabs who wanted to turn Palestine from an Arab issue into a Palestinian issue. The PLO has become corrupted. We no longer know its real structures. It no longer has any real political vision. But we don’t allow ourselves to be used in the struggles within the PLO, for instance, in the recent efforts by some to promote [Palestinian Prime Minister] Ahmed Qureia, at the expense of Arafat.
But if there is reform and there is a Palestinian leadership elected on a clear and acceptable basis, we would be open to sharing power with the PLO.
Israel has a policy of assassinating leaders of Hamas. How do you personally feel about this since you are on their list? Do you feel like you’re living under a death sentence?
I am on two lists, one with six names and another with 12 names. But I am living my own life normally. I eat breakfast with my children, I always try to do this because this is when I can talk to them and ask them about their day and their plans. I visit my friends and my friends visit me. I just recently went out with my children to swim in the sea. You just die once, and it can be from cancer, in a car accident, or by assassination. Given these choices, I prefer assassination. My friends are more worried for me than I am.”
The brief interview ended with Hamdan telling us that he looked forward to inviting us soon to a “liberated Palestine.” As we bade goodbye, we had the distinct impression that this young, intelligent leader of one of the Palestinian resistance’s most feared organizations, knew he was living on borrowed time. We also breathed a sigh of relief, glad that Hamdan’s security had protected us from a possible Israeli assassination attempt or that Israel had decided to postpone its attempt to assassinate Hamdan that day, allowing us all to live another day.
On October 7, 2023, Hamas launched a massive rocket and ground attack on Israel and showed both Israel and the world at large that the struggle for Palestinian freedom was alive and well. There was widespread condemnation in the United States and Europe of the killing and hostage-taking of Israeli soldiers and civilians but very little appreciation for the sufferings that the Palestinians suffered over seven decades, the taking of their lands, their being reduced to a homeless people—the conditions that have made them resort to desperate methods against a powerful settler-colonial state armed to the teeth by the United States.
Reading this interview almost two decades later, I cannot help feeling how little has changed since then. Israel remains a violent, intransigent, and arrogant apartheid state; indeed, it has become even more aggressively annexationist. Hamas remains determined to liberate the Palestinian people. Since the interview, resistance has been passed on to a new generation of Palestinians. One may not find some of Hamas’ methods ethically justifiable, but one can certainly understand why it has been forced to adopt them.