Award 2019 Nominee
Gaza. It’s time for change
Il Venerdì di Repubblica, June 2018
Razan al-Najjar, volunteer with the Medical Relief, was 21, and had a white coat and her hands raised high when on the border, as she tried to tend to an injured, was shot, and killed. It was the 1st of June. And all over the world, her picture turned into a symbol of Gaza. But in Gaza, what turned into a symbol was rather the shattering of that picture: during the funeral wake, in her house. In a Hamas raid. Because she was a Fatah activist.
And she had to be just one among many.
The demonstration of the following day was expected to be the largest since the start of protests. Palestinians deserted it.
For Gaza, the March of Return is the first grass-roots initiative ever. Every Friday, since March 30, thousands of Palestinians gather along what nobody refers to as border, here, but fence, because on both sides of the barbed wire, you are explained, there is actually the same country: and they try to cross it. Israel believes it is just a Hamas ploy to divert the attention away from its internal troubles. From its endless confrontation with Fatah. But groundwork went on for months, with the involvement of all Gaza. Because it is life, here, to drive you to rise up. What’s hard, it’s rather to stop you: the wounded, with plasters still on their heads, rush straight away back to the fence. “But it ended as it always ends. When a new idea works, and the world starts talking of Palestine again, Hamas and Fatah and all the factions seize it: and they waste it all. Unable to convert that visibility, that momentum, into political effects,” says Atef Abu Saif, Gaza’s most famous novelist. “And somehow, it’s like when a rocket hits Tel Aviv. For a few minutes, it’s general excitement. But then? What did you change?,” he says. “Nothing.”
Gaza has been cut off from the world for more than ten years. There isn’t even water anymore. There is only salt water. Sea water. You feel sticky all the day, in Gaza. All the days, for years. And every now and again, an F-16 comes and bomb.
Every now and again, suddenly, you die.
We have got familiar with the brutal figures of Gaza. Nearly 2 million Palestinians live here, and literally “here”: in 2017, Israel issued only 9,600 exit permits. Per capita, it means to get out every 201 years. 80 percent of the population live on aid. 50 percent, is food insecure, in UN jargon. 50 percent is hungry. And 45 percent is under 15. And yet, in Gaza there is a word that tells more than all these figures: Tramadol. Which is a painkiller. And it is the most popular drug, here. So many youth, in the world, use ecstasy, cocaine, meth, to feel high until dawn. But in Gaza, if you are in your twenties, you just want to fall asleep and forget.
Every two, three days there is a suicide attempt.
No one talks of politics. The priority, here, is to find food. The few who still get a salary, with their only salary support brothers, fathers, cousins. Because there is like no government anymore. It collapsed. There are just mosques, and mutual help. In downtown Gaza, a shabby lawn is now a camp of makeshift shelters, a patchwork of old, rancid blankets tied together with twine. Inside, families haven’t a single biscuit, a slice of bread. Nothing. Like the family of Hamam Maat, 32 years old and five children, the youngest still in his cradle, his skin red from bug bites. They were evicted ten days ago. They received 750 shekel every three months, about 200 dollars, but the ministry of Welfare run out of money. And there is no point in trying to make the kids smile: they stare at you hugged each other, in a corner. Speechless. “Israelis fear that with the border open, we would get in and attack. But I don’t have a shekel. I couldn’t even reach the border,” he says. In 32 years, he’s never had a job.
Many of the 13,000 wounded of these weeks underwent amputation. More often then not, they didn’t need it. But they could die from infection: there were no antibiotics.
Palestinians believe it’s time to negotiate. Not only because they are exhausted, but because Israel, they say, is focused on Iran, on the Syrian front: it can’t have a second front in Gaza. And indeed, the fresh wave of rockets and airstrikes that the world is following with concern, here is read as a sign of dialogue: Hamas fires its rockets late in the evening or early in the morning, when they are unlikely to make victims, and Israel, on the other hand, so far has been targeting basically empty areas. As if it were a kind of Morse code. Because in the end, Hamas, too, can’t endure a new war: it is totally alone. And totally broke. It depends on tunnels. But al-Sisi’s Egypt, a staunch opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood Hamas derives from, flooded the few ones still functional after the 2014 attack. While the Gulf countries, that are deeply wary of Hamas because of its ties with Shia Iran, are busy with conflicts and refugees all across the Middle East: and cut donations. Even though, when you ask Palestinians what their strategy is, at this point, their first reaction is always the same: outrage, and they say: Why you don’t go ask Israel? Who is to blame?, they say, The prisoner, or the warder?
