Nizzar Rayyan, the Hamas leader who was killed, along with two of his wives and several of his children, in an Israeli bombing raid earlier this week, was one of the more bellicose Hamas leaders I have known. I saw him last in Gaza two years ago, at a mosque in the Jabalya Refugee Camp, where I spent quite a lot of time (my book Prisoners explains why).
He was one of the more Islamically-learned Hamas leaders I've met (Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was learned as well, I think, but he was very hard to understand; Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who was the least pleasant of all the Hamas leaders I've known, was not very learned at all). In particular, Rayyan was interested in the hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, with a special interest in hadith that painted Jews in a negative light. Rayyan and I discussed the writing of Ibn Taymiyya, the Muslim scholar who lived seven hundred years ago, and who is the intellectual forefather of Sunni radicalism today (it was Ibn Taymiyya who elevated jihad to a kind-of sixth pillar of Islam). Like Ibn Taymiyya, Rayyan was preoccupied with Muslim apostasy. He never quite said so, but I could sense that he thought of Abu Mazen and the other leaders of the Palestinian Authority as traitors not only to the cause of Palestine, but to Islam itself. "You cannot be loyal to Allah and to the CIA at the same time," he said of his P.A. enemies.
There are things I didn't know about Rayyan, such as that he had four wives - a fact that tells you something about the culture of Hamas - but I knew that he was sincere in his devotion to the cause of Israel's annhilation. The question I wrestle with constantly is whether Hamas is truly, theologically implacable. That is to say, whether the organization can remain true to its understanding of Islamic law and God's word and yet enter into a long-term non-aggression treaty with Israel. I tend to think not, though I've noticed over the years a certain plasticity of belief among some Hamas ideologues. Also, this is the Middle East, so anything is possible.
There was no flexibility with Rayyan. This is what he said when I asked him if he could envision a 50-year hudna (or cease-fire) with Israel: "The only reason to have a hudna is to prepare yourself for the final battle. We don't need 50 years to prepare ourselves for the final battle with Israel." There is no chance, he said, that true Islam would ever allow a Jewish state to survive in the Muslim Middle East. "Israel is an impossibility. It is an offense against God."
I asked him if he believed, as some Hamas theologians do (and certainly as many Hezbollah leaders do) that Jews are the "sons of pigs and apes." He gave me an interesting answer that reflects a myopic reading of the Koran. "Allah changed disobedient Jews into apes and pigs, it is true, but he specifically said these apes and pigs did not have the ability to reproduce. So it is not literally true that Jews today are descended from pigs and apes, but it is true that some of the ancestors of Jews were transformed into pigs and apes, and it is true that Allah continually makes the Jews pay for their crimes in many different ways. They are a cursed people."
What are our crimes? I asked Rayyan. "You are murderers of the prophets and you have closed your ears to the Messenger of Allah," he said. "Jews tried to kill the Prophet, peace be unto him. All throughout history, you have stood in opposition to the word of God."