Hoping to generate global sympathy for the deportees, the media interviewed their family members. My sister Tasneem brought tears to the eyes of the world as she cried “Baba! Baba! [Daddy! Daddy!]” on camera. Somehow, our family became the unofficial representatives of all the other families. We were invited to attend every protest, including the ongoing demonstration in front of the Israeli prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. My father told us he was very proud, and we did take some comfort in the support we received from people all over the world, even Israeli peacemakers. About six months later, we heard the news that 101 deportees were going to be allowed to come home. Like all the families, we desperately hoped my father would be among them.
The next day, we visited with the heroes who had returned from Lebanon to see if we could find out any news about my father. But they could tell us only that he was doing well and would be home soon. About three more months passed before Israel agreed to allow the remaining deportees to return home. We were overjoyed at the prospect.
On the designated day, we waited impatiently outside the Ramallah prison where the remaining deportees were to be released. Ten came out. Twenty. He wasn’t with them. The last man passed by, and the soldiers said that was all. There was no sign of my father and no word of his whereabouts. The other families joyously took their loved ones home, and we were left standing outside alone in the middle of the night with no idea where my father was. We went home discouraged, frustrated, and worried. Why hadn’t he been released with the rest of the prisoners? Where was he now?
The next day, my father’s attorney called to tell us that my father and several other deportees had been returned to prison. Apparently, he said, the deportation had proved counterproductive for Israel. During their exile, my father and other Palestinian leaders had been all over the news, earning the world’s sympathy because the punishment was perceived as excessive and an abuse of their human rights. Throughout the Arab world, the men were seen as heroes of the cause, and as such, they became far more important and influential.
The deportation also had another unintended but disastrous effect for Israel. The prisoners had used their time in exile to forge an unprecedented relationship between Hamas and Hezbollah, the main Islamic political and paramilitary organization in Lebanon. This connection carried major historical and geopolitical ramifications. My father and other Hamas leaders often snuck out of the camp to avoid the media in order to meet with Hezbollah and Muslim Brotherhood leaders, something they could never do inside the Palestinian territories.
While my father and the others had been in Lebanon, the most radical Hamas members were still free and becoming more furious than ever. And as these radicalized new men filled the temporary leadership roles within Hamas, the gap between Hamas and the PLO widened.
About that time, Israel and Yasser Arafat entered into secret negotiations, which resulted in the 1993 Oslo Accords. On September 9, Arafat wrote a letter to Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in which he officially recognized “the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security” and renounced “the use of terrorism and other acts of violence.”
Rabin then formally recognized the PLO as “the representative of the Palestinian people,” and President Bill Clinton lifted the ban on American contact with the organization. On September 13, the world stared in amazement at a photograph of Arafat and Rabin shaking hands at the White House. A poll at that time showed that the vast majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza supported the terms of the Accords, also known as the Declaration of Principles (DOP). This document led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA); called for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and Jericho; granted autonomy to those areas; and opened the door for the return of Arafat and the PLO from exile in Tunisia.
But my dad was against the DOP. He didn’t trust Israel or the PLO and therefore put no trust in the peace process. Other Hamas leaders, he explained, had their own reasons for opposing it, including the risk that a peace accord might actually stick! Peaceful coexistence would mean the end of Hamas. From their perspective, the organization could not thrive in a peaceful atmosphere. Other resistance groups also had a stake in the continuation of conflict. It’s hard to achieve peace in a place where so many have different goals and interests.
So the attacks continued:
• An Israeli man was stabbed to death on September 24 by a Hamas feda’iyeen in an orchard near Basra.
• The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the deaths of two Israelis in the Judean desert two weeks later.
• Two weeks after that, Hamas shot and killed two IDF soldiers outside a Jewish settlement in Gaza.
But none of these killings captured world headlines like the Hebron massacre on Friday, February 25, 1994.
During the Jewish festival of Purim and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, an American-born physician named Baruch Goldstein entered Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron where, according to local tradition, Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah are buried. Without warning, Goldstein opened fire, killing twenty-nine Palestinians who had come to pray and wounding well over one hundred before he was beaten to death by an enraged, grief-stricken mob.
We sat and watched through the lens of the television camera as one bloody corpse after another was carried from that holy place. I was in shock. Everything seemed to move in slow motion. One moment my heart pounded with a rage I had never known before, a rage that startled and then soothed me. The next minute I was frozen with grief. Then I was suddenly enraged—then numb again. And I was not alone. It seemed that the emotions of everyone in the occupied territories rose and fell to that surreal rhythm, leaving us exhausted.
