Hamas Wouldn’t Honor a Treaty, Top Leader Says

Abu Marzook Says He's Open to a New Israel Relationship

Varied: In an exclusive interview, Abu Marzook discussed his own political future, relations with Israel, the Hamas Charter and the impact of the Arab Spring on his organization.
ahmed esmaill
Varied: In an exclusive interview, Abu Marzook discussed his own political future, relations with Israel, the Hamas Charter and the impact of the Arab Spring on his organization.

By Larry Cohler-Esses

Published April 19, 2012, issue of April 27, 2012.

(page 3 of 5)

Ostensibly, Abu Marzook’s fundraising, based in the United States and run from his home outside Washington, went to support Hamas’s huge network of social services in Gaza and, to a lesser extent, in the West Bank. Israel alleges (and he denies) that some of his fundraising went to support terrorist actions, as well. Hamas’ sprawling enterprise of medical clinics, orphanages, schools and social service agencies made up the overwhelming bulk of the group’s work in the occupied territories, as it does today. At the time, such fundraising was not explicitly illegal. The U.S. government did not designate Hamas as a terrorist group until 1995.

The popular gratitude and deep social roots that Hamas and its precursor group accrued through years of providing such service to Palestinians made it a formidable force when it launched its first attacks against Israel, during the first intifada, in 1988. Until then, Israel had quietly encouraged the religious movement as a rival to Fatah and other militant PLO groups, then seen as the Jewish state’s primary enemies.

Citing arguments that Islamic law prohibits ceding Muslim lands to nonbelievers, Hamas resolutely opposes the Oslo Accords and the halting efforts made by its bitter rival, the PLO, and by Israel toward a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. From the start of the Oslo process, the group backed up its opposition with terrorism, launching a campaign of bombings and eventually suicide bomb attacks, targeting civilians in cities across Israel. Since its inception, Hamas claims to have killed 1,365 “Zionist soldiers”— a statistic likely to include combatants and non-combatants, as the group has stated in the past that it views all Israeli Jews as combatants.

In 1993, Abu Marzook left the United States for Jordan, where he joined other leaders of Hamas’s “outside” wing to set up the group’s political headquarters in Amman. Jordan’s ruler, King Hussein, had long cultivated close, if careful, ties with Jordan’s affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas, which was established as the Islamist movement’s Palestinian branch, was offered offices in the Jordanian capital to set up its political operation right next door to Israel.

But after Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, Israeli officials pressed Hussein hard to expel the group. The United States also pressured Jordan, and so, for that matter, did the PLO, which had come to view Hamas as the biggest internal threat to its hold on power.

In response, Hussein, who preferred to keep potential enemies close, offered a concession: He threw out Abu Marzook, who returned to the United States in 1995.

But on his arrival, Abu Marzook was instead detained when a terrorism watch list at immigration turned up his name. A search of Abu Marzook’s carry-on bags found what looked like evidence of substantial offshore and American bank accounts. And a strip search of his wife yielded an address book with hundreds of names, including several people whom American authorities regarded as Middle East extremists. Soon after his detention, Israel asked Washington to extradite Abu Marzook to stand trial in Israel on terrorism charges.

Abu Marzook eventually spent a year-and-a-half in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center as his attorney, Stanley L. Cohen, fought a no-holds-barred, high-profile battle against his extradition. In the end, after initial decisions against him, it was Abu Marzook, weary of sitting in jail, who instructed Cohen to desist in his appeals; he’d go to Jerusalem, he decided, and face the Israelis in what promised to be a trial of the century.

Then, the government of Israel shifted. U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk cabled Washington that the recently elected Netanyahu government was uncertain it wished to take on the case. A late-night meeting between Washington’s envoy to Amman and King Hussein produced a way out: Hussein agreed to take back Abu Marzook.

Abu Marzook returned to Jordan in 1997, expecting to be hailed as the hero of Hamas who had faced down Israel and won. Khaled Meshal, a Hamas activist with roots in Kuwait, was expected to quickly return the keys to Abu Marzook’s office as chief of Hamas’s political bureau, which Meshal had managed on an acting basis.

But then, in September 1997, Netanyahu singlehandedly, if unintentionally, upended Abu Marzook’s triumph: He approved a Mossad hit on Meshal that went terribly wrong when the Israeli hit team was captured while trying to escape. To extricate the team, Netanyahu was forced to give up some 70 Palestinian detainees, including the most prized prisoner of all: Yassin. He also had to save Meshal’s life with the antidote to the toxin the agents had administered.

