In the Enemy's Den: My Interview With Hamas for the Jewish Media

What it's like for a journalist for Jewish publications to talk in depth with a man whose group advocates terrorism against Israelis.

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Mousa Abu Marzook of Hamas talks to reporters in this 1997 photo from Manhattan Correctional Center, where he was detained for 18 months before being deported. / Reuters

Over the course of three decades in journalism I have developed something of a niche specialty: interviewing the Jewish state's sworn enemies on behalf of Jewish media outlets. In 1989, when the Palestine Liberation Organization was seen as beyond the pale, I traveled to Tunis for Washington Jewish Week to interview Abu Iyad, the mastermind of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre and Fatah's second-highest-ranking official, after Yasser Arafat. In 1992, I was the first journalist from a Jewish publication to be granted a visa to travel and report from Hafez Al-Assad's Syria. One year later, I scored the same coup with Yemen.

But my experience recently traveling to Cairo to interview Mousa Abu Marzook, the number two official in Hamas, on behalf of the Jewish Daily Forward filled me with a kind of dread anxiety I had never experienced in previous interviews. I didn't fear for my personal safety; this was Cairo, not lawless Waziristan, and I was to be accompanied to the interview by Marzook's New York attorney, Stanley L. Cohen, who had set up the interview at my request. In speaking to Marzook, I wanted to explore reports that Hamas was, in the wake of the Arab Spring, undergoing profound internal changes. The Hamas leader himself had only recently moved to Egypt's capital from Damascus amid a general exodus of the group's leaders from their longtime headquarters in now-bloody Syria. He was staying in an affluent suburb of Cairo as a guest of the Egyptian government.

No, the clutch in my gut came from something much deeper than fear for my safety. It harked back, first of all, to the initial shock and primal horror that hit me in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Hamas introduced its tactic of suicide terror bombings. In a way, for all my abhorrence of them, I followed the twisted logic of conventional terrorist attacks, even as I utterly rejected the legitimacy of that logic and the attacks it produced. I fancied, too, that I grasped what motivated terrorists -- the feelings of oppression, humiliation, and hatred that led them to launch murderous attacks against civilian men, women, and children at the risk of their own lives. But the advent of suicide bombings presented something wholly unfathomable to me: hatred so deep it went beyond a willingness to kill, to an eagerness to also obliterate one's own life.

Within my mind, all of this stood counterpoised to the potential significance of Abu Marzook's willingness to speak with me. It marked the first time a senior Hamas leader had ever agreed to sit down and be interviewed by a Jewish, pro-Israel publication. I knew I was tasked with an almost sacred obligation, given our readership, to vigorously pursue issues that many mainstream outlets barely bothered with: the actual implications of Hamas' calls for a truce with Israel, which have often been simply taken at face value; the anti-Semitic passages in the group's founding charter; and Hamas' current stance on violence targeting civilians, not to mention explanations for its past acts.

I feared that I would prove inadequate to the moment; that I would neglect to ask crucial questions or fail to draw out real answers. In short, I feared I would flop.

I had first reached out to Cohen, Marzook's attorney, in late January. Almost immediately, he responded enthusiastically and predicted Marzook would, too. Cohen suggested I plan for a trip to the Middle East some time in late February. But things played out differently. Marzook was constantly on the move, proving hard to nail down. Eventually, Cohen stopped returning my calls altogether.

When Cohen finally did call, in late March, it was with news that he had secured the long sought interview, but at the worst possible time: just two days before Passover. The Forward, where I am news editor, was already seasonally shorthanded. Worse, at home, we were shifting into full Passover house-cleaning mode. I argued for doing it any other week, but Cohen relayed back that it was that week or never.

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Larry Cohler-Esses is assistant managing editor for news at the Jewish Daily Forward, a Jewish newspaper and news website.

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