Isam Hammad is one of the masterminds of the March of Return. Whose goal, he says, is return, actually. Period. Because should even the border be open again, he says, it is too late. Gaza is too small. Too overcrowded. There is no space for agriculture, he says, for industry. There is no space for a sustainable economy. The only option is to return: to return to what is today Israel – out of 1,9 million Palestinians, here, 1,5 million are refugees. Or more often, truthfully, more exactly: they are descendants of refugees. And so if no one, but really no one, is willing to give up on the right of return, then, matter-of-factly, not all Palestinians would leave. Quite the opposite. Many Palestinians would simply like to work in Israel. Commuting. As they were allowed to do before the Oslo Accords: when there were no walls, no checkpoints, no borders, they say, and Israelis were used to come here to buy fish. It is probably the only point all Palestinians agree upon, and not only in Gaza: there was more peace before peace.
Shams al-Assil is 19 and lives in al-Shati, one of the poorest areas, they are 11 in one room with rotted walls. And yet for me what’s really tough, she says, it’s not the fridge that it’s not that it’s empty, there is no fridge at all, because there is no electricity: what’s really tough, she says, is watching my friends passing by with their books and bags, in the morning, ready for university. Because she can’t afford it. If tomorrow Eretz opened, her mother says, if tomorrow Gaza were normal again, first I would go to Jerusalem. But then, she says, I would return here. Because she is from Be’er Sheva. “And Be’er Sheva is like Gaza. It’s just 30 miles away. If we have to live this way for other seventy years, only for me to return to Be’er Sheva, I can stay here,” she says. “In the end, Gaza has also the sea.”
Palestinians urge, urge negotiations. Now or never, they say. Not because they trust Israel. The opposite. Because they don’t trust Israel. At all. And so, what’s the point of waiting for change?, they say. We must bring change.
But their leaders seem to be stuck. Today I’ve met Basem Naim, I tell friends in a café. Basem Naim is Hamas spokesman for international affairs. And in Gaza, and beyond, is held in high regard. “Really? And what did he say?,” they ask with one voice. He said they want the end of the siege, I say. An immediate, unconditional end of the siege. “And then?”, they ask. And then he said that the siege is immoral, I say. Not only illegal. “And he didn’t say anything else?”, they say. They look at me with disappointment. “But that’s obvious. Of course we want the end of the siege. We didn’t need all these dead to say what we’ve already said countless times.”
Because what hurts Palestinians the most, is that if after so many years they are on the verge of breaking down, it’s actually because of the Palestinian Authority: that a few months ago cut again salaries. And stopped paying for the electricity. That now is on for only fours hours per day. Even the antibiotics that could prevent all these amputations: they are blocked in the West Bank. It is Mahmoud Abbas’ extreme attempt, or as you are told here, extremist attempt, at forcing Hamas to step down. Even though it is definitely not easy to understand who enjoys more support, Hamas or Fatah. Because they have been all elected in free and fair elections, yes, as they always remind you: but in 2006.
And Mahmoud Abbas, too: his mandate expired in 2010.
For Ahmed al-Asi, honestly, it’s not such a big deal. He is 29, and he is one of the many fishermen who now fish only for themselves: because no one can afford fish anymore. “We have Hamas, that doesn’t talk to Israel,” he says. “And we have Fatah. That waits for the international community to talk to it. But Gaza has two borders, not one. Egypt could open Rafah, and solve it all. We get no help from Arabs, and we should expect it from the US?”, he says.
Of the Palestinian Authority he says nothing. “They get all richer by the day.”
