Hanging out with Hamas

It's easy to see the foot soldiers of the Palestinian struggle as bit players in a distant conflict. But as Johann Hari discovers, the determined young men who wage war on Israel believe they are at the centre of a global struggle

We sip sweet tea in a tiny flat somewhere in Gaza City, my new friends Yousef, Hamid, Mujaheed and I, and talk about Cheers. Usually, they hate American television because it is, Hamid explains, "a tool the Jews use to break our resistance. They show pictures of naked women so that we will think about sex and depravity and not about fighting for Islam." But Cheers - that's a different matter. "It is very funny," Hamid says. "So very funny. But I think that since Shelley Long left and Kirsty Alley arrived it hasn't been so good. And Woody is nowhere near as funny as Coach. I guess the truth is that it isn't what it used to be." We all nod sombrely. And, of course, Mujaheed adds, they disapprove of the whole idea of a bar that serves alcohol.

Hamid opens the window. We are all sweating. "Is it true that in London it never stops raining ever? Do you travel in boats?" he asks. All three of the young men I am sitting with - chatting about the usual pop-cultural slurry that is the universal language of twentysomethings everywhere - are members of Hamas. The faces of Hamas that we see so often in the West are old men like Sheikh Yassin, a withered, tiny man with a long white beard who delivers statements from a hut. We are being fed a lie: Hamas is, overwhelmingly, a network of young people like this testosterone-soaked trio.

If you want to understand the organisation, I was told, don't go for the polished spokesmen with their middle-aged moustaches, go for the lads on the street. They overwhelmingly make up the ranks not just of Hamas but of the Palestinians, too. More than 50 per cent of the population of the Occupied Territories is under 16; a middle-aged Palestinian is in a tiny minority. So my contact arranges for us to meet in his friend's flat, but our chat doesn't start well. As I enter, I offer everyone a cigarette - a gesture I've never known fail to earn gratitude in the Arab world. Hamid, the oldest, at 28 and the most serious of the three, says with a blank expression, "No. Cigarettes are evil and un-Islamic." Ah, I say, nobody told me. He nodsand goes to get some tea.

Hamid wears small, studious-looking black-rimmed glasses and has a face that is almost Botoxed in its inscrutability. Mujaheed is his exact opposite: only 19, and looking younger, he is excitable, prone to swaggering and totally transparent. He is the first to open up when I ask the group when they first remembered thinking about the conflict between Israel and Palestine. "I have always known they were there. They are like a black cloud," Mujaheed says. "They have been there since I was born. I grew up in Saudi Arabia and we didn't come to Palestine until I was 10, but I saw it on the television and I knew.

"My father explained that these were the people who threw us out of our country and took it over. He told me they were still beating and killing the people who were left. My brothers - there are six of us - would beg our father to take us back so we could join the first Intifada, but we only came in 1992 when it was mostly over. But I was a fighter even in that Intifada: I threw stones at the soldiers!" We all laugh, and the power blinks off. The fan stops working; while we wait for the electricity to return, we quietly bake.

Hamid, as he returns with the drinks, explains that he remembers the first Intifada better, not least because he spent 1990 in prison for street-fighting against the occupying forces. He decided he had to fight, he says, "one day when I was 12 and the first Intifada was just starting. My mother came home and she was crying, and I didn't know why. She went into the bedroom and she was talking to my father, and then he made a phone call and her sisters came to the house with a first-aid kit. She didn't come out of her room for six hours, and when she did, her arm was in a sling. The soldiers broke her arm because she wouldn't let them look in her basket. She only had shopping and didn't see why she should let them look. She cried for days. I knew then I had to fight."

Yousef, on the other hand, has never been arrested. He is skinny, pale and geeky-looking. He has a habit of mumbling. He is 24; he was born two days before I was. Mujaheed has been trying to cut into the conversation ever since he stopped speaking, and now speaks over Yousef to explain, "The day I decided I really hated the Israelis and I would gladly die for my people was just after we came back to Palestine. I was about 10, and my parents took me and one of my brothers to visit my uncle in prison. When we arrived, they wouldn't let us in because we were so young, so my parents went in alone and left us sitting with the prison guards. There was barbed wire and just these Jewish soldiers and their dogs, who were snarling and sniffing at me. Sometimes when I am really angry I can still hear those dogs and remember how frightened I was that day."

These three men are part of a generation of Palestinians that is rapidly being lost to the cause of peaceful coexistence. They are the children of the first Intifada, who saw their parents try non-violent forms of resistance such as withholding taxes and ripping up their Israel-issued ID cards. They saw their parents being beaten and shot in return. Then they lived through the Oslo peace process, during which time the situation actually deteriorated for Palestinians. This was partly because of the corruption of the Palestinian Authority, but also because Israel introduced new restrictions and doubled the number of settlers in the Occupied Territories.

