I know the leaders of Hamas. And I am certain they will be the last people on earth to realize that their coup has backfired. During three decades in daily journalism, working in more than 50 nations around the world, I have never met as determined a group of dogmatic ideologues. During a reporting trip in Gaza a few years ago, I set out to meet and interview each of the five major Hamas leaders. I got to four of them. This was before the elections last year that put Hamas in power -- before, even, the Israeli air strikes that killed several of them.
For me, the most memorable of this group was Mahmoud al-Zahar, a surgeon. He served as the Hamas foreign minister until Abbas dismissed the government last week.
Zahar lived in a large, comfortable house amid the teeming slums of Gaza. He greeted me at his front door wearing a caftan, a full black beard and a confident smile, then led me to his cavernous living room, where he served sweet tea. Two of his seven children were playing pingpong on a table set up in the middle of the floor. On a credenza, two televisions competed for attention -- one offered Al Jazeera, the other CNN. Zahar sat on a faux Louis XIV settee. The butt of a pistol peeked out from between the cushions. After some polite chatter, Zahar espoused the Hamas philosophy.
"From our ideological point of view," he said, "it is not allowed to recognize that Israel controls one square meter of historic Palestine," he said. That, of course, includes Israel. After the Arabs retake "historic Palestine," Zahar continued, the 4 million Palestinians who live in other states would be encouraged to return. They would retake the homes their grandparents lost during the 1948 war. Then, he allowed, "the Jews could remain living in an Islamic state with Islamic law."
Zahar offered this with a polite smile. His manner was cheerful, even serene. He could have been discussing his opinion of a movie he saw last week. From a few yards away, we could hear the plink of the pingpong ball and his children's giggles.
Later that afternoon, one of his colleagues, Ismail Abu Shanab, said he had an even better idea, described in the same earnest, genial manner: "There are a lot of open areas in the United States that could absorb the Jews." When I asked him if he were joking, he looked puzzled and shook his head slightly, as if to say: I don't understand. Israel killed Shanab, an engineer, along with several other Hamas leaders in 2003. Among them was Abdel Aziz Rantisi who told me, "We in Hamas believe peace talks will do no good. We do not believe we can live with the enemy."