"Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was neither a religious leader nor a spiritual leader. He did not establish religious precedent and he was not a spiritual, religious man." So says S., a Hamas member in Gaza, who frequently met with Yassin.
"A spiritual, religious leader," says S. "is a person who sits at home, rules on issues of religious law and receives people who come to him to get his blessing. This is not what Yassin was.
"After his release from prison, in October, 1997, Yassin was the elected chairman of the movement in the Gaza Strip. His authority, his senior position in the movement and his influence on its members derived from a combination of his cumulative experience, his personality, the successes of all the social and political projects he initiated, his personal sacrifices, the personal example he gave, the way he dealt with his handicap and his relationship with people.
"He was not a cleric who issued fatwas: For this you go to clerics who are more knowledgeable than him in Koran, in religious thinking, in commentary, in the decisions of other religious sages. Yassin himself used to go to consult religious sages in Gaza about various matters."
In Shin Bet security service interrogations Hamas members have heard the investigating officers declare that "Yassin issued a fatwa to kill collaborators."
"Yassin once said to me," relates S., "what is a fatwa? Is it necessary to issue fatwas in order to kill or not to kill? There are collaborators who have committed many crimes, and there is no need for a fatwa in order to kill them."
According to S., the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza always held elections for its leaders. The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gaza Strip, headed by Yassin, became the leadership of Hamas there. But from its establishment in 1988 until 1994, Hamas held no elections because of the difficulties caused by the Israeli suppression of the first intifada - the arrests and the deportations.
In 1994, when Yassin was still in prison, the first elections were held and Ibrahim Maqadma (who was studying medicine in Egypt) was elected head of the movement. At the beginning of the 1980s Maqadma, together with Yassin, began to plan the armed resistance to the Israeli occupation in the framework of the Muslim Brotherhood (until that time, Palestine Liberation organization stalwarts considered the Muslim Brotherhood as people who preferred to adjust to the occupation in return for their freedom of religious action, and some even called them traitors). As chairman of the movement, during the period of the Palestinian Authority, Maqadma supported the establishment of the secret department in the military wing of Hamas, after many of its people, wanted men in the intifada, had joined the ranks of the Palestinian security apparatus. He was also detained for various periods in PA prison. Maqadma was assassinated on March 8, 2003.
After Yassin was released from prison in October 1997, elections were again held for the leadership of the movement, and he was elected chairman of Hamas in Gaza. In the two elections that were held since then, he was reelected as chairman. In the last elections, which were held over a year ago, Abdel Aziz Rantisi was elected as his deputy. Everyone knew, says S., who the strong figures in the movement were, who led it alongside Yassin: Rantisi, Maqadma, Salah Shahadeh (who was commander of the military wing, and prior to the last elections in the Hamas was assassinated in July, 2002) and Ismail Abu Shenab (an engineer, who was considered the most prominent representative of the moderates in the Hamas, who was also assassinated by Israel, in August, 2003).
Cheers for Rantisi
In the elections for the leadership of the Hamas, members of the movement in the cities and refugee camps of Gaza vote for representatives, who in turn elect the Shura Council (the "parliament" of the movement in Gaza). At the next stage the Shura Council elects a politburo, and this includes the movement chairman. In the past, these elections were semi-secret: The public and the media did not know when they were held. And the results were also never officially made public: Hamas never announced that Yassin was the elected chairman, but everyone knew this. Now is the first time that the movement is announcing publicly and officially who its chairman is - Rantisi.
S. says that there is no basis for the Israeli reports to the effect that Rantisi imposed himself or surprised his colleagues. "You should have heard the cheers he received, when Ismail Haniya announced in the Yarmoukh Stadium, in Gaza - where the mourners' pavilion was set up for Yassin - that Rantisi is the new chairman of the movement in Gaza."
The announcement that Rantisi had become the chairman of the movement in the Gaza Strip makes no difference to the division of labor between the leadership abroad and the internal leadership: Khaled Meshal remains the head of the political bureau of the entire movement. The leadership in the Gaza Strip has always had a lot of power, because of the strength of the movement and because of Yassin's status. In the official hierarchy, Yassin was subordinate to Meshal. In fact, he was far more powerful. The importance of the Gaza Strip for the Hamas movement will ensure Rantisi's strength as well.
Yassin's strength in the movement, says S., was manifested in his ability to bridge between differing opinions, to bring about convergence and to arrive at a decision that had no opponents. He also formulated his own opinions after lengthy consultations. The whole idea of the hudna with Israel would never have been accepted had Yassin not supported it. In fact, he had brought it up even before the first intifada. People like Mahmoud al-Zahar, who spoke about a hudna, could not have done this on their own.
