Beyond Belief

Image credit: Marco Longaria/AFP/
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Once, as the second intifada was nearing its height, I met with a Hamas man in a Gaza City hotel to talk about suicidal killing. He had written his master’s thesis on martyrdom, before turning to the future of Islam for his doctorate, and he brought his Toshiba laptop along to call up verses from the Koran to bolster his end of the conversation. He had unusual, chilling credibility on the subject: unlike other Hamas leaders, he had actually sent one of his own children to his death, in an attack on an Israeli settlement. He was a mountain of a man, with a sly sense of humor, and I always suspected he was one of Hamas’s deadlier manipulators of the young.

When I mentioned that my wife had come with me to Gaza, where I was reporting for The New York Times, he insisted I call her down from our room. She was then almost eight months pregnant with our first child. To demonstrate how cosmopolitan he was, he made a point of shaking her hand, though in theory, Islam prohibits a man from touching a woman to whom he isn’t related.

I kept thinking of this surreal en­counter—my very pregnant wife, the courtly Hamas leader, the talk of deadly, suicidal children—when news came in January that Israel had killed the Hamas man, Nizar Rayyan, by dropping a bomb on his house in the Jabaliya refugee camp. With an intrepid Times colleague, Taghreed El-Khodary, I had met with him a few times in that house. Though we would ask about religion, he used to in­sist that he believed in fighting Israel purely for reasons to do with this world, not the next. His family had become refugees in the Israeli-Arab war of 1948, and though he had never lived there himself, he wanted to reclaim his ancestral home in what is now Ashkelon, in Israel.

He had a sure command of the legitimate grievances of his people, and he was as skilled a sophist as any of the other Hamas leaders. “If we had weapons like the Israelis,” he told me, “we would kill them in a way that is acceptable to Americans. But if we only have this poor man’s bomb, what do you expect us to do?” To him, suicide bombings were valuable, not just because they could kill Israelis but because they confounded the unbelieving world, signaling “that we no longer love this life.”

“It’s normal that a human being will be scared of something mysterious,” he said.

That day at the hotel, he wore a dark-green suit, white shirt, and blue-and-gold tie held in place by a silver clip. We drank juice, I think—he had an affectation of delicately sticking out one pinkie when he held a glass in his big hand—as he patiently tried to explain the Koranic basis for suicide killing. “I’m worried you don’t understand,” he said.

Rayyan said that he missed the son who had died attacking the settlement (he was 16), but that he planned to push another son to conduct an attack of his own. “It’s our home,” he said. “It’s more dear to me than my kids.” He was then looking to add a fourth wife—“I love women,” he told me with a smile—with a goal of eventually having 50 children. His bigoted worldview, and his rich historical imagination, gave him a kind of serenity. “When Muslims ruled the world, we treated everyone as we treat ourselves,” he said. To him, Israel was a hammer the Americans used to fragment Muslim society. Matter-of-factly, he told me once that the Palestinians might have to sacrifice half the rising generation to drive the Israelis out and rule all Palestine again.

He wound up sac­ri­ficing most of his own family. His four wives and nine of his children died in the January bombing, buried in the rubble of the house he insisted wasn’t their real home. Several of his neighbors died, too. Outside of a prison, you are unlikely ever to meet someone more trapped than a Gazan refugee—by leaders like Rayyan, by Israel, by a fatal obsession with the past.