And so, in what has been announced as the Friday of all Fridays, the 8th of June, the last Friday of Ramadan, only a few Palestinians eventually show up. About 10,000. Mainly brothers, fathers, cousins, friends of the 123 killed so far. They resolutely head toward the army, with these kids who tell you: I am 12 years and 3 wars old, and it’s impressive: straight toward Israel, toward its snipers, all lined up in front of us: because the border, here, is simply a sand flat where you are completely visible. Always. Completely exposed. Your only shield, is the black smoke of burning tires. Palestinians have only stones and kites, these famous kites with oily rags tied on top, that set on fire the fields across the fence: and that more often, with the wind, land on us. And yet, they are a powerful symbol. They cost a few cents: but they challenged the Iron Dome, with its missile batteries worth 100 million dollars each. “They are not a weapon, they are a message”, a boy says. “We can’t win. But Israel can’t either,” he says, while from the back, other boys push toward the barbed wire the first tire, to kick off the day, and the crowd, around, gives way, and cheers on. But the tire is too heavy, and tips over, on an old, thin man who looks already worn out, and risks to get torched. Everybody laughs. That’s Palestine!, they say, as the first injured start to arrive: from behind the black smoke, you don’t even hear gunshots. Suddenly, simply, the man next to you falls on the ground. And his shirt turns red. If this is a march, it is rather a march in reverse: instead of advancing, Palestinians come back. On stretchers. One after the other. Rushed toward hospitals, toward the second front: the front where the battle is fought with denied antibiotics. And when a kid who is tinkering with a long twine, and a sort of giant butterfly net, catches a drone, all Palestinians, all together, forget Israelis to huddle around the drone that comes down: and take a selfie. At sunset, there will be four dead, but this Friday, basically, ends here. With the drone paraded in the streets of Gaza as a saint statue.
For now, it’s the only feasible achievement.
The next day, the border is a quiet sand flat again. A few Palestinians nap in the shadow, some are graduates, some amputees: all are jobless. A woman in black arrives. Her son was killed. He was supporting all the family. And no one even asked her how she is doing, she says. She is desperate. She grabs hold of one of us, crying, and she collapses, exhausted, Help us! Help us!, she screams, on the ground, in the dust, as a man, rudely, takes her away.
Yahya Sinwar: “We don’t want war any more.”
La Repubblica, October 2018
When I say that I’ve met Yahya Sinwar, the first question is always: And where? In a tunnel? No. In his office. But also in other offices, visiting ministries or a shop, a factory, a hospital, in cafés, in ordinary homes of ordinary families. For a hour or three hours. Alone or not. For five days. Free to talk of everything. And with everybody, in my spare time.
No restriction whatsoever.
And nor I was scared. Never. I never had any reason to feel in danger.
We’ve got this interview after long negotiations. As that’s normal, indeed – especially because in the last years I have been covering Syria most of my time, and I had somehow lost my connections with Hamas. And so I was helped by other Palestinians, and first and foremost by Mustafa Barghouti, who is not from Hamas, and quite the opposite: he comes from the left. But he is one of the brokers of national unity governments. And national unity, here, is what everyone wants. I was supported by many renowned Palestinians, but many ordinary Palestinians as well, who have been calling all the time, texting, writing, stopping me in the street for a tea: because they wanted Hamas to speak, finally, to open up, but also because they wanted Hamas to be heard. They wanted us to open up. Yahya Sinwar says twice: We are part and parcel of this society, regardless of numbers. And that’s true. Also Palestinians who would never vote for Hamas, criticize the ban on Hamas. They say: They won free and fair elections. It’s democracy.
And I was helped by Islamists of other countries, too. I won’t mention them: but they remind us how the Palestine question, which is today a bit overlooked, with jihadists in the spotlight, is still a priority for all Muslims. Emotionally, not only politically.
I say “helped” not because I needed to convince Hamas that I am not a spy. Fortunately, my work speaks for itself. No. But I needed to convince Hamas that I was familiar with Hamas. Familiar with its history and background: and so, that I wouldn’t have misunderstood anything. I was in a Hamas office, last June, and on the wall there was a portrait of its founder, Ahmed Yassin. There was also another journalist. And he said: Quite remarkable how al-Qaeda is still a benchmark.