Because Goldstein was wearing his Israeli military uniform and the IDF presence was smaller than normal, Palestinians were convinced that he had been sent, or at least covered, by the government in Jerusalem. To us, trigger-happy soldiers and crazy settlers were all one and the same. Hamas now spoke with a voice of terrible resolve. They could only think of revenge for this betrayal, this atrocity.
On April 6, a car bomb destroyed a bus in Afula, killing eight and injuring forty-four. Hamas said it was reprisal for Hebron. That same day, two Israelis were shot and killed and four others were wounded when Hamas attacked a bus stop near Ashdod.
A week later, a historic and awful threshold was crossed as Israel felt the impact of the first official suicide bombing. On Wednesday morning, April 13, 1994—the same day my father was finally released from prison after his deportation to Lebanon—twenty-one-year-old Amar Salah Diab Amarna entered the Hadera bus station between Haifa and Tel Aviv in central Israel. He carried a bag containing hardware and over four pounds of homemade acetone peroxide explosive. At 9:30, he boarded the bus to Tel Aviv. Ten minutes later, as the bus was pulling out of the station, he placed the bag on the floor and detonated it.
The shrapnel ripped through the passengers on the bus, killing six and wounding thirty. A second pipe bomb exploded at the scene just as rescue workers arrived. This was the “second in a series of five attacks” in revenge for Hebron, a Hamas pamphlet later announced.
I was proud of Hamas, and I saw the attacks as a huge victory against the Israeli occupation. At fifteen years of age, I saw everything in stark black and white. There were good guys and bad guys. And the bad guys deserved everything they got. I saw what a two-kilogram bomb packed with nails and ball bearings could do to human flesh, and I hoped it would send a clear message to the Israeli community.
After every suicide attack, Orthodox Jewish volunteers known as ZAKA (Disaster Victim Identification) arrived at the scene in fluorescent yellow vests. It was their job to collect blood and body parts—including those of non-Jews and the bomber himself—which were then taken to the forensic center in Jaffa. The pathologists there had the job of reassembling what was left of the bodies for identification purposes. Often, DNA testing was the only way for them to connect one piece to another.
Family members who had not been able to find their loved ones among the wounded at the local hospitals were directed to Jaffa, where they often showed up dazed with grief.
Pathologists frequently advised the families not to view the remains, telling them that it was better to remember their loved ones as they were when they were living. But most still wanted to touch the bodies one last time, even if a foot was all that was left.
Because Jewish law required that the entire body be buried the same day a person died, larger body parts were often buried first. Smaller pieces were added later, after identification was confirmed by DNA, reopening the wounds of grieving families.
While Hadera was the first official bombing, it was actually the third attempt, part of a trial-and-error phase during which Hamas bomb maker Yahya Ayyash perfected his craft. Ayyash was an engineering student at Birzeit University. He was not a radical Muslim or a nationalist zealot. He was embittered simply because he had once asked permission to continue his studies in another country, and the government of Israel had denied his request. So he made bombs and became a hero to the Palestinians and one of Israel’s most wanted men.
In addition to two failed attempts and the bombings on April 6 and 13, Ayyash would eventually be responsible for the deaths of at least thirty-nine people in five more attacks. He would also teach others, like his friend Hassan Salameh, how to make bombs.
* * *
During the Gulf War, Yasser Arafat had supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, which alienated him from both the United States and the Arab states that supported the American-led coalition. Because of that, those states then started shifting their financial support from the PLO to Hamas.
Following the success of the Oslo Accords, however, Arafat was on top again. And the next year, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Israeli minister of foreign affairs Shimon Peres.
The Oslo Accords required Arafat to establish the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. So on July 1, 1994, he approached Egypt’s Rafah border, crossed into Gaza, and settled in.
“National unity,” he told the crowds celebrating his return from exile, “is … our shield, the shield of our people. Unity. Unity. Unity.”But the Palestinian territories were far from unified.
Hamas and its supporters were angry that Arafat had met secretly with Israel and promised that Palestinians would no longer fight for self-determination. Our men were still in Israeli prisons. We had no Palestinian state. The only autonomy we had was over the West Bank city of Jericho—a small town with nothing—and Gaza, a big, overcrowded refugee camp on the coast.
And now Arafat was sitting with the Israelis at the same table and shaking hands. “What about all the Palestinian blood?” our people asked one another. “Did he hold it so cheap?”
On the other hand, some Palestinians conceded that at least the PA had gotten us Gaza and Jericho. What had Hamas gotten us? Had it freed even one little Palestinian village?
Perhaps they had a point. But Hamas didn’t trust Arafat—mostly because he was ready to settle for a Palestinian state inside Israel instead of recovering the Palestinian territories that existed before Israel.
