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

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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.

Reluctantly, I concluded that this story was too important to me as a journalist, not to mention as a Jew who cares about Israel. So I approached my spouse, Dianne, who is a Conservative rabbi, full of apology. She stopped me in mid-sentence.

"When have you ever helped out with Passover clean-up, anyway?" she asked. "Go."

Once we sat down to talk, the routines of profession took over, and my angst receded. But there was another more subtle feeling that crept up on me during this process. I couldn't put my finger on it at first. But, slowly, I became aware of a sense of inner futility beneath the surface excitement and anxiety.

In 1989, as a much younger journalist, I was full of hope going in to interview Fatah terrorist leader Abu Iyad, and even more so coming out of our exchange. The PLO had just issued its Declaration of Independence at Algiers, and Abu Iyad had become the group's greatest internal advocate for turning toward the West and toward a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was a thrill, and a kind of redemptory personal moment, to have some modest proximity to what seemed like the brink of an historic moment.

Sitting down with Marzook 22 years later, the peace process that then seemed aborning now seemed aborted. And here I was again, with a group nowhere near even where Fatah had been at the point of our encounter. This time, I went in with a radically more modest sense of not just the situation's potential but of my own as a journalistic agent of change. Now in middle age, I was an older, different, even more tired person who saw no light at the end of this tunnel, and expected none.

Abu Marzook's answers to my questions only reinforced my feelings. He stressed that, should peace talks someday restart, any agreement reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would be subject to far-reaching changes if Hamas ever came to power in a democratic Palestinian state. He said that his group would view an agreement -- even one ratified by a referendum of all Palestinians -- as a hudna, or armed truce, rather than as a peace treaty. In power, Hamas would feel free to shift away from those provisions of the agreement that define it as a peace treaty, he said, and move instead toward a relationship or armed truce.

"We will not recognize Israel as a state," he said emphatically. He argued this would still be an improvement over present conditions. "What's the relationship between Israel and Syria and Lebanon right now?" Marzook asked.

But the answer to this question -- closed borders, barbed wire, no trade, no commerce, no diplomats, and arms build-ups on each side, to the best of each side's respective abilities, in preparation for a possible war -- hardly seemed auspicious to me.

I asked, would a final peace treaty between Israel and a Palestinian state that called for fully normalized relations not bind Hamas if it came to power later? "No. I don't think any kind of treaty can 'stuck' anybody in the future," Marzook replied. "Just read history."

I left Egypt in a rush immediately after our second day interview, to be back in time to celebrate the first night of Passover at our family seder on Manhattan's Upper West Side. As we sang the traditional songs about the ancient Israelites' own rushed flight from Egypt, I sat apart glumly wondering: In 20 more years would I be on my way back to the Middle East, with cane in hand, to be the first journalist from a Jewish publication to interview the head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, or some other more radical group in the still-unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict? And what group or groups, I wondered, would then lay beyond them?

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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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