He had mistaken him for Ayman al-Zawahiri.
And yet, once reached our deal, again: I never had any reason to feel in danger. Never. And that’s something I had no doubt about, honestly. There is some opposition to the ceasefire that Hamas, the Hamas of Yahya Sinwar, is striving to achieve. I know. But with Islamists, and perhaps, in the end, with everybody, it’s just a matter of transparency. If you are honest, if you observe rules, you don’t get in trouble. And actually, at that point, you are their guest, before being a journalist: they would protect you against everyone and everything.
They are men of faith. And like all men of faith, they keep their word.
What I have been impressed by has been rather reading again the books on Hamas that I studied at university. About ten years ago. They had just won the elections, and the embargo was just starting. There were street clashes with Fatah, at the time, and raids against radio stations, music, alcohol. Cigarettes. There was a Police of vice and virtue. And lot of tension. And those books, talked only of Sharia law. Of a future of thieves’ hands cut off. Segregated women. Not a page that could be of any use, now. They were all books on Islam. On the compatibility between Islam and democracy. And instead, ten years later, we have just talked of the occupation.
And its compatibility with life.
I arrived with a hijab, that’s true. As a sign of respect. But they all insisted: and in the end, I had to take it off. As a sign of their respect for me.
Gaza changed deeply. And actually, except that is collapsing, physically, but also psychologically collapsing, it’s beautiful. Because it’s on the sea, with the sun. And in some streets, the sand, the palm trees, and all these climbing flowers: at every step, you are reminded of what it might be. And it has one of the best cafés I have ever been. Which is just a wooden cart, in the end, with a boiler and old iron lamps, and old empty whiskey bottles, and a portrait of Che Guevara, among all the photos of Umm Kulthum, and the candles in little cans, because there’s no electricity, and they have only Nescafé, served on plastic tables worth a dollar each: but it has the atmosphere of a Paris café – because it’s the hangout of all these twenty-somethings who have never been out of here, and yet, I don’t know how, they speak fluent English: and they have countless projects, endless energy. And every time, they want to meet me despite I’m translated into Hebrew, too, among other languages. Israel here means tanks and airstrikes. Nothing else. Most of them have never seen an Israeli. This is not Ramallah. You live badly, here. But really badly. Everywhere you come across wounded, amputees. And this brutal poverty. They would have all the right not to want me here. And instead, of course, I am Italian, not Israeli, and it makes a difference, but they say: It’s not Italy to besiege us. It’s not Italy that we have to address.
They all want to address Israel.
And Yahya Sinwar is like Gaza: normal, despite it all. In the few photos I found online, he has this tough expression. While, no: he is a man like any other. A simple man, always in shirt. Grey shirt. His distinctive feature, is somehow not to have any distinctive feature. Like all his advisers. There are many rumours about tunnels. About smuggling. And in Gaza there are some millionaires. Some wealthy businessmen. But while I was with some Hamas leaders, one evening, and that’s actually what we were talking about, suddenly they all got up. I though of an army raid: and instead, the electricity was back. And they all rushed to charge their phone.
Because like everybody else, they don’t have electricity. Water. Nothing.
A clarification. I am well aware that for many readers this is a hard read, that touches private and deep emotions. And I am neither Arab nor Jewish: I am in between Israelis and Palestinians with the humbleness of a stranger who never forgets that will never experience what they experience. Never feel what they feel. We talked more in detail of some of the most sensitive issues. Like the tunnels. And the prisoners, and prisoners’ remains, still in Gaza. But sometimes, I decided to write less than what I could, and wanted, to write, not to interfere with the ongoing negotiations. Because the priority here, for all, is the ceasefire. And some day, possibly, peace.
And there is no scoop worth the risk of hampering it.
And if that’s been my choice, perhaps it’s also because, if I think it over, Yahya Sinwar has actually a distinctive features. He listens a lot. He never decides alone. But then, once he decides, he really decides: he’s got courage. And determination. He is ready to significant steps.
And he insisted to end the interview with the word it ends with.
