GAZA -- No, he feels no remorse, says Abd al-Hadi Rafa Ghanim sitting on his family‘s sofa in the Nusseirat refugee camp on the Gaza Strip. "I killed 17 enemy soldiers in a war. Why should I feel remorse?"
On July 6, 1989, after wresting the steering wheel from the driver of a bus on the Tel Aviv- Jerusalem line, Ghanim drove the vehicle into a ravine. He survived only by chance in what is considered the first attempted suicide attack in Israel. Sixteen people were killed, some of them burned alive. Ghanim, a member of the Islamic Jihad terrorist group, was treated in an Israeli hospital and condemned to 16 life sentences, which works out to at least 1,200 years.
But now, after 21 years in prison, he's free. Ghanim is one of the 1,027 prisoners exchanged for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was taken hostage by Hamas. He was one of the first 400 to be released, on Oct. 18, 2010.
No such thing as Israeli civilians
Ghanim, now grey-haired, does not like to speak about his past. He remains impassive when one reads him the list of names of his victims. Kinneret Cohen, a 14-year-old girl, for example – was she an enemy soldier? "She would have been an enemy soldier within a few years, and would have murdered Palestinian children," Ghanim counters calmly. What about 73-year-old Jaacov Schapira? "He would have done military service at some point."
For Ghanim, there's no such thing as an Israeli civilian. He appears to view himself as a hero, and indeed was treated as such by countless Palestinians who came by to congratulate him after he was freed.
The mass murderer is, however, moved as he introduces his son, Thar, who was born shortly after the attack and – until his father's release – only knew him from what he was told and the photographs in the living room.
Ghanim was not allowed visits from his family while he was in jail. His wife was overjoyed to see him after so long, and although she says that "national liberation is more important than the family happiness of one woman," one gets a sense of a deeper disappointment – a young woman, pregnant with her first child, left on her own. But it's Ghanim who is putting family happiness above the cause these days: he may not show remorse, but he has no desire to continue fighting either.
"I just want to live with my family. It's so different outside; I have so much to learn." His son is teaching him about the Internet. He's learning how to text on his mobile. During the day, he goes on walks and tries to remember how the streets used to look. He tires easily. After so much time in isolation, dealing with people is a strain.
One last question: Would he like it if his son followed in his footsteps? Tears come to Ghanim's eyes. "Times have changed," he says slowly. "Back then, there were settlers and soldiers here. They're not in Gaza anymore." Best to think through which tactics would bring the most results today, he concludes.
In a sense, Abd al-Hadi Rafa Ghanim's inner conflict is currently that of Hamas. The Islamists governing Gaza are still very far from renouncing terrorism and recognizing the state of Israel. But there are some more nuanced tones coming out of the leadership, particularly those abroad who were considered to be particularly radical.
Khaled Mashal, chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau in Damascus, has thrown all his political weight behind reconciliation with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas's Fatah Party. This was not met with much enthusiasm by Hamas leaders in Gaza – and when Mashal then began to talk about "non-violent resistance" and suggest that negotiations with Israel should be given a chance, the Islamists in Gaza made their displeasure known.
Most vocal is Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmud al-Sahar. "The holy war -- armed resistance against the occupier -- is our life and we will never abandon that path," is a message he has repeated over and over these past few weeks while denying that there are conflicting views within Hamas.
As he hammers the message home again, al-Sahar sits surrounded by bodyguards in his house in Gaza City. It's the same house where, in 2003, the Israelis tried to kill him. A bodyguard and a son perished in the air attack. But al-Sahar fights on. Mashal talks about mass protests, but rocket attacks on Israel could also be seen as mass protests, he says.
Arab spring has changed everything
For Mkheimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al-Ashar University in Gaza, all this is semantics. Mashal was unmistakably talking about non-violent popular resistance, referring to the successful revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia that showed that demonstrations could develop the "power of a tsunami," he says.
And while Hamas is isolated from the rest of the world because of its terror ideology, the West didn't hesitate to forge contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood. The way out for Hamas is renouncing terror. The organization hasn't come that far yet, but willingness to join the Palestinian authority and subordinate their ideology to its decisions would at least be a first step.
It is, however, unclear which wing of Hamas will prevail. Mashal has said he will not be a candidate, which could be an admission of failure or a tactical maneuver. A Hamas spokesperson in Gaza stated that it was up to the Shura Council to appoint the chairman of the Political Bureau and that it was possible that Mashal would be re-appointed.
One thing is certain: the Arab Spring has changed everything, also for Hamas. What had previously been cordial relations with Iran have cooled following Hamas' refusal to declare solidarity with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad at Palestinian refugee camps in Syria. By way of retaliation, Iran has apparently cut off virtually all financial support for Hamas, and of the hundreds of Hamas functionaries in Damascus only a dozen are said to remain.
In Gaza, meanwhile, other organizations have started to recruit Hamas members – such as Amin, who was approached in front of the mosque by two men after morning prayers. "Over a glass of tea we talked about the fight against the occupying forces," says the bearded young man, who builds Qassam rockets for Hamas's military wing. "They asked me if I wouldn't like to put my know-how at the service of Islamic Jihad."
Amin refused, and says he continues to build rockets for Hamas. They're stockpiled for now, but he's sure they'll be needed. It's dark when he takes his leave, wishing everyone a "peaceful night."
Things stay relatively quiet until about 12:40 a.m. when there are three loud explosions. Israeli fighter jets have apparently bombed a tunnel. Five minutes later, another big blast is followed by some smaller ones. Hamas weapons depots were the target this time.
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