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The nail in the wood: an interview with Ismail Abu Shanab

About the author
Ismail Abu Shanab, born in 1940 near Ashkelon, was a leader and co-founder of the political wing of the Palestinian radical movement Hamas. He studied engineering in Egypt and the US. After his release from imprisonment (for establishing Hamas or helping plan the killing of an Israeli soldier), he was elected to the Gaza Engineering Association board. He was assassinated by Israel on 21 August 2003.


I met Ismail Abu Shanab in the summer of 2002, in Gaza. Everyone knew where he lived. My young friend Yusuf, who attended the Islamic University with his son, proudly led me to their home on the outskirts of Gaza City. We rang the bell. His daughter led us inside to a book-lined living room where Abu Shanab, a strong-jawed man in white robes, offered us lemonade. No bodyguards in sight.

Just three days before our meeting, Salah Shehadeh, leader of Hamas’s military wing and formerly Abu Shanab’s cellmate, had been assassinated with a one-ton bomb. It demolished a refugee-camp block and killed fourteen civilians. But I felt no fear. Abu Shanab was the most moderate leader of Hamas’s political wing, not at that time a target. This was Hamas’s ceasefire negotiator, a man who advocated engagement in parliamentary process, who was openly prepared to entertain the two-state solution.

On 21 August 2003, Ismail Abu Shanab was assassinated by an Israeli helicopter missile strike while travelling by car in Gaza. Government press releases termed him “terrorist”, “operative”.

But veering off-message, an Israeli security source told the Washington Post after his killing, “To what extent that person was involved [in terrorism] or not is not important. What is important is that this man... is one of the people who makes decisions about what kind of policies Hamas should adopt.”

We talked for an hour. He was no liberal, and no innocent. But without him, Hamas will be very different.

Paul Hilder

Paul Hilder: How do you see life now in Gaza? How has it changed over the last two years?

Ismail Abu Shanab: Everything is affected by Israeli attacks. We have closure. We have destruction and killing. The destroying of farms. Economically we are in a position nobody can describe. Things are very complex. Unemployment is high, people can’t earn their livings. But Palestinian determination grows, because there is no hope left now in the failed Oslo process.

Paul Hilder: I don’t understand. How can one be determined without hope?

Ismail Abu Shanab: Determined not to surrender. The Israeli attacks are meant to achieve Palestinian surrender and the continuing of the occupation. So Palestinian determination is growing for resistance. The goal is to end the occupation. And we hope to build our Palestinian state, free and sovereign and independent.

Paul Hilder interviewed Ismail Abu Shanab in Gaza City while co-editing (with Ethan Casey) Peace Fire: Fragments from the Israel-Palestine Story Free Association Books, 2002), a collection of over 100 perspectives from all sides of the conflict telling the story of the second intifada.

A two-state solution?

Paul Hilder: You’ve said in the past that for this generation, it is time to start building a state along the 1967 borders, beside Israel. This has been considered quite radical within Hamas. Is this still your belief?

Ismail Abu Shanab: We cannot speak for the next generation, but for our own. That is what we know. We do not know what the goals of the next generation will be. We have suffered from Israeli occupation and from Israeli attacks for more than half a century. Since 1948, we Palestinians were kicked off our land and left in refugee camps. We now have 4.5 million Palestinian refugees. The Israelis continued in 1967, occupying the rest of the Palestinian land with all the pain and suffering involved in that.

But today’s generation, with all of these sufferings, wants to build and keep the Palestinian identity. This identity can be symbolised by this Palestinian state. This generation will be busy building this state, and making a better living for our children.

What the next generation will think, nobody speaks about. It is hard, anyway, to speak about the next generation’s thoughts while we are not achieving our own generation’s goals.

Ceasefires and the international community

Paul Hilder: There was some talk recently of the possibility of a hudna, a ceasefire, and then the Israelis assassinated Salah Shehadeh, the leader of your military wing. Why was the hudna being considered?

Ismail Abu Shanab: It was to achieve calmness and live in peace with this generation. To give peace a chance: to discover if the Israelis are willing to live in peace. Because the Americans keep saying that the Palestinians are not serious. “Okay, we are serious about peace. Talk to Sharon.”

Paul Hilder: What are the outcomes of the Shehadeh assassination?

Ismail Abu Shanab: We in Hamas are pretty convinced that Sharon is not listening to the voice of peace. But the Palestinians wanted to give a chance to the Arab leaders to pressure President Bush, to convince him to push Israel to withdraw from the territories.