And speaking of words. I noticed that he never said: Israel. I might be wrong. But as he always used synonyms like: Netanyahu. Or: The army. The other side. And most of all: The occupation. What I am sure of, he never said: The Zionist entity. The Jews.
Only: The occupation. The occupation.
I know next to nothing about you. You are said to be quite private. A man of few words. You rarely speak with journalists. And actually: this is your first time with Western media. But you have been leading Hamas for more than a year. Why speaking now?
Because now I see an opportunity for change. For achieving security and stability, here. Finally. For all. And I don’t want to waste it.
An opportunity? Now?
A golden opportunity, yes. Now.
To be honest, what looks most likely, here, is rather a new war. I was in Gaza last June, and it was just as usual. Flying bullets, tear gas. Wounded everywhere. And then airstrikes, rockets. Other airstrikes. A golden opportunity to get shot. Since April, since the start of this latest wave of protests, you’ve had nearly 200 dead.
And yet the truth is that a new war is in no one’s interest. For sure, it’s not in ours: who would like to face a nuclear power with slingshots? But if we can’t win, for Netanyahu a victory would be even worse than a defeat. Because it would be the fourth war. It can’t end as the third one, which already ended as the second one, which already ended as the first one. They should take over Gaza. And they are trying their best to get rid of the Palestinians of the West Bank, and keep a Jewish majority: I don’t think they want other two million Arabs. No. War achieves nothing.
It sounds a bit odd, from someone who comes from the military wing of Hamas.
You are a war correspondent. You like war?
And so why should I? Whoever knows what war is, wants no war.
But you have been fighting for all your life.
And I am not saying I won’t fight anymore, indeed. I am saying that I don’t want war anymore. I want the end of the siege. You walk to the beach at sunset, and you see all these teenagers, on the shore, chatting: and wondering what the world looks like across the sea. What life looks like. It’s breaking. And should break everybody. I want them free.
Borders have been basically sealed-off for 11 years. Gaza has not even water anymore. Only sea water. Salt water. How is living here?
What do you think? 45 percent of the population is under 15. We are not speaking of terrorists: we are speaking of kids. They have no idea of what Hamas is. What Zionism is. They are simply kids. I want them free.
80 percent of the population depends on aid. And 50 percent is food insecure – 50 percent is hungry. According to the UN, shortly Gaza will be unfit to life. But in these years, Hamas has found resources to build its tunnels.
And luckily. Else, we would all be dead. There were times when even milk was banned.
You’ve got what I mean. Don’t you think you bear some responsibility?
Responsibility is on the besieger. Not on the besieged.
Why you didn’t buy milk, rather than guns?
Hadn’t we bought it, we wouldn’t be alive by now. We’ve bought it. Don’t worry.
So Hamas has been doing well in government.
But what do you think? That being in power in Gaza is like being in power in Paris? We have been in power for years in many municipalities, exactly because of our reputation for efficiency and transparency. Then in 2006 we won the general elections: and we were blacklisted. There is no electricity, it’s true. And this affects everything else. But do you think that we have no engineers? That we are unable to build a turbine? Of course we are. But how? With sand? You can have the best surgeon in town: but you are pretending him to operate with fork and knife. Look at your skin: it’s already peeling away. Here if you arrive from outside, if you arrive from the world, you get sick straight away. What should grab your eye, is that we are still alive.
And so, you have apparently offered Israel a ceasefire. Negotiators are working around the clock. What do you mean for ceasefire?
A ceasefire. Nothing from their side, nothing from our side.
And for how long?
That’s not the main issue, honestly. It can be for one month or six months, one year. And then another year. And then another year again. No, what really matters is rather what happens during these first, let’s say, six months. Because if the ceasefire means that we don’t get bombed, but still we have no water, no electricity, nothing, still we are under siege, it makes no sense. Because the siege is a type of war: it’s just war through other means. And it’s also a crime, under international law. There’s no ceasefire under siege. But if during these six months, on the contrary, we see Gaza returning to normalcy, step by step, if we see not only aid, but investments, development, because we are not beggars, we want to work, we want to study, to travel, like you: we want to live, and to stand on our own – if we start to see a difference, then we can go on for other six months. And then for other six months. And other six months. But there is no peace without justice. Without freedom and justice. I don’t want the peace of the graveyard.
