Sheikh Mohammed Abu Tir lives about a five-minute drive east of the Alon gas station on Hebron Road in Jerusalem. For many Jewish Israelis, this might be a frightening thought. Abu Tir, after all, was No. 2 on Hamas's successful list of candidates for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) list and has spent almost half his life in Israeli jails for "military activities."
As we sit on the patio of his home in Um Tuba over cups of sweet mint tea, Abu Tir, 55, seems taken aback at the notion that he might constitute a threat to this or any other Israeli visitor. Chuckling sadly and shaking his head at the very idea, he invites me to join him for lunch. