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The following interview with Abdel Aziz Rantisi was originally published on June 20, 2003.

GAZA CITY - The two young people handed their host a piece of paper and all three of them huddled in a whisper. The time: late evening; the place: Shati refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. The two are members of Iz a Din al-Kassam, the military wing of the Hamas movement. Their host teaches political science in a university. The two were good friends of Suheil Abu Nahal, from Iz a Din al-Kassam, who was killed in Gaza less than a week earlier in one of Israel's targeted assassinations. He ran up debts when he opened a business, a bakery. The note listed the names of the people from whom he borrowed money, and how much. Some of the lenders are merchants, others private citizens. The two young people assumed the task of repaying the debts and freeing his family of the burden. They don't know how, yet, but first of all they want to defer the payments to the private people. They had come to consult with the guest and ask him to inform one of the lenders, who is his friend, that the matter will be dealt with.

Gazans who are as far from Hamas as West is from East shook their heads when they heard what Abu Nahal's friends are up to. "You don't see anything like that in Fatah," they agreed sadly, citing a number of cases in which bereaved widows and parents tried unsuccessfully to get help from Fatah after their loved ones were killed by the Israeli army.

For these Gazan observers, this is another example of the internal strength of the Hamas movement: mutual surety and responsibility, friendship, trust. It's this strength that explains why Hamas is able to dictate a protracted, tense and bewildering negotiating process over a cease-fire agreement with Egyptian emissaries and representatives of the Palestinian Authority - such as the one that got under way last week, a week after the wave of Israeli assassinations and attempted assassinations of Hamas activists.

The two members of Iz a Din al- Kassam laughed when they were asked if they are in a panic in the wake of what happened to their colleagues. The fact is that we are walking around, they said. And not only us. The assassinations of our comrades only make us more determined. D., a political activist in Hamas, explains: "These are people who don't take account of dangers, because theirs is the way of the sharia [Islamic religious law]. From the moment they chose it, they knew they had chosen the way of death. So how can death frighten them?"

Five Israeli assassination efforts within three days killed 24 Palestinians. Five of them were the targets of helicopter-launched missiles. However, the missiles also killed 19 civilians: relatives of the targeted individuals and passersby. For a few days after that, fear was palpable in Gaza; the moment people riding in a taxi heard a helicopter above, they told the driver to stop and immediately got out. You never know who is in the car behind you. Hamas, though, did not feel under pressure to declare a cease-fire because of the events. A few cab drivers - not members of Hamas - said they had not changed their driving habits: "It's all in the hands of Allah," one of them said.

The same expression was used by the young escort of a senior Hamas figure: His brother was killed while trying to infiltrate one of the settlements. He is not afraid, he says, "because our life on earth is short - what is it compared to the eternal life that awaits us? Everything is Allah's choice. Look, Allah chose to let [senior Hamas official Abdel Aziz] Rantisi live, and he was saved from an attempted assassination on his life."

But there was a human hand at work, too, it turns out. D., who came to congratulate Rantisi on his escape, was told by him: "It is my fault. It was the first time I arranged to meet with someone at a specific time in a specific place, using my mobile phone." Hamas has no doubt that Israel has technology that enables it to eavesdrop on every conversation and thereby track everyone.

As soon as the first missile slammed into the front part of the car, Rantisi shouted to his son, Ahmed, who was driving, "Stop and get out!" He himself quickly rolled out the door. "As I pulled myself out the door, I thought to myself, Maybe the Apache [helicopter] now sees my face and will identify me. I took off my glasses. I was very rational," said Rantisi, who was wounded in the leg. His son didn't succeed in opening the door - it was stuck. He tried to scramble out through the window but was wounded next to his heart and was in serious condition for a few days. Rantisi's bodyguard was killed. Israeli helicopters fired six or seven missiles in the attempt to kill Rantisi. The result was that a woman was killed and an 8-year-old girl was seriously wounded and died six days later. About 20 passersby were wounded in the attack, which took place on Tuesday, June 10. In addition, a 45-year-old taxi driver died of his wounds on Wednesday this week.

A war in wavesThe word in Gaza is that if Rantisi were to run in an election now, he would become president or prime minister in a landslide. On Tuesday of this week, in his home in the Sheikh Redwan refugee camp, he smiled faintly when that analysis was put to him. He wasn't ready to dispel the fog about a possible cease-fire. Fatah people and activists in Hamas who are considered moderates intimate that there is readiness for a cease-fire, even without declaring it.