Ok, but… Maybe it’s just a trick to reorganise yourself. And in six months, to go back to war. Why should Israelis trust you?
First of all, I never went to war: war came to me. And my question, in all truth, is the opposite. Why should I trust them? They left Gaza in 2005: and they simply reshaped the occupation. They were inside: now they block borders. Who knows what’s really going on in their mind? And yet, that’s what trust is all about. And perhaps, that’s our mistake. We always think in terms of: the first step. Who’s gonna do the first step, you or me? But in the end, trust is a joint first step.
Ok, but… Again. Should the ceasefire not work…
But for once, can we imagine instead what happens, if it works? Because it might be a powerful motivation for doing our best to make it work, no? If for a moment we imagined Gaza as it actually was, not a long time ago – have you ever seen some photos of the 1950s? When in summer, we had tourists from everywhere?
And Gaza had plenty of cafés, shops. Palm trees. I’ve seen those photos. Yes.
But today as well… Have you seen how brilliant our youths are? Despite it all. How talented, how inventive, dynamic they are? With old fax machines, old computers, a group of twenty-somethings assembled a 3D printer: to produce the medical equipment that is barred from entry. That’s Gaza. We are not only destitution. Barefoot children. We can be like Singapore. Like Dubai. And let’s make time work for us. Heal our wounds. I have been in jail for 25 years. Basem [Sinwar points at one of his advisers, Ed.] lost a son, killed in a raid. Your translator: he lost two brothers. The man who served us tea: his wife died from an infection, no big deal, a cut: but there were no antibiotics. And that’s how she died. For something any pharmacist could treat. Do you think it’s easy, for us? Forgetting, all of a sudden? But let’s start with this ceasefire. Let’s give our kids the life we have never had. And they will be better than us. Now emotions are still too intense. Memories. Traumas. Resentments. We all need to restore our mental clarity, here. Take a breath: and restore our mental clarity. Everybody. Not only us. And in twenty, thirty years, those who will live here will probably see it all under a different light.
You are giving up?
I’ve been struggling all my life to get a normal life. I’m not surrendering; I’m persisting.
And during this ceasefire, Hamas would keep its weapons? Or you would accept, I don’t know, an international protection, like the blue helmets?
I guess it’s a no.
You guess right.
But so, sorry if I stick at it: but should this ceasefire not work? Not to jinx, but you know, the past is not really encouraging. So far, hardliners have knocked out any deal attempt.
If we will be attacked, we will defend ourselves. That’s it. I think we are both able to understand if an incident comes from extremists or not. But if we will be attacked, that’s obvious, we will defend ourselves. As always. And we will have a new war. But then, in a year, you will be here again. And again I will be here to say: war achieves nothing.
You have an iconic weapon: rockets. Quite makeshift rockets, actually, which are usually stopped by the Iron Dome. And to which Israel replies with its much more powerful missiles. Thousands Palestinians have been killed. Have rockets been useful?
Let’s be clear: armed resistance is our right, under international law. But we don’t have only rockets. At all. We have a variety of means of resistance. Such a question, honestly, is more for you than for me: it’s a question for all you journalists. We hit the headlines only with blood. And not only here. No blood, no news. But the problem is not our resistance: the problem is their occupation. With no occupation, we wouldn’t have rockets. Nor stones, molotov cocktails. Drones. Airstrikes. Nothing. We would all have a normal life.
But do you think they have fulfilled their purpose?
And the occupation? What was its purpose? Raising killers? Have you watched the video where a soldier shoots at us as if we were bowling pins? And he laughs, laughs. They were people like Freud, Einstein. Kafka. Experts of maths, of philosophy. Now of drones. What a pity.
You have now a new iconic weapon: arson kites. They are driving Israel crazy. Because they elude the Iron Dome. And nor they can be shot down one by one.
Kites are not a weapon. At most, they set on fire some stubble. An extinguisher, and it’s over. They are not a weapon, they are a message. Because they are just twine and paper, and an oil-soaked rug: while each battery of the Iron Dome costs 100 million dollars. Those kites say: you are immensely more powerful. But you will never win. Really. Never.