We declared, via Sheikh Yassin, that if the Israelis are willing and ready to withdraw, Hamas is thinking of stopping its operations inside Israel. That was the first step toward calm, if the Israelis and Americans were serious.

When Sharon struck Gaza with this horrible attack, for Hamas it was nothing new. But for other Palestinians, and for the Arab peoples, and I guess also for Bush himself, the picture began to be clearer: Sharon is not ready for calm.

The Zionist strategy is to occupy Palestinian land and force people to leave, either by killing them or by deporting them. That happened in 1948, in 1967, and the Israeli settlements inside Gaza and the West Bank are evidence of this. Look at this map of Gaza. What are the Israeli settlements doing here? Why? Does this help the security of populated areas? It’s crazy.

It’s not crazy. The settlers are crazy. But Sharon is not crazy. This is a strategic Zionist movement. They get immigrants to come here, with money, with support, they promise them prosperity, the life of honey… They are like a nail in the wood. The nail in the wood will not withdraw by itself. You cannot talk to the nail: “Just, please, get out.”

You need a tool to apply pressure. Now, the international community is the suitable tool. But the international community, like the US, is not helping. So we believe that this nail will never be drawn without resistance, without force. This is the conviction of Hamas, and Palestinians have begun to be similarly convinced. The hundreds of thousands who participated in the funeral of Shehadah and the rest of the martyrs show that Palestinians are convinced.

Paul Hilder: Who are the most important strategic allies for the Palestinians?

Ismail Abu Shanab: We don’t have allies at this point. We have lost every support, except from God. And we have great hope in God. We trust God, and we will succeed, insh’allah.

The bogeyman behind bin Laden?

Paul Hilder: So you don’t have hope in the Americans…?

Ismail Abu Shanab: No, this would be too much. Maybe at the beginning, when President Clinton tried to put the parties together and bring pressure to bear on them, we thought there was an American effort toward a solution. But with the Bush administration, we see things differently. It tends toward securing the Israelis and giving them a green light to attack. And the Israelis have played the game very well.

They – this is what we believe – they are behind the 11 September on the New York towers. The Americans got involved in fighting terror in Afghanistan, and the Israelis began to create the same picture in Palestine as in Afghanistan. The Americans are fighting the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, and the Israelis are fighting the Palestinian Authority as their Taliban, and Hamas and Sheikh Yassin as their bin Laden… “we will act likewise”, they say. The Americans killed thousands of innocent Afghanis. So they cannot talk to the Israelis if they killed fifteen or so.

Paul Hilder: You don’t think that bin Laden was involved in 11 September 2001?

Ismail Abu Shanab: No, totally, he was. It was a plot by some Zionist lobbyists outside, handed to bin Laden. I’m totally sure about this. What happened was much bigger than what bin Laden could do. A French writer wrote a book about this. Up to this point, the FBI is not telling the truth.

Strategy, terrorist and colonial

Paul Hilder: When it comes to violent resistance, some people say that focusing attacks within the Green Line on soldiers and settlers would be more prudent for Hamas.

Ismail Abu Shanab: I tell you what. The Israelis who came from Brooklyn and from Russia, to make money, care about two things: their blood, and their money. So this is the most important thing. To convince them to withdraw, you must put these things at risk. Their lives are at risk, and their money and economy are at risk.

The creation of Israel was a tool of colonialism to get rid of Jews from the community of Europe. They disturbed its unity: Christians hated them. So, they created this subject people of the biblical land: “Go to your biblical land and we will support you.”

The colonialists consider the Israelis part of the colonial strategy. But if they suffer, they will suffer alone. The Europeans will not suffer with them. They will give them money, they will give them support. If they succeed, give them money. If they fail, let them go to hell.

The apartheid system in South Africa finally did not succeed. And I am pretty sure that the future is not good for the Israelis here if they continue with this apartheid scheme. They will not succeed. Around them, even among them, is something different. They will fight themselves in apartheid, and it will not last for long.

Paul Hilder: The question I was asking was about your strategy, not theirs.

Ismail Abu Shanab: When we react over the Green Line… it is a war. And in war, you follow your enemy. Our enemy is not only in the 1967 territories. They come here, kill our children, and escape inside Israel. So we follow them there.