Despite Yassin's standing, there were issues about which his opinion was not accepted, and he was compelled to act in accordance with the majority opinion. For example, when the PLO central council ("the PLO mini-parliament") convened in Gaza in April, 1999, he was in favor of the presence of Hamas people there, as observers. And indeed, he himself attended the first meeting. Afterward, it turned out, most of the Hamas leadership opposed participation in the council's discussions, and Yassin did not attend subsequent meetings.
With the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, there were arguments among Hamas stalwarts about the question of democracy, participation in dialogue and agreements with the PA and even participation in PA institutions. There were those who said that as long as the occupation continues, there is no point in being involved. The fact that the Hamas and the PA arrived at an understanding in the summer of 1995 on the cessation of terror attacks by the Hamas proves that the faction that supported dialogue was stronger. But this faction weakened considerably after the assassination of Yihye Ayash, on January 5, 1996. After the assassination, Hamas carried out revenge attacks, and hundreds of movement people were arrested by the PA.
S. says that as soon as Yassin left prison he favored the renewal of the dialogue with the PA, and thus again strengthened that faction in the Hamas. Yassin also hinted that the movement's decision not to participate in the elections for the PA Legislative Council in January, 1996, was not wise.
"Had I not been in prison," says S., "I would have looked for a way to participate in the elections."
Yassin was flexible
It is difficult for S. to accept the notion of a division between "extremists" and "moderates" in Hamas. "All of us see the land of Palestine as Arab, Muslim land and all of us are convinced that it all belongs to us. This cannot change," he says. The differences lie in the attitude toward the concrete political situation and the political agenda that it dictates. "At first, there was a total refusal to talk about the 1967 borders. But like the PLO, in its day, voices also began to be heard in Hamas that blessed `every inch of land that is liberated.' Before the Al-Aqsa intifada, a large part of the Hamas leadership said that they accepted a Palestinian state in the territories that were occupied in 1967, but this will never be a part of the Hamas political platform."
"Flexibility" is a more appropriate word, in the opinion of S., to describe the differences in opinion in the movement than a division into "extremists" and "moderates."
"Flexibility" means "accepting the rules of the democratic game" - a question that was of great interest to to the generation of 30- and 40-year-olds in Hamas, on the eve of Sheikh Yassin's release from prison. "Accepting the rules of the democratic game" means a decision in favor of an agenda that does not focus on the armed struggle against Israel, but takes the needs of the Palestinian population at the time into account as well as the desire to focus on its social and cultural development. There was a faction that argued that these were questions that were not relevant at a time of occupation.
Yassin, says S., supported the "flexible" faction. This faction always had to deal with the counter-argument that Israel is not really interested in peace and in Palestinian independence, and that it used the agreements with the PLO as a means of breaking the Arab opposition to normalization with it. Therefore, argued the critics, there is no point in neglecting the focus on the armed struggle. According to S., the Israeli demand for control of Al-Aqsa, which was brought up at Camp David, proved to the supporters of Hamas that its position was correct.
Although Rantisi does not have the strength and status that Yassin enjoyed, S. predicts that the balance between Gaza and the leadership abroad will be maintained, because of the importance of the movement in the Gaza Strip. "Rantisi has broad support and legitimization: During the years of the current intifada, he was the one who gave the green light to Hamas activists to resist arrest by the PA people. He himself personally resisted attempts to arrest him. Thus the PA understood that such arrests would damage it, and now refrains from arresting Hamas people, despite the pressures being applied to it. Every young man in the streets whom they try to arrest - he's already got a grenade in his hand. Hamas people admire Rantisi because of this; they see him as a strong individual."
A Gazan who is not active in Hamas says that "the young people love Rantisi because of this, but the older people in Hamas say that this decision, to resist arrest, has already taken the lives of seven Palestinians."
S. believes that Rantisi, as chairman of the movement in the Gaza Strip, will also evince another kind of behavior. "Not that he will change his nature, but he will pay more attention to what is on other people's minds," he says. It is clear to everyone that Rantisi is a target for another Israeli assassination attempt. On the one hand, Rantisi has a "responsibility" to the movement to stay alive. On the other hand, S. thinks that as a leader, Rantisi wants to set an example, and not hide. Rantisi has said: "Death is death. Maybe you'll die in your bed, maybe in an Apache [helicopter] attack. I prefer the Apache."
S. does not make light of the effect of the killing of Hamas leaders, of the vacuum that has been created, especially after the attack on Yassin. He predicts that as a result of this, the movement will return to clandestine activity and any political expression will vanish (elections, consultation with other bodies, public debates, public appearances). This secrecy will weaken the possibility of working through differences and agreeing on uniform tactics. There is a fear that when the leadership is not steering it, "the military actions will become an aim in and of themselves, that various groups will act of their own accord, that dubious elements will move in. Anything can happen."