West Bank Palestinians face the same occupation, and yet they opted for quite a different strategy. Appealing to the UN. To the international community.
And that’s crucial. All is crucial. All means of resistance. But, if I may say so, sorry: when it comes to Gaza, the international community is rather part of the problem. When we won the elections, the reaction was an embargo. Immediately. If it turned out the way it did, it is also your fault. And now, too. You warn Hamas: We’ll deal with you only if there is also Fatah. Then you warn Fatah: We’ll deal with you only if there isn’t Hamas. The rift we have been so criticised for is also an effect of the embargo. And I understand Ramallah: with a national unity government, they might not get a penny anymore. They might go bankrupt. Even though we won free and fair elections. And to think that you razed Iraq to the ground to teach us democracy.
The embargo is because Hamas is viewed as an antisystemic movement. As an uncostitutional movement, so to say. That doesn’t abide to the rules of the game.
Which game? The occupation?
You know… Oslo. The two-state solution.
But Oslo is over. I think it’s the only point everyone agrees upon, here. But really everyone. It was simply an excuse to distract the world with endless negotiations, and meanwhile, build settlements everywhere: and physically erase any feasibility of a Palestinian state. And by the way, why do you all insist always and only with Oslo? We have signed so many other documents since then. Like the Prisoners’ Document [that in 2006 marked the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, outlining a unified strategy: it recognizes the 1967 borders, Ed.]. Why should we comply with something no one is complying with anymore?
Anyway, the staunchest opponent of this ceasefire seems to be not Israel, which is now focused on Iran: but Fatah. Which fears it might be a Hamas success.
A success? This ceasefire is not for Hamas or Fatah: it is for Gaza. And then, look. For me, what matters is that you finally realize that Hamas is here. That it exists. That there is no peace without Hamas, there is no possible deal whatsoever, because we are part and parcel of this society: should we even represent only 5 percent of Palestinians. But we are a piece of Palestine. More than that: we are a piece of the history of the entire Arab world. Like the secular nationalism Fatah comes from, or the communist Left. Like anybody else. But having said that: please, let’s avoid the word success. Because it’s outrageous for all the terminally ill patients that right now are queuing on the border waiting for it to open. For all the fathers that tonight won’t dare to look at their kids: because they won’t have any meal. But what success we are talking about? I have been in jail for 25 years. 25 years that I will never get back.
You went in jail when you were 27. And when you got out, you were 50. How was readjusting to life? To the world?
When I entered, it was 1989. We had still the Berlin Wall. And here, the Intifada: and to spread the latest news, we printed fliers. I came out, and I found internet. But to be honest, I never came out. I have only changed prison. And the old one was much better than this one. I had water, electricity. I had so many books. Gaza is much tougher.
What have you learned from prison?
A lot. Prison builds you. Especially if you are Palestinian: because you live amid checkpoints, walls, restrictions of all kinds, and only in prison you finally meet other Palestinians, and you have time for talking, for thinking. Thinking about yourself, too. About what you believe in, the price you are willing to pay. But it’s like if now I ask you: what have you learned from war? You would say: A lot. You would say: War builds you. But for sure you would like not to have ever been in war. I have learned a lot, yes. But I don’t wish prison to anybody. But really anybody. Not even to those who today, across that barbed wire, knock us down like bowling pins and laugh: and don’t realize that they might end up for 25 years in the Hague.
You were released in the Gilad Shalit swap. And Hamas has currently two Israelis, plus the remains of two soldiers killed during the last war. In a ceasefire deal, I guess the prisoner swap for you would be an essential clause.
More than essential. A must. It isn’t a political issue: for me it is a moral issue. Because probably your readers believe that if you are in jail, you are a terrorist, or somehow an outlaw. A cars thief. No. Here we all get arrested, sooner or later. But literally. All of us. Take a look at Military Order 101. Without an army authorization, it’s a crime even just to wave a flag, or be in more than ten in a room drinking tea and chatting of politics. Perhaps you are just chatting of Trump: but you can be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. Somehow, it’s a rite of passage, it’s our coming of age: our Bar Mitzvah. Because if there is something we are united by, something that really makes us all equal, all Palestinians, is prison. And for me it is a moral obligation: I will try more than my best to free those who are still inside.
