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Talking to terrorists in Gaza

Mient Jan Faber
14 February 2005

In the great debate now taking place about terrorism, I feel I have a special starting point.

For over thirty years I have worked in zones of conflict, particularly the Middle East and also Iraq, the Balkans, the Caucasus and Kashmir.

Despite all these experiences, it was a visit to Gaza and an encounter with defenders of terrorism that gave me fresh insight into the possibilities and limits of dialogue.

It began when the Dutch Interchurch Peace Council (IKV) sent me to Gaza, where it was supporting Palestinian civil-society organisations in their campaigns for local elections. It was very bizarre. When we arrived in Gaza, we found that Arafat’s Preventive Security Force, led at the time by Mohammed Dahlan, had closed down the offices of the initiative we were supporting. Why? Because the meetings they had been holding in the West Bank and Gaza had been getting very popular. Yasser Arafat felt threatened by local elections so he ordered his security force to break into their offices and hack into their computers to find out what was going on. People there were very upset.

An International Summit on Democracy, Terrorism and Security will be held on 8-11 March 2005, sponsored by the Club de Madrid. and the Varsavsky Foundation. Ahead of the summit, a new openDemocracy debate – involving leading thinkers such as Karin von Hippel, Mary Kaldor, Roger Scruton, Isabel Hilton, Loretta Napoleoni, Fares Braizat, Charles Peña, Fred Halliday, John Hulsman, and David Elstein – explores how best democratic states and citizens can respond to terrorism.

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Later, I talked to a colleague of Mohammed Dahlan in Ramallah and asked him how his forces had learnt to hack into computers. He told me that the Dutch intelligence service had trained them! There was something rather funny about the fact that official Dutch money was going to them at the same time as it was being given to us to support civil-society initiatives.

It was typical of the many contradictions in Palestine. At the time, we were funding another organisation called Panorama, which had offices in East Jerusalem, Gaza and Ramallah. It offered courses on democracy. Its students would pass their exam in the subject, dress up smartly and receive an official diploma, then walk out into the streets and find there was nothing – no democracy at all. I began to feel that what we were doing was quite ridiculous.

A question of ethics

I decided I had to understand and confront for myself the culture in Gaza and the appeal of militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. I had to understand their thinking – and this meant getting closer to their followers and leaders. I felt it was particularly important because I knew my friends and professional colleagues in Israel were getting more and more frightened, and I could sense that a gap between them and the Palestinians was growing.

So I contacted one of my friends in Gaza to see if I could meet with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, leaders of Hamas (both of whom were later assassinated by Israel) and with Mohammed al-Hindi, a leader of Islamic Jihad who has survived several assassination attempts. It was easy: they were willing and ready to talk.

I went to a small room in a little old house. There I sat with Sheikh Yassin, who was in his wheelchair. As visitors entered, they fell to their knees and kissed his hand as if he were a god.

He began to tell me how bad the Israelis were. After a while I stopped him. I said that I wanted to talk about his principles. I found that I had to explain this. I told him that I was a Calvinist and that though I had learned that people can do good, I also knew that they had a lot of evil inside them. I told him I believed you had to set yourself limits and that I called these limits “personal ethics”. I asked him if this idea of “personal ethics” was also present in Islam. He started talking about Israel again.

I said that I understood that Israel’s policies could not be justified but I asked him again: “Despite everything, despite what Sharon is doing, do you ever think personally about the two sides, do you ever question yourself and whether you can be responsible for sending suicide-bombers and their victims to their deaths?”

He had no clue what I was talking about.

How could he not understand the idea of personal ethics? It was something I thought was so clear.

I thought perhaps he was joking or lying but the people around him also found the question strange. I realised that nobody had ever asked the question in this way before.

“You cannot ask a boy to commit suicide for you”, I said to Yassin. “Maybe you yourself can do it, but you cannot ask a boy.”

“You look around here”, he replied. “Can somebody live here? It is a cemetery. We’re all dead. The only thing we can do is to celebrate it. We are not just killing Israelis. What we are doing makes life bearable; it is part of our death culture.”

Funeral of a Gaza suicide bomber

Later, as part of the same attempt to understand the mindset of terrorism, I find myself sitting in a room with twenty or so men, the brothers, father and the extended family of a boy who had committed a suicide attack. The walls are covered with photographs of the boy. His brothers tell me about Hamas’s “special groups” which train for several months to do this kind of thing. I suspect that they must also be in Hamas.

At a certain moment I interrupt, saying how hard it is for me to understand. I ask to talk to the boy’s mother. When she enters the room her face is shining: she looks as though she is in heaven. I tell her that I am sorry, that it must be a real tragedy to have lost her son. I ask her how she copes.

She tells me, “In the beginning, when he joined Hamas, I thought, ‘oh, my God, I don’t want to lose you’”. She then explains that her son’s training included coming home to explain Hamas’s ideas, the necessity of what he was to do, and the glorious days to come. Over time it grew easier. “I was convinced that this was the sort of sacrifice you had to make.”

One of the brothers says: “If he had died in a car accident there would have been 100-150 people at his funeral, now there are 15,000.” His father tells me that it has been the most glorious day of his life.

Gaza is indeed different from the West Bank. It is lost. It is a million people in the sand. To understand terrorism in Gaza you have to understand this context, this complex of feelings rooted in a particular political blockage. In Gaza, I do not think that the prime motivation behind terrorism is hatred. It is indeed a way for people to celebrate what is otherwise a “living death”.

If you talk to people in the street they say Osama bin Laden is absolutely fantastic. But their ideology is so provincial, so local – it is Gaza, Gaza, Gaza and nothing else, because they have nothing else.

Terrorism is different everywhere. In Gaza, I believe that there is a good chance that the culture of death will burn out. If people get the feeling they can go to school, get a job, travel – if for them this happens, Gaza people will come to life again. It will be possible to have some perspective.

Can “they” understand “us”?

I had another different kind of conversation with an Islamic Jihad leader from Gaza. This time he came to me to ask for my help. The Dutch government had prevented charities in Holland from collecting money for his group. Could I do something about it?

I told him I would not. I told him I knew his organisation was ready to commit more suicide attacks and that I was absolutely against them. He was upset. He complained about Israel and once again asked why I could not help end, as he put it, the suffering of his people.

“During the second world war”, I told him, “my father fought in the resistance, against the German occupation. If he had crossed the border and killed children in a suicide attack on a school, I would never have forgiven him. That is my position.” He was silent. I had a feeling he suddenly understood there was nothing to argue about any more.

For me, encountering terrorism thrust me back to my own core values. When I found myself talking to terrorist leaders I gained a new appreciation of my Calvinist roots. Now, for their part, it was only when they understood I would condemn my own father if he had been a terrorist, that they realised my effort to understand them in no way meant that I could excuse or accept what they did.

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