Ismail Haniyeh: From Refugee Camp to Prime Minister's Office
Mohammed's article appears today in Norwegian in Morgenbladet.
Ismail Haniyeh: From Refugee Camp to Prime Minister's Office
by Mohammed Omer
reporting from Gaza City, Occupied Palestine
"Politics," said Shakespeare in The Tempest, "makes strange bedfellows," and few alliances are stranger or more unexpected than those within the present Palestinian government. Last month's elections saw the ruling Fateh Party solidly defeated by the Hamas "change and reform" slate, leaving Palestinian President Abbas of Fateh heading a Hamas-dominated Parliament. Having long branded the Hamas movement as terrorists, Israel and the West are issuing almost predictable threats about refusing to work with a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. But stranger still, however, is the situation within occupied Palestine where former political prisoners and pariahs now occupy the halls of power with the same men who not so long ago were their jailers. When Hamas's armed wing was mounting military resistance, the Fatah security services, in an effort to appease Israel, frequently arrested and tortured some of the same men who will now lead the Palestinian Legislative Council.
The new Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, is little known in the West, but has earned huge respect among the people of his native Gaza. While the Fateh leadership rarely moves through Gaza without an armed escort, Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders routinely walk alone through all of Gaza's towns and refugee camps. "Hamas is not corrupt," said Gaza City university student Amal Faud, 23. "I have full confidence in Ismail Haniyeh and the other Hamas leaders." While the Western press has focused on Hamas's Islamist roots and expressed concern they will impose a Taliban-style regime on Palestine, such sentiments are rare among the citizens of Gaza. Al Surani, a secular lawyer from Gaza City, explained that Ismail Haniyeh "listens more than he speaks. He understands the peoples' concerns, and when he does speak, he is tactful and coherent."
Haniyeh's political opponents might take issue with the new Prime Minister's tact. At last Friday's prayers in his neighborhood mosque, Haniyeh announced he was refusing the customary salary of US$4000 a month offered him by the Palestinian Authority. No, he said, he would take only US$1500 a month, the amount he actually needed to support his family. He pointed out that his party had won the election on their pledge to reform the Palestinian Authority where, for instance, a certain PA bureaucrat earned US$200,000 annually. A PA spokesman, Al Taeeb Abdelraheem, immediately issued a press release saying, "Such statements by the new Prime Minister are not appropriate to his office."
Haniyeh, however, seems determined to show Fatah—and the world—a new standard of appropriate behavior. Born in 1963 to a refugee family originally from Al Jouar village, he grew up in Beach Camp, one of the poorest refugee camps in Gaza City. Like the other camp children, he studied in UNRWA schools , then went on to graduate from Islamic University in Gaza City in the Arabic Language department. As an undergraduate, he became active in the Islamic Block, the student wing of the Muslim Brotherhood that would later become Hamas. During his student days, 1983-86, he was often at odds with the Fatah-led student groups. After completing his master's degree, he joined the university faculty, and later became an administrator at Islamic University. He preferred to keep a low profile politically, but was nonetheless jailed four times, and was finally exiled with 400 other Hamas and Islamic Jihad members in December, 1992.
He returned to Gaza and his university post in 1994, and was marked as a terrorist by the Israeli Army. In fact, he worked closely with Hamas's spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, serving as the wheelchair-bound cleric's office manager and confidential aide. As the second Intifada continued, the Israelis stepped up their program of extra-judicial assassinations, targeting public Hamas figures like Dr. Rantisi and the Sheikh. Haniyeh assumed a public role in the Hamas movement only after the murder of Sheikh Yassin on 21 March, 2004 when the Israelis bombed the elderly man's car as he returned from morning prayers.
In the next two years, Haniyeh became a forceful public speaker, a superb listener—and now, Palestine's Prime Minister. "But Ismail Haniyeh hasn't changed," insists Abu Fadi Al Hasani, a 50-year-old neighbor in the Beach Camp. "He still prays every day in the mosque where we all pray. He respects all the people. Anyone—a child, an elderly person—can talk with him and he will listen." Indeed, Haniyeh and his family of 13 children have never moved from their home in Beach Camp. "I know," said Al Hasani, "he was offered a much bigger, better house outside the camp. And I know he said, 'I'm not going to leave my people, my neighborhood, for something that doesn't belong to me!'"
Despite his blunt style, Haniyeh has a history of opening dialogue with the Fateh factions. His self-deprecating humor also sets him apart from many Palestinian politicians. Back in December, 2003, Sheikh Yassin, Haniyeh, and other Hamas members narrowly escaped an Israeli assassination attempt when the Israeli Air Forced bombed a house where they had been meeting. At a Hamas rally soon after, he explained that when he heard the Israeli helicopters approaching, he ran clumsily down a metal staircase, put his leg through an opening and was momentarily stuck. When they'd all gotten safely away and he told the Sheikh of his mishap, the elderly, crippled imam told him, "Oh, you should have called me! I would have rescued you!"
Although the new Prime Minister has just assumed his office, President Abbas, Israel, and the international community have barraged the new Hamas leadership with a list of conditions—they will recognize and deal with a Hamas-led government only if the new leaders recognize Israel, honor existing agreements made with Israel by the PLO, and renounce violence.
Asked his opinion of these conditions, Haniyeh's response has been consistent and clear: " We are surprised that such conditions are imposed on us. Why don't they direct such conditions and questions to Israel? Has Israel respected their agreements? Israel has bypassed practically all agreements. We say: Let Israel recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinians first and then we will have a position regarding this. Which Israel should we recognize? The Israel of 1917; the Israel of 1936; the Israel of 1948; the Israel of 1956; or the Israel of 1967? Which borders and which Israel? Israel has to recognize first the Palestinian state and its borders. At least then we will know what we are talking about."
Asked in a phone interview if his government would honor the existing Oslo Accords, Haniyeh replied,
"The Oslo agreements said that a Palestinian state would be established by 1999. Where is this Palestinian state? Has Oslo given the right to Israel to reoccupy the West Bank, to build the wall and expand the settlements, and to Judaize Jerusalem and make it totally Jewish? Has Israel been given the right to disrupt the work on the port and airport in Gaza? Has Oslo given them the right to besiege Gaza and to stop all tax refunds to the Palestinian Authority?"
Of course, there are more questions than answers—questions Israel and the international community do not seem eager to address. Haniyeh won his office on his unblemished reputation and a promise of reform and transparency, but he faces heavy internal and external challenges. Externally, Israel, the US and the EU are threatening an economic siege on Palestine, cutting off development programs and humanitarian aid. Internally, the challenges are almost as severe, as some of his Fatah opponents, whatever their public rhetoric, hope a spectacular Hamas failure will bring a call for new elections and their return to power If Haniyeh, however, can chart an honest, pragmatic course of partnership with the international community, working toward a peaceful solution that preserves Palestinian rights, it will very likely quell much of the political in-fighting. But one of the most pressing and immediate problems is Israel's ongoing military attacks on Gaza and the West Bank. Indeed, Prime Minister Haniyeh faces an ongoing threat he cannot readily neutralize, namely that from the Israeli helicopters and F16s. Israel has announced it will continue its program of extra-judicial assassinations and just a few days ago, Avi Dichter, former head of the Israeli Shin Bet security service, announced the Palestinian Prime Minister is still subject to arrest. So Ismail Haniyeh, democratically elected Parliamentarian, and Palestine's new prime minister, is threatened by Israeli bombs as much as the humblest citizen.