“What would you have us do?” Arafat and his spokesmen argued whenever they were pushed. “For decades, we fought Israel and found that there was no way to win. We were thrown out of Jordan and Lebanon and ended up over a thousand miles away in Tunisia. The international community was against us. We had no power. The Soviet Union collapsed, leaving the United States as the only world power. And it backed Israel. We were given an opportunity to get back everything we had before the Six-Day War in 1967 and to govern ourselves. And we took it.”
Several months after arriving in Gaza, Arafat visited Ramallah for the first time. My father, along with dozens of religious, political, and business leaders, stood in a reception line for him. When the PLO chief came to Sheikh Hassan Yousef, he kissed my father’s hand, recognizing him as a religious as well as a political leader.
Over the next year, my father and other Hamas leaders met frequently with Arafat in Gaza City in an attempt to reconcile and unify the PA and Hamas. But the talks ended in failure when Hamas ultimately refused to participate in the peace process. Our ideologies and goals were still a long way from being reconciled.
* * *
The transition of Hamas into a full-blown terrorist organization was complete. Many of its members had climbed the ladder of Islam and reached the top. Moderate political leaders like my father would not tell the militants that what they were doing was wrong. They could not; on what basis could they declare it was wrong? The militants had the full force of the Qur’an to back them up.
So even though he had never personally killed anyone, my father went along with the attacks. And the Israelis, unable to find and arrest the violent young militants, continued to pursue soft targets like my father. I think they figured that since my father was a leader of Hamas, which was carrying out these attacks, his imprisonment would put a stop to them. But they never made an effort to find out who or what Hamas really was. And it would be many painful years before they would begin to understand that Hamas was not an organization as most people understood organizations, with rules and a hierarchy. It was a ghost. An idea. You can’t destroy an idea; you can only stimulate it. Hamas was like a flatworm. Cut off its head, and it just grew another.
The trouble was that the central organizing premise and goal of Hamas was an illusion. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt had repeatedly tried and failed to drive the Israelis into the sea and transform its lands into a Palestinian state. Even Saddam Hussein and his Scud missiles failed. In order for millions of Palestinian refugees to recover the homes, farms, and property they had lost more than half a century ago, Israel would have to virtually trade places with them. And because that was clearly never going to happen, Hamas was like Sisyphus of Greek mythology—condemned eternally to roll a boulder up a steep hill, only to see it roll back down again, never reaching the goal.
Nevertheless, even those who recognized the impossibility of Hamas’s mission clung to the belief that Allah would one day defeat Israel, even if he had to do it supernaturally.
For Israel, the PLO nationalists had been simply a political problem in need of a political solution. Hamas, on the other hand, Islamized the Palestinian problem, making it a religious problem. And this problem could be resolved only with a religious solution, which meant that it could never be resolved because we believed that the land belonged to Allah. Period. End of discussion. Thus for Hamas, the ultimate problem was not Israel’s policies. It was the nation-state Israel’s very existence.
And what of my father? Had he, too, become a terrorist? One afternoon, I read a newspaper headline about a recent suicide bombing (or “martyrdom operation” as some in Hamas called them) that had killed many civilians, including women and children. It was impossible for me to mentally reconcile the kindness and character of my father and his leadership with an organization that carried out such things. I pointed to the article and asked him how he felt about such acts.
“Once,” he answered, “I left the house and there was an insect outside. I thought twice about whether to kill it or not. And I could not kill it.” That indirect answer was his way of saying that he could never personally participate in that kind of wanton killing. But the Israeli civilians were not insects.
No, my father did not build the bombs, strap them onto the bombers, or select the targets. But years later I would think of my father’s answer when I encountered a story in a Christian Bible that describes the stoning of a young innocent named Stephen. It said, “Saul was there, giving approval to his death” (Acts 8:1).
I loved my father so deeply, and I admired so much about who he was and what he stood for. But for a man who could not bring himself to harm an insect, he had obviously found a way to rationalize the idea that it was fine for somebody else to explode people into scraps of meat, as long as he didn’t personally bloody his hands.
At that moment, my view of my father grew much more complicated.
Winter 1995 — Spring 1996
After the Oslo Accords, the international community expected the Palestinian Authority to keep Hamas in check. On Saturday, November 4, 1995, I was watching television when a news bulletin broke into programming. Yitzhak Rabin had been shot during a peace rally in Kings Square in Tel Aviv. It sounded serious. A couple of hours later, officials announced that he was dead.
