Islamists' long wait for justice

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The Independent Online
We had last met on the bare mountain. The snows of Lebanon were sweeping over the slopes of Marj el-Zahour and Sheikh Bassam Jarrar of Hebron's Islamic University - a long-standing supporter of Hamas, deported with hundreds of other Palestinians by that peacemaker extraordinaire Yitzhak Rabin - was condemning Yasser Arafat's deal with Israel. What good could come from a peace deal agreed in secret that dishonoured those who had died in the intifada? This is what Sheikh Bassam Jarrar was asking in his cold Lebanese exile two years ago.

He is thinner today, dressed no longer in an abaya robe but in a new leather jacket, his beard neatly trimmed as he sits in the students' union office of Hebron University. There are other Hamas supporters from Marj el-Zahour around him, greyer than I remember them but still listening to the teacher with the same rapt attention they gave him during history lessons in the big tent at the freezing, self-styled University of Marj el-Zahour. "It changed us all," he said. "Marj al-Zahour had an effect on all of us. It has made me more relaxed because I realise the world noticed our plight and made me realise there were still values."

He paused. He would pause a lot during our little meeting in the crowded students' office, aware perhaps that all those bearded faces would be looking for inconsistencies as well as wisdom in their history teacher. Here, after all, was someone who had known Sheikh Bassam Jarrar in exile, a reporter from a decidedly different culture who might know things they did not know, a witness to what the 400 Palestinians in their - for Palestinians - near-legendary exile actually said two years ago.

"Because the world proved to be less of a jungle than we thought, a lot of us have doubts about evaluating our experience in southern Lebanon," Sheikh Jarrar continued. "Our political speech was modified. In Marj el- Zahour, I had to talk to people from different cultures. We had to find a language that was convincing to others, not just to ourselves. That's why we developed a certain language."

And the PLO-Israeli agreement that the exiles had so scornfully dismissed back in the snows of their mountain encampment? "Any solution is connected to the concept of justice," Sheikh Jarrar replied. "If there are mistakes in the plan, it won't last long. There is a possibility that there will be peace but there will also be a lot of violence. Everybody believes that this is a superpower solution that is not based on justice. So everyone is now waiting for the permanent phase. The 'permanent solution' will decide whether there is peace later. But Israel will not deal with us with justice."

What Sheikh Jarrar meant was simple. If the Israeli redeployment from Palestinian population centres in Gaza and the West Bank - they are not withdrawing - brought a measure of initial happiness among Arabs, only the final stage of PLO-Israeli negotiations will prove whether the peace is a trick or a reality. Will the Palestinians have a capital in Jerusalem? Will the settlers leave the occupied territories? What will be the status of the 3 million Palestinian diaspora cut out of Mr Arafat's ''peace''? It will be five years before we know the formal answer, even though the Israelis have already largely replied in the negative.

In Cairo tomorrow, Hamas and Mr Arafat will meet to try to resolve the Islamic movement's opposition to the PLO-Israeli accords. Perhaps that is why Sheikh Jarrar was being so careful. "We want good relations with the Palestinian authority,'' he said. "But the Islamic people are not interested in participating in the Palestinian elections next month. These elections will not satisfy the Islamic movement because it would be a form of blackmail - because these elections are being held to support the peace process."

Merely to participate in elections would be to accept the PLO-Israeli agreement. That, clearly, is the concern of Hamas. But then, what if Arafat's men gain an Egyptian-style election victory, complete with vote-rigging, impersonation, intimidation and Mubarak-size percentages? Egypt's decision to send election observers to Palestine has not exactly encouraged the belief that the poll here - in which many Palestinians will still vote under Israeli occupation - will be fair. "The Islamic movement," Sheikh Jarrar said firmly, "would be weakened if it participated, because there is no democratic atmosphere."

All the young men around the room nodded obediently when Sheikh Jarrar returned to a familiar theme: the massive, all-embracing power of America, whose interference in international affairs was directed solely by the interests of the United States - in Bosnia as well as the Middle East. "Bosnia is in the heart of Europe, it's a special case," he said. "The solution they have reached is to keep the Muslims under supervision and to prevent third parties like the Islamists from gaining any power. But Palestine is in the heart of the Islamic world and here the Americans are looking after their interests in the Middle East - oil and Israel."

I pushed Sheikh Jarrar back to the subject of Jerusalem, of which he spoke so many times at Marj el-Zahour. "It's a personal view - I think there will be a solution for Jerusalem," he said. ''But it will be confined to the holy sites - Arafat will maybe be able to take control of some areas annexed to Jerusalem. The West Bank will be split into cantons by the Israelis who have built all these by-pass roads for the settlers which divide up our land. Some of the settlers will leave but others will stay, especially in settlements in the Jordan Valley, in the north-west, and in all those areas where the settlements are already virtual cities."

It sounded as if Sheikh Jarrar was using ''a certain language'', had mellowed just a little; not in his opposition to a peace he regards as unjust but in the time it will take to prove its injustice and to persuade Palestinians that only a return to Islamic principles - rather than the PLO-style nationalist variety - will resolve their tragedy. Out in the hallway, hundreds of students clustered round the noticeboards of the militant Palestinian groups. To the Islamist board were pinned dozens of snapshots of Hamas and Islamic Jihad ''martyrs'', holding pistols and automatic rifles and heavy machine guns. ''That's Bassam Imasalni," another Marj el-Zahour veteran said, pointing to the portrait of an unsmiling, slightly bearded young man with dark, serious eyes. "He was trapped in his home by the Israelis but came out fighting with his rifle - he only died because there were too many of them."