Abu Marzook’s star was not just eclipsed, it was sunk. “The day they tried to kill [Meshal] was the day Meshal the leader was born,” the well-connected Amman journalist Ranya Kadri told author Paul McGeough in his book, “Kill Khalid,” a history of the botched hit. “The man who died that day was Abu Marzook. Nobody wanted to talk to Abu Marzook after that — it was Meshal, Meshal, Meshal.”

Since then, Abu Marzook, though still a top player in Hamas, has served as deputy director to Meshal. The two are colleagues and rivals. On at least three occasions, Abu Marzook has stood as a leadership candidate to retake the top position in secret elections held by the Shura Council, Hamas’s clandestine policymaking body. Meshal has emerged each time, victorious.

But in January, to widespread surprise, Meshal announced his resignation. No one knows whether the Shura Council will accept the resignation when it meets sometime soon, on a date that remains secret. There are now considered to be three top candidates for the coveted post of political director: Meshal, Abu Marzook and Ismail Haniyeh, who was elected prime minister of the P.A. in 2006 and has been the effective chief of Gaza since then. The contest comes amid signs of sharply increased tensions between Meshal, the “outside” leader, and Haniyeh, now leading his own government in Gaza.

Asked if he is, indeed, a candidate, Abu Marzook explained that the process in Hamas was not like a like a bid for the U.S. presidency, in which a candidate throws his hat into the ring.

“Nobody announces himself as a candidate,” he said. “Someone else should announce a person for a post.”

But asked if, like the Civil War general, William Tecumseh Sherman, he would refuse to run if nominated and refuse to serve if elected, Abu Marzook laughed heartily and said, “No, I’m not that man.”

For Israel’s current leaders, the question of who ends up running Hamas is deemed moot. “None of this is relevant for Israel, because the government says they don’t want to hear from Hamas,” Eldar said.

Meanwhile, Israeli officials routinely denounce efforts by the Fatah leaders who control the P.A. to consummate a reconciliation agreement with Hamas, arguing that as a terrorist organization it is an unsuitable partner. But just as routinely, Israeli hard-liners dismiss negotiating with the P.A. at all, since it controls only the West Bank while Hamas rules in Gaza, outside its orbit.

A series of meetings between Fatah and Hamas leaders has ended in repeated announcements of an imminent agreement to bring the two groups and their rump governments back together. But the agreement has yet to be implemented, and Abu Marzook indicated with a resigned air that this would not happen very soon. “There’s some difficulties in the West Bank and some difficulties in Gaza, and we are working together to solve these,” he said.

If Abu Marzook’s appeal for a hudna sounded more dovish than his plan’s actual details, his rhetoric regarding Hamas attacks on Israel tacked in the opposite direction: considerably more hawkish than the reality.

The last suicide bombing attributed to Hamas took place in August 2004, almost eight years ago — an attack on two buses in Beersheba that killed 16 people. Since then, however, Israel claims to have thwarted terrorist attacks sponsored by Hamas in Israel proper. The group has also continued to launch attacks — some fatal — against Israeli Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank.

Since Israel’s 2008–2009 military offensive in Gaza, which it dubbed Operation Cast Lead, Hamas has also ceased launching rockets from Gaza into southern Israel.

Until March, the Hamas government in Gaza had for the most part sought to stop other groups from firing such missiles, as well. Then, on March 9, Israel launched a targeted killing in Gaza of a militant from another group whom Israel charged was planning a terrorist attack against it. That provoked a fusillade of some 200 rockets fired into Israel by others, which Hamas officials did nothing to stop. This, in turn, brought on escalating Israeli retaliations, until Egypt brokered a cease-fire agreement.

The exchange resulted in the deaths of 25 Palestinians, most of them militants but several civilians; no Israelis died.

Abu Marzook was at pains to knock down suggestions in numerous media outlets that Hamas is preparing to abandon armed resistance against Israel in favor of mass popular resistance against Israeli rule.


A February 6 article by Time magazine correspondent Karl Vick about the “mainstreaming” of Hamas was one object of his disdain. In it, Vick played up comments by Meshal, who, at a November reconciliation meeting with Fatah leaders, praised the popular protests of the Arab Spring last year in Egypt and Tunisia as packing “the power of a tsunami.”

“The new government emerging in Cairo may be dominated by Islamists,” Vick wrote hopefully, “but it has pushed both sides to make up and adopt the nonviolent strategy against Israel, complete with negotiations.”

For Abu Marzook, the November meeting in Cairo meant something “completely different.” At the meeting, he said, the groups involved asked, “What kind of [activities] between us we can share together?” And mass civil resistance, it was decided, was one in which all could participate.

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