“Wow!” I said aloud to no one in particular. “Some Palestinian faction still has the power to assassinate Israel’s prime minister! That should have happened a long time ago.” I was very happy for his death and the damage it would do to the PLO and its watered-down capitulation to Israel.
Then the phone rang. I recognized the caller’s voice immediately. It was Yasser Arafat, and he asked to speak to my father.
I listened as my father spoke into the telephone. He didn’t say much; he was kind and respectful, and mostly he just agreed with whatever Arafat was saying on the other end of the line.
“I understand,” he said. “Good-bye.”
Then he turned to me. “Arafat has asked that we try to keep Hamas from celebrating the death of the prime minister,” he said. “The assassination was a very big loss for Arafat because Rabin showed such political courage in entering into peace negotiations with the PLO.”
We later learned that Rabin had not been killed by a Palestinian after all. Instead, he had been shot in the back by an Israeli law student. Many in Hamas were disappointed by this piece of information; personally, I found it amusing that Jewish fanatics had shared a goal with Hamas.
The assassination put the world on edge, and the world put more pressure on Arafat to get control of the Palestinian territories. So he launched an all-out crackdown on Hamas. PA police came to our house, asked my father to prepare himself, and locked him away in Arafat’s compound—all the while treating him with the utmost respect and kindness.
Even so, for the first time, Palestinians were imprisoning other Palestinians. It was ugly, but at least they treated my father respectfully. Unlike many of the others, he was given a comfortable room, and Arafat visited with him from time to time to discuss various issues.
Soon all of the top leaders of Hamas, along with thousands of its members, were locked away in Palestinian prisons. Many were tortured for information. Some died. But others escaped arrest, became fugitives, and continued their attacks against Israel.
Now my hatred had multiple focal points. I hated the Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat, I hated Israel, and I hated secular Palestinians. Why should my father, who loved Allah and his people, have to pay such a heavy price while godless men like Arafat and his PLO handed a great victory to the Israelis—whom the Qur’an likened to pigs and monkeys? And the international community applauded Israel because it got the terrorists to recognize its right to exist.
I was seventeen and only months away from my high school graduation. Whenever I visited my father in prison or brought him food from home and other things to make him more comfortable, he encouraged me, saying, “The only thing you have to do is pass your tests. Focus on your school. Don’t worry about me. I don’t want this to interfere with anything.” But life no longer meant anything to me. I could think of nothing else except joining the military wing of Hamas and taking revenge on Israel and the Palestinian Authority. I thought about everything I had seen in my life. Was all the struggle and sacrifice going to end like this, in a cheap peace with Israel? If I died fighting, at least I would die as a martyr and go to heaven.
My father had never taught me to hate, but I didn’t know how not to feel this way. Though he passionately fought the occupation, and though I don’t believe he would have hesitated to give the order to nuke the nation of Israel if he had had the bomb, he never spoke against Jewish people, like some racist leaders of Hamas did. He was much more interested in the god of the Qur’an than in politics. Allah had given us the responsibility of eradicating the Jews, and my father didn’t question that, though he personally had nothing against them.
“How is your relationship to Allah?” he asked me every time I visited him. “Did you pray today? cry? spend time with him?” He never said, “I want you to become a good mujahid [guerilla soldier].” His admonition to me as his eldest son was always, “Be very good to your mother, very good to Allah, and very good to your people.”
I didn’t understand how he could be so compassionate and forgiving, even toward the soldiers who came again and again to arrest him. He treated them like children. When I brought him food at the PA compound, he often invited the guards to join us and share in my mother’s specially prepared meat and rice. And after a few months, even the PA guards loved him. While it was easy for me to love him, he was also a very difficult man to understand.
Filled with anger and a desire for revenge, I started hunting for guns. Though weapons were available in the territories by this time, they were very expensive, and I was a student with no money.
Ibrahim Kiswani, a classmate from a village next to Jerusalem, shared my interest and told me he could get the money we needed—not enough for heavy guns, but enough for some cheap rifles and maybe a pistol. I asked my cousin Yousef Dawood if he knew where I could get some weapons.
Yousef and I weren’t really that close, but I knew he had connections that I didn’t have.
“I have a couple of friends in Nablus who might help,” he told me. “What do you want with guns?”
“Every family has its own weapons,” I lied. “I want one to protect my family.”
Well, it wasn’t exactly a lie. Ibrahim lived in a village where every family did indeed have its own weapons for self-defense, and he was like a brother to me.
In addition to wanting to take revenge, I thought it would be cool to be a teenager with a gun. I no longer cared much about school. Why go to school in this crazy country?
Finally one afternoon, I got a call from my cousin Yousef.
