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Cairo — Pressed regarding concerns that Hamas’s goal during a hudna would remain the destruction of Israel as a state, and that a truce would give Hamas time to build up its arms toward that end, Abu Marzook said: “It’s very difficult to say after 10 years what will be on both sides. Maybe my answer right now [about recognizing Israel] is completely different to my answer after 10 years.”
But asked if, offered guarantees for his physical security, he would be prepared to go to Jerusalem to negotiate with Israel for exactly the kind of hudna he seeks, Abu Marzook replied bluntly, “No.”
Hamas has rejected negotiating with Israel directly. Abu Marzook said that under a previous understanding with Fatah, the faction controlling the P.A. in the West Bank, Hamas allows the P.A. to negotiate with Israel, despite its objections to the process. But Abu Marzook repeated his organization’s demand that any result must be approved in a referendum that includes all Palestinian refugees, not just those in the West Bank and Gaza. “All of the Palestinians should vote about this,” he said.
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He also made clear that such an agreement must include the unqualified right of Palestinians to return to land in what is now Israel.
From there, it only got more complicated. Abu Marzook described an agreement that would be treated almost as a “Rashomon” document — seen by the P.A. as a peace treaty, but by Hamas as a mere truce agreement.
“When we reach the agreement, our point of view is, it’s a hudna,” Abu Marzook emphasized.
This is not just a matter of semantics. Like the classic Akira Kurosawa film, in which each party observes the same event but sees it in radically different and ultimately irreconcilable ways, Fatah and Hamas envision radically different relationships with Israel, based on the same document.
For Fatah, a peace treaty with Israel encompasses mutual recognition, diplomatic exchange, trade, commerce, movement of peoples across borders and regional cooperation. It also includes a non-militarized Palestinian state and a limited Palestinian right of return.
And Hamas’s hudna vision?
“What’s the relationship between Israel and Syria and Lebanon right now?” Abu Marzook asked.
That answer — closed borders, barbed wire, no trade, no commerce, no diplomats, and arms build-ups on each side, to the best of each side’s respective abilities, in preparation for a possible war — might not matter much, so long as Fatah remained the party ruling a new Palestine state. But both Fatah and Hamas agree that their new state will be a democracy. So the question was unavoidable: What will become of any peace treaty Israel negotiates with the P.A. under Fatah if and when Hamas comes to power?
“Rabin signed the Oslo Accords,” Abu Marzook recalled, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s solemn ceremony with Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, on the White House lawn in 1993. “And when [Israeli opposition leader Benjamin] Netanyahu came [to power], he disagreed about the Oslo agreement,” leading to numerous changes in the accords.
Asked if a final peace treaty between Israel and a Palestinian state would not bind Hamas if it came to power later, Abu Marzook replied: “No. I don’t think any kind of treaty can ‘stuck’ anybody in the future. Just read history.”
Abu Marzook offered his views at a moment of unprecedented and far-reaching change in the Arab world, and within his own organization. The Arab Spring is one year old, and Hamas, classified as a terrorist group by the U.S. government, is today, numerous experts say, the latest stage on which the Arab world’s revolutionary drama is playing out.
The tidal wave that pitched out dictators in Tunis and Cairo has pushed the staunchly militant Palestinian group from its longtime home in Damascus, where the Spring’s surge has run blood red.
Hamas leaders have disavowed the Syrian regime’s slaughter of its own citizens and scattered across the region, some resettling in the Persian Gulf, others in Jordan and some in Gaza, where democratically elected Hamas officials rule a rump territory still under Israeli siege.
But Abu Marzook has come to Cairo — the Arab Spring’s still bubbling crucible. He has settled into a large three-story mansion some 90 minutes outside the city, in a newly developed, upper-class planned community known as New Cairo. The neighborhood’s wide, still unpaved streets look almost deserted but for construction crews, and are lined with numerous half-built homes, their scaffoldings still mounted in place and mounds of rubble piled in front of them. It’s quiet; a far cry from Cairo’s tumult. Security, a major consideration for a man in Abu Marzook’s position, is no doubt an easier proposition in this tranquil corner of a country still in midrevolution.
Inside his sparsely furnished home, with its large, airy rooms and marble floors, Abu Marzook works amid a retinue of bodyguards and aides. No women are in sight. At the end of the second day of the interview, he cheerfully offered his business card and invited follow-up questions via phone or email. But first, he wrote a new phone number at the top of the card. Disregard the four Damascus phone numbers still printed under his name, he said.
It is almost certainly not the first time he has had to improvise business cards. Abu Marzook’s has been a peripatetic life. A calm, soft-spoken man of 61, Abu Marzook struggles haltingly in rusty English — a language he once spoke daily while pursuing a master’s degree in construction management at Colorado State University; a doctorate in industrial engineering at Louisiana Tech, in Ruston, La., and living several years in Falls Church, Va., where his primary work through the early 1990s was raising millions of dollars for Hamas.
“They called him ‘the genius,’” said the journalist Eldar, whose new book, “Getting To Know Hamas,” is to be published in Israel in May. “In 1989 and 1992, he saved Hamas during periods of crisis. His fundraising built up Hamas’s infrastructure in Gaza because he had the financial connections with the Islamic funds around the world, especially in America and Europe.”
Indeed, during this earlier period, Abu Marzook was the top director of Hamas’s political bureau, not its deputy director. Within the movement, he was known as the favored protégé of Hamas’s revered founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Born in Rafah, a southern Gaza city near the Egyptian border, to parents who hailed from a village near Hebron in the West Bank, Abu Marzook was picked by Yassin at an early age as a prize pupil meant for greater things. With Yassin’s support, he attended college at Ain Shams University in Cairo and went on to graduate school in the United States — in part, to gain worldly knowledge of the West that would help a movement with few in its ranks who had this background.