I ask if any of them would like to become suicide bombers. All three of them nod vigorously. "Of course," Mujaheed says, as though it is a stupid question. My contact had warned me that the number of people loudly claiming that they want to be suicide bombers is high; if they all actually did it, the whole of the Middle East would be blown off the map. But Mujaheed, in particular, seems sincerely enthusiastic. He says breathlessly, "The Israelis are a fighting people; they are all soldiers so they are all targets. It is legitimate to kill them all." But what about, say, Israeli children? "We never attack them," he says. Er, you do, I add, as politely as I can. Lots of times. "Not deliberately. And if you ask about suicide bombing, ask us too what we think of Israelis killing our children every day. Ask us that."

Many commentators in the West have argued recently that public opinion is being cluttered with myths about Hamas: that they are supporters of al Qa'ida, for example, or that they believe that suicide bombers end up in paradise with 72 virgins. I wanted these stories to be myths, too. So I ask, cautiously, what they reckon to Osama bin Laden.

Yousef's face lights up. "He is our love, he is our sheikh, he is a symbol for Muslims. He leads the nation to the shore of safety by implementing the law of God," he says, in the same tone of calm reasonableness with which he pronounced upon Kirsty Alley. Hamid, who is the most politically astute of the trio, chips in: "But this does not mean we support everything he does. We do not support the attacks on New York and Washington." The others shake their heads. "I support it," Yousef says. "They are the places that conspire against Muslims. They deserved it. Look at the world. The Americans support their government against Iraqis. The Russians support their government against the Chechens. Why shouldn't we support Bin Laden?"

At this point, I want to go back to sitcom chat, but I know I can't avoid discussing such issues with these men. Their world-view is dominated by ideas in a way that's hard to explain to young Westerners: if you ask them practical questions about their everyday lives, they quickly bring the conversation back to their politico-religious beliefs. They don't live in a privatised mental world, where politics happens somewhere "out there". It determines their every action. "The moment I wake up," Yousef says, "I say, bless God for making me live after I was dead. [Mohammed says this in the Koran; he considered sleep a form of death.] God is in my thoughts every second of the day. Everything I do, I do for God."

Their mental landscape has a far wider scope than mine. They talk about the battle between the Persians and the Romans, or Mecca and Medina at the time of the Prophet, the way I might talk about a holiday I took last year. They see themselves as fitting into a vast picture organised and understood by God - and they have no doubt that God sees them as integral to that picture. "Bush is right. We are in a war of good against evil," Yousef says to laughter. "He just got the sides mixed up. There is an American writer [Samuel Huntington] who talks about the clash of civilisations. He is right. Civilisations rise and fall, and they fight." So is Islamic civilisation rising again? "Of this I have no doubt. I know it as surely as I know you are sitting in front of me."

I ask these lads what they would say to my friends back home, who drink and smoke and have premarital sex. "The Jews have destroyed your Christianity just like they are trying to destroy our Islam," Hamid says. "You should read the words of the Prophet. Join us. We do not just want to liberate Palestine. We want all countries to live under the Caliphate. The Islamic army once reached the walls of Vienna. It will happen again. We do not have time for girls and for alcohol. We think only about the cause." Do you have female friends? "No," he says, clearly appalled. "Women are very precious but they are not friends. They are women." What do you think about the fact that we tolerate, say, gay people? "This is depraved," he says as the others look away, disgusted even by the question. "Anybody who does this sin must be killed." He begins to explain the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which have always sounded like pretty cool places to me. I nod as strongly as I can.

Their statements about Jews are contradictory. On the one hand, they claim that Jews could live perfectly safely under the Islamic Caliphate they want to create, because they are "people of the Book" and "sons of Abraham". On the other hand, Mujaheed says, "The Jews were made to live in ghettos in Europe. It is true, isn't it? They should live in isolation. They are the source of all evil and moral corruption. We will be engaged in a battle with them until the Day of Judgement." I ask if they have ever met any Jews. "No," Yousef says. "I have never left Gaza." Hamid is the same. Mujaheed starts talking about those Jewish prison guards again.

They all claim, however, that they would settle for a two-state solution. "If the two-state solution happens, we will live with it, but we will not recognise it. Hamas will never recognise Israel, but if we have our own state, we will not fire at them." I ask if the claims by right-wing Israeli politicians that Hamas is using the current hudna [cease-fire] to re-arm are true. "Of course," Hamid says. "Just like the Israelis will be getting new F16s from the Americans, we build up our little guns."

I try desperately to lighten the tone. So, what do you enjoy doing of an evening? You know - to relax? Yousef grins. "I am a juggler," he says. "Shall I show you?" I nod, and he takes an orange, a remote control and a hole-punch from the desk in the corner of the room. Juggling with Hamas: this is not how I expected my life to turn out.

It is not hard to see why people succumb to this madness, repulsive though it is, I thought, as my contact and I drove out of Gaza and back towards Jerusalem. From one viewpoint, you are the disenfranchised citizens of a displaced, tiny people who have been abused by the Israelis, abandoned by the Arabs and ignored by the world for 50 years. You will probably never have a decent job; you'll be lucky if you leave Gaza once in your life. You are nothing. But turn that around, and you are central to God's vision. You are part of the revival of a great and true civilisation. You are at the centre of the fight between good and evil, a fight that will lead to the gates of Vienna and beyond. You are everything.

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