“Okay, we’re going to Nablus. I know a guy who works for the PA security force. I think he can get us some weapons,” he said.
When we arrived in Nablus, a man met us at the door of the small house and led us inside. There he showed us Swedish Carl Gustav M45 submachine guns and a Port Said, which was an Egyptian version of the same weapon. He took us to a remote spot in the mountains and showed us how they operated. When he asked me if I wanted to try one, my heart started to race. I had never fired a machine gun before, and suddenly I was scared.
“No, I trust you,” I told him. I purchased a couple of Gustafs and a handgun from the man. I hid them in the door of my car, sprinkling black pepper over them to throw off any Israeli dogs that might be sniffing for weapons at the checkpoints.
As I drove back to Ramallah, I called Ibrahim on the way.
“Hey, I got the stuff!”
We knew better than to use words like guns or weapons because there was a good chance that the Israelis were listening to everything we said. We set up a time for Ibrahim to pick up his “things” and quickly said good night.
It was the spring of 1996. I had just turned eighteen, and I was armed.
* * *
One night, Ibrahim called me, and I could tell by the tone of his voice that he was really angry.
“The guns don’t work!” he shouted into the phone.
“What are you talking about?” I shot back, hoping no one was listening to our conversation.
“The guns don’t work,” he repeated. “We were cheated!”
“I can’t talk now,” I told him.
“Okay, but I want to see you tonight.”
When he arrived at my house, I immediately lit into him.
“Are you crazy, talking like that on the phone?” I said.
“I know, but the guns aren’t working. The handgun is okay, but the submachine guns won’t shoot.”
“Okay, they’re not working. Are you sure you know how to use them?”
He assured me that he knew what he was doing, so I told him I would deal with it. With my final exams just two weeks away, I didn’t really have time for any of this, but I went ahead and made the arrangements to take the malfunctioning guns back to Yousef.
“This is a disaster,” I told him when I saw him. “The handgun works, but the machine guns don’t. Call your friends in Nablus so we can at least get our money back.” He promised to try.
The next day my brother Sohayb gave me some sobering news. “Israeli security forces came to the house last night, looking for you,” he told me with a worried strain in his voice.
My first thought was, We didn’t even kill anyone yet! I was scared, but I also felt a bit important, as though I was becoming dangerous to Israel. The next time I visited my father, he had already heard that the Israelis were looking for me.
“What’s going on?” he asked sternly. I told him the truth, and he became very angry. Through his anger, however, it was clear to me that he was mostly disappointed and worried.
“This is very serious,” he warned me. “Why did you get yourself into this? You need to be taking care of your mother and brothers and sisters, not running from the Israelis. Don’t you understand that they will shoot you?”
I went home, threw together some clothes and my schoolbooks, and asked some Muslim Brotherhood students to hide me until I could take my exams and finish school.
Ibrahim clearly didn’t understand the seriousness of my situation. He continued to call me, often on my father’s cell phone.
“What’s going on? What is happening with you? I gave you all that money. I need it back.”
I told him about the security forces that had been to my house, and he started to shout and say careless things on the phone. I quickly hung up before he could implicate himself or me any further. But the next day, the IDF showed up at his place, searched it, and found the handgun. They arrested him immediately.
I felt lost. I had trusted someone I shouldn’t have. My father was in prison, and he was disappointed in me. My mother was worried sick about me. I had exams to study for. And I was wanted by the Israelis.
How could things possibly get any worse?
Although I had tried to take precautions, the Israeli security forces caught up with me. They had listened in on my conversations with Ibrahim, and now here I was, handcuffed and blindfolded, stuffed in the back of a military jeep, trying to dodge rifle butts as best I could.
The jeep rolled to a stop. We had been driving for what seemed like hours. The handcuffs cut deeply into my wrists as the soldiers lifted me by my arms and pulled me up a set of stairs. I could no longer feel my hands. All around me, I heard the sounds of people moving and shouting in Hebrew.
I was taken into a small room where my blindfold and handcuffs were removed. Squinting in the light, I tried to get my bearings. With the exception of a small desk in the corner, the room was empty. I wondered what the soldiers had in store for me next. Interrogation? More beatings? Torture? I didn’t have to wonder for long. After just a few minutes, a young soldier opened the door. He wore a ring in his nose, and I recognized his Russian accent. He was one of the soldiers who had beaten me in the back of the jeep. Taking me by the arm, he led me down a series of long, winding corridors and into another small room. A blood-pressure cuff and monitor, a computer, and a small TV sat atop an old desk. An overpowering stench filled my nostrils as I entered. I gagged, sure I was about to throw up again.