I met Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 1999. I was one among a group of International students and journalists fortunate enough to be granted an audience with the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, the Islamic militant movement.
In that year the so-called peace process between the Palestinians and Israelis still had meaning and Yasser Arafat was not confined to House Arrest in Ramallah. In the Gaza Strip, more destitute, over-crowded and confined than the West Bank, support for Hamas was strong and Sheikh Yassin was regarded as the most revered Palestinian leader after Arafat. However, while Arafat was co-operating with the Israelis and America on security matters, the Sheikh was still advocating suicide bombings against Israeli targets. His uncompromising stand against the Israeli Occupation and his support of suicide bombings meant that the Israelis and their sponsors, the Americans, saw him as nothing more than a terrorist. Except Sheikh Yassin, elderly and confined to a wheelchair, did not exactly fit the model of a gun-toting guerrilla.
We were taken by bus to meet Sheikh Yassin in a large, dusty, anonymous warehouse on the outskirts of Gaza City. Within five minutes of being seated, the Sheikh’s motorcade had arrived. He was accompanied by a 20-strong entourage of bearded men, two of which carried him into the warehouse and placed him into his wheelchair. Like most revered religious leaders, there was something purely charismatic and calming about his presence. His hooded face was long, narrow, and framed by a pointed white beard, and while he was considered almost blind, his eyes were open, clear and sharp.
With bodyguards standing behind him and speaking through a translator, he began to explain the militant ideology of Hamas. "We are a People dispossessed and oppressed. There are 8 million Palestinians, half of whom are living under Occupation, the other half are in the Diaspora. Our People have two choices: to live in freedom and dignity, or occupation and suffering. So there is no other way but to continue the fight to get our Homeland. This is the path we have chosen, we either reach victory or gain martyrdom."
The Sheikh went on to explain that the struggle with Israel was not a religious one. "Jews are People of the Book, and in Islam we are asked to deal with them as equals and with decency. Before the British came to Palestine, Jews, Muslims and Christians were living in peace together. Our struggle is with Zionists and is about Rights and Justice. They came here illegally and kicked us out of our land. In 1947 when the British withdrew, the Palestinians didn’t have weapons whereas the Jews had organised armed movements which attacked and dispelled Palestinians from their villages and towns. My family was expelled from Majdal which is now called Ashkelon. So if we have our Rights, we have no problem living with Jews and Christians."
One of the main reasons why Hamas was considered an ‘enemy of Peace’ was their rejection of the Oslo Peace Accord signed in 1993 between Arafat and the Israeli prime minister, the Late Yitzhak Rabin which in essence was to lead to the creation of a Palestinian State. The Sheikh explained Hamas’s rejection of Oslo in terms of what it really offered the Palestinian people. "When Arafat’s Palestinian Authority signed the Oslo Accord, it helped Israel secure what they have gained illegally. Israel doesn’t want Peace, it only wants a neighbour that succumbs to its needs and provides it with cheap labour. With Oslo, Israel gave away the least amount of land that it needed to give - only 3 per cent of Palestine - and is continuing to drag its feet in endless negotiations. Israel doesn’t want to solve the problem of Occupation, it only wants to deal with the resistance to their illegal acts."
The Sheikh lamented that the United States and Europe were ineffective on putting any pressure on the Israelis to make territorial concessions, therefore the only alternative was to continue the Resistance. "We have no airport or seaport, checkpoints are everywhere, prisoners are still in jail, our houses are still demolished, our lands confiscated and the Palestinian Authority cannot stop this. The only way we can make a difference is by Resistance."
The issue of Resistance led to the question of suicide bombings. I asked the Sheikh whether the killing of Israeli civilians in buses and restaurants was not in fact counterproductive to the Palestinian cause. The Sheikh somewhat bypassed my question by seizing on the definition of a suicide bomber. "These are not suicide attacks but martyrdom operations, there is a difference. Someone who commits suicide doesn’t want to live whereas a martyr is someone who likes life after death."
However while stressing that it was against the teachings of Islam to attack civilians, women children and the elderly, the Sheikh sought to justify the ‘martyrdom operations’. "These operations against Israel are committed after major Israeli massacres of our people. They are committed in response to Israeli crimes against us. So we will stop once Israel declares that it will not harm our people anymore."
Unfortunately, after the Sheikh’s own assassination, that day seems to be ever more in the far distant future.