In some way, you achieved more through kidnappings than through rockets.
Like Gilad Shalit’s.
Gilad Shalit wasn’t a hostage: was a war prisoner. You see why we rarely speak with journalists? A soldier gets killed, and you publish a photo where he is on the beach: and your readers think that we shot him in Tel Aviv. No. That guy wasn’t killed while wearing Bermuda shorts and carrying a surfboard, but while wearing a uniform, and carrying a M16, and firing on us.
And with the ceasefire?
With the ceasefire no one will fire on us, right? And so no one will be captured.
You were talking of prison and Bar Mitzvah. Of coming of age. This year Hamas turns 30. How did you change?
How did you see all this, thirty years ago?
Thirty years ago I was 8.
And that’s it: we changed as you changed. As everybody changed. It was 1988: and we still had the Soviet Union. Basically, we were much more ideological than today. Our world was quite black and white. Friends and enemies. Now it’s no more like that: now we know that there are friends, and enemies, also where you don’t expect. And then, of course, taking power made us definitely much more pragmatic. Like whoever is in power. What didn’t change is our attention for society. Our care for society. Which is somehow the trademark of the Muslim Brotherhood. To do your part, you don’t need to be minister of Welfare: you set up soup kitchens, schools. Day hospitals. If you are Hamas, you are a citizen, before being a voter. But besides that, we are deeply focused on daily life. Daily challenges. I don’t wake up and think of Zionism. I wake up, and like everybody else, I think of water. Of electricity. I think that it’s time for this siege to end.
Many Europeans, yet, think of Hamas, and don’t think of charities. They think of the Second Intifada. Of suicide attacks. For Israelis you are a terrorist.
And that’s what they are for me.
A perfect start, for the ceasefire.
And what should I say? We hit civilians? They hit civilians. They suffered? We suffered. Tell me about any of their dead: and I will tell you of one of our dead. Of ten of our dead. And so? That’s why you are here? You are here to talk of dead, or to avoid new dead? But most of all, you: you think you are innocent? Only because you are Italian? And neither Arab, nor Jewish? How easy it is for you to come from far away, and feel wise and fair. We all have blood on our hands. You, too. Where were you, in these 11 years of siege? And in these 50 years of occupation? Where were you?
For your children, instead, what kind of life you hope for?
I hope they will be free to be Palestinians, of course. But not only that. Because I don’t want all their life to be influenced by the occupation. Physically, but also mentally influenced. Here we talk of the occupation all the time. Of demonstrations, checkpoints, settlements. Permits. Of clashes and negotiations. It soaks up all our energy. It seizes all our thoughts. And I want my children to dream of becoming doctors not to treat the wounded, but cancer. Like all the children of the world. I want them to be Palestinians, so that they can be much more than Palestinians.
Should you sum up all this in a sentence… All what you said. In one sentence only. What’s the message you would like readers to remember the most?
It’s time for change.
Listen… Just a last thing. I noticed that you have carefully avoided the word: Israel. As you can imagine, most of my readers would like to hear it from you.
Have you heard the word Palestine, on the other side?
What do you do? You go back to the first step logic? You said it’s a mistake.
How many questions… Have you any question left for the Likud?
I have many questions for the Likud. Yes. But now I am here. And I am here with you.
Netanyahu belongs to the Likud. And the Likud doesn’t recognize Palestine.
Or Rabbi Yosef. Do you want to talk of Rabbi Yosef? Who wanted us all dead?
Ok, but… Just a minute. But so: if you heard the word Palestine, you would say the word Israel? I mean, the two words are not mutually exclusive?
Look. You were here in June. Together with hundreds of other journalists. And your reportage was the toughest one, with us. And you are also translated into Hebrew. And yet you are here. Again. Because you deeply respect us: and we deeply respect you. Sometimes, somehow, the messenger is also the message. You will leave now, and write it all. Will you be read? Will you be listened to? I don’t know. But we have done our step.