"National dialogue has become a code word for discussions on a cease-fire," say sources in the Palestinian Authority. But Rantisi says: "No one is saying that we are discussing a hudna [temporary cease-fire] at this time. But we say we have to discuss the Egyptian initiative. We promised to give them an answer within a few days. Hamas always discusses every subject that has to do with the good of the Palestinian people, including a hudna. We have declared a unilateral cease-fire many times, even without being asked."

After surviving the assassination attempt you said the struggle will continue until the last Jew leaves the country. How long will that take, do you think?

Rantisi: "Dozens of years. What I mean to say is that the conflict, even if we enter into a long-term cease-fire, this conflict will not end as along as the Islamic land remains occupied. The Crusaders stayed 200 years and then left. The conflict will perhaps continue in waves. As long as there is land that has been plundered, occupied territories, I believe the conflict will go on, even if the Palestinians sign a peace agreement."

So you are calling for a protracted struggle. Do you believe the Palestinian people can endure that? Can they endure the distress and the poverty and the dying for such a long time?

"It's a difficult situation. But on the other hand, even if Palestinians stop the resistance and the struggle, there will not be a solution, the humiliation and the occupation will continue, and thus they will rise up again. We learned the lesson in the not-so-distant past: We started the intifada in 1987, then came Oslo, the negotiations, a cessation of all resistance after 1996. And what happened? The occupation continued, the building of settlements continued, the Judaization of Jerusalem, the building of bypass roads. All kinds of acts of aggression on Israel's part, which pushed people to launch the uprising."

What will happen if the struggle goes on not for 200 years but for 500? Can people think in such time frames?

"I say the fighting will not go on day in and day out, but there will waves of fighting. Because the Palestinians will not forget and will not forgive, and the Israelis, for their part, will not stop the aggression. If at a certain stage they succeed in stopping the conflict anew, I believe it will erupt again afterward. The final result will be the restoration of the Palestinians' rights to their land. Without that, I believe the conflict will continue for even 500 years."

When you say restoration of rights, you mean the removal of all the Jews?

"I am not talking about the Jews but about Palestinians who are living a tragedy. Without an end to that tragedy, no solution will hold fast."

Many Palestinians could say that they don't want to wait 500 years in order to perhaps get their rights back. So they will prefer a 500-year hudna. They want to live like human beings: to raise children, take care of them, enjoy life, work. Isn't that so?

"I will tell you my diagnosis for the future. With no connection to Hamas. Why did the Jews come to Palestine? They said their grandparents' grandparents had a patrimony in the land 3,000 years ago and that this soil is Jewish. From that I can infer that from a Jewish point of view, they did not allow the conflict to disappear even after 3,000 years. So that is my intention when I said the conflict will not stop."

You offer a diagnosis, but you are also leading a movement that is pushing the idea of the armed struggle.

"From the Jewish religious point of view, they cannot concede. When [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon, for example, mentioned the word `occupation,' he retracted it within 24 hours because his friends shouted against him: No, this is liberated land, Jewish land. And I say: This is Muslim land, and no Muslim - not only Hamas - can say this is Jewish land. From a religious point of view. Our religious belief is that this is our land, and it is forbidden to say anything else. And the Jews say the same thing, from their religious viewpoint."

Why don't you promote the idea of holding elections, so you can test your strength?

"The question is what type of elections. We will respect elections that will give Hamas the prospect of implementing its program, if it wins a majority. That is democratic. Or, if we lose, Hamas must respect the majority - if the elections are fair and offer a chance for the majority to make itself heard. But if in the end they tell us that there are frameworks - Oslo, the road map - and that whoever wins a majority must act within that framework, they will not be democratic elections."

As long as you don't take part in elections, it can be said that you are imposing your position on the majority of the Palestinians. Aren't you imposing a way that entails great suffering and death?

"Hamas, [Islamic] Jihad, Fatah, the Popular and Democratic Fronts, all these organizations - no one can say that all of them together do not represent a majority. We are all more or less in the same trench now. And look at the results of the elections in UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency]."

But people are tired.

"The Israelis are tired, too. Both sides are tired. But we have nothing to lose. They [the Israelis] are pushing us to the edge, to the margins. Israeli policy is always behind everything that happens. When [Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed] Yassin was released, an Israeli journalist said to me: You as Hamas profited from the attempted assassination of Khaled Meshal. [A failed attempt in 1997 by Israel to kill Meshal, a top Hamas official, in Amman led to Yassin's release from an Israeli prison in return for the release of the Israeli agents by Jordan.] I told him: We always profit from the mistakes of your leaders."