The Israeli community: all of them are warriors, all of them over 17 are recruited in the army, and they are working in the army in one way or another, and those who are not working in the army are reservists. And now the army occupying the territories in the West Bank is made up of reservists.


Paul Hilder: But the reservists are a powerful part of the society. The Council for Peace and Security, a senior organisation of security reservists, began to advocate a unilateral withdrawal as a prelude to talking about final status. It advocated this partly for pragmatic reasons, because they don’t want to die for settlers; partly for security reasons; partly, perhaps, because they see Palestinians are in an incredibly difficult situation where you cannot negotiate. What would Hamas do should such a withdrawal come to pass?

Ismail Abu Shanab: It will not come to pass. I’ll tell you why. Sharon and his government believe in the old strategy of Zionism. They will not change, even if they kill all the Israelis. Sharon wants to write his history and to be remembered as one of the Zionist heroes. Even if he kills all of them.

I remember when he came into power, he told the Israelis to be patient. Why does a military man at the head of a superpower like Israel, fighting Palestinians who are small in comparison, over whom he can have a military victory, why does he speak about being patient? Because he knows that the Palestinians will not surrender. And he will continue his struggle. And he is not prepared to withdraw. That has been true from the beginning. We read him very, very clearly. We understand the Israelis much better than anyone else in the world.

When it comes to the game of democracy between the Labour party and the Likud party, I think the theatre is now ready for the Likud for another period. The leftists are shuffling the deckchairs of democracy inside Israel. But they are not influential enough to get the Israeli leadership. The influential part comes from Brooklyn, from the United States, from President Bush’s administration. If they want the Israelis to shift, then they will decide.

But the Zionist lobbyists in the United States still in control of the administration of Bush, want things to continue toward something else. They want to attack Iraq. They want to control the whole region. So they want a strong Israel, not a stable Israel. But the Americans will pay money for this, and they consider everything by dollars. If the Americans can afford to send those millions of dollars to Israel…

I feel full of pain, and that it is against all human values, to let people kill each other just for the sake of the capitalists or colonialists in the United States. But the colonialists support it, they want the struggle to continue. They do not care about the losses, the human beings, the suffering, all of this. And ordinary Israelis are victims just like the Palestinians. But when they are not speaking up for peace, they pay the price like the Palestinians.

“Reform” and democracy

Paul Hilder: Do you think that for the near future, the intifada will continue? No sign of any change, any development? A war of attrition?

Ismail Abu Shanab: More than this. They are pressuring the Arab leaders and the Arab countries not to support us. They are pressuring the Palestinian Authority. They destroyed everything in their invasions. Now they are besieging Arafat. They want to bring about a new government not elected by the Palestinians.

They are even fooling the media. “We want reform, we want a democratic process among the Palestinians…” This is totally false. The reality says the Americans are making a plan to install new leaders of the Palestinians who are pro-American, and those leaders will let the Palestinians fight each other. That’s all.

Paul Hilder: There will be a post-Arafat leadership of the Palestinians, won’t there?

Ismail Abu Shanab: It’s not a problem. In the UK, the British people elected Thatcher. After Thatcher, they elected Blair. There’s no problem with elections. In any election, you may not know who to expect to be elected. But when he is elected, he will manage. He will lead. Why do all the media speak about who will be Arafat’s successor? Anybody can play the role, if the Palestinians elect him.

So it is as simple as this. But the Americans and the Israelis and the media are making a story about this, because they are afraid of the real results of democracy.

Paul Hilder: Arafat is for the Palestinians, something of a national symbol. Do you see one possible outcome being his replacement not by one individual, but by a group of individuals?

Ismail Abu Shanab: No. We need a parliamentary system. To have a group to control it would require a different system. Our system is based on republican democracy. We have ministers and the leader – the president. If we change our system to a parliamentary system – parliament, prime minister, ministers, and a president like the Israeli system; or to the American system; perhaps that would work. But a Politburo like that of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union is not suitable now.

Paul Hilder: What do you think about the prospect of elections, or of reform, or of some sort of national unity government…

Ismail Abu Shanab: It is all for the sake of public relations. Nothing will happen. Nothing. Arafat is not serious about it. The situation is not helping him. The Americans want pro-Americans from any election. And they know that if Hamas participates, Hamas will be the winner. The Americans are not happy with Hamas.

All these complex things make the future very unclear. And I do not expect elections, or any democratic process. Only more suffering, and waiting for what the Americans are preparing.

And I do not know what is in the minds of the Bush administration.

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