And what if there is a political change in Israel?

"I believe that would end the conflict, with a cease-fire. Remember my diagnosis about the future. It was not new. We said it already in the past. What is needed is a withdrawal from all of Gaza and the West Bank, a chance to establish an independent state. We will agree to a truce. No one can say the Hamas movement will be able to bring about the liberation of Palestine within 100 or 200 years. Without dramatic changes in the region, it is impossible. We cannot tell our people to continue in an unequal conflict. But neither can anyone tell them to give in, to surrender in the face of Israel's aggression."

Aren't you apprehensive about a situation in which the PA will have to arrest you if Hamas doesn't agree to a cease-fire? Aren't you afraid of a civil war, such as occurred in Algeria?

"Believe me, the Palestinians are different from everyone else. In the first place, we are in a real conflict with a common enemy. We all believe that a civil war will not help any of the sides and will harm all the interests of the Palestinians. So no one will take part in such a development. I believe the Palestinians cannot deteriorate into a civil war."

What would you suggest that Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) do now?

"Abu Mazen should have learned from the previous lesson: He gave everything at Aqaba, and after Sharon massacred Palestinians in Tul Karm [referring to two Palestinians who were wanted by the Israel Defense Forces and, according to testimonies, were killed without a fight in a secret place] and the assassinations continued, he should have known that Sharon does not believe in peace but only talks about peace. He is very weak against Sharon. He must strengthen himself through his people. That means he must be closer to Palestinian organizations and to his people. If his positions will be identical to those of his people, he will be able to stand up to Sharon. But now he is very weak against Arafat, against the Palestinians and against Fatah."

And what would you suggest to the Fatah movement?

"Fatah's political situation is good now and they are much closer to the position of Hamas. There are not many differences between us. If they unite, they will represent the majority of the Palestinians. Therefore I call on them for unity in the face of Sharon."

But you will not join a Palestinian government, will you?

"A national leadership of all the organizations can be established."

Isn't there an emotional contradiction between your training as a physician, with the intention of saving lives, and your position in Hamas?

"In 1985, soldiers besieged my clinic in Khan Yunis for 45 days and prevented my little patients from getting to me. That decision was made in order to prevent Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahar and me from establishing a nursing college. At the same time, an Israeli girl, whose father was a police officer in Khan Yunis, fell ill. The treatment in Tel Aviv was unsuccessful. They told him that only Rantisi knows how to treat her. So he came to me. Really. I don't remember what she had. At first I hesitated. I thought about all the Palestinian children who did not receive treatment. But in the end I agreed. Allah [wanted her to get well] and within 24 hours she was well."

* * *

Ismail Abu Shanab, Rantisi's colleague in the Hamas leadership, who is considered more "moderate" or "pragmatic" than Rantisi, was willing to go into greater detail about the internal discussion within Hamas between the advocates of a cease-fire and the opponents of such a move. The advocates, he said (and according to Hamas sources he is among them) "think it is preferable to show it is the Palestinians who want peace, whereas Israel under the leadership of Ariel Sharon and [Defense Minister Shaul] Mofaz do not want peace. A cease-fire will also make it possible to tear the mask off the road map, to prove that it is a security arrangement and not a peace plan.

"The opponents say a cease-fire will be an opportunity for Sharon to stop the intifada, to say that the military approach is victorious, that `I forced the Palestinians to stop.' Stopping the intifada will help the Israeli economy recover."

According to that line of thought, Hamas believes that your struggle in the past three years has been crowned with victories.

Abu Shanab: "The Palestinians' ability to withstand all this military might is a victory in itself. Sharon thought he would overcome the intifada within two months. All that military power failed to vanquish the Palestinians. Israel is facing tremendous security, military and economic problems. Israel, a military power, cannot prevent the Palestinians from manufacturing a strategic weapon, however modest and small it is: It is not preventing the firing of Qassam rockets."

* * *

H. is another veteran Hamas activist, now in his 40s. He is very close to Rantisi: They are both from the same village of origin, Yibneh. But H. is one of the leading advocates of a hudna. After the interview with Rantisi, at which he was present, he said with a sigh: "People are tired of the situation. People do not see any light, any hope of a better future. They would be ready to talk about a solution with you if they had hope that Israel will behave differently - that it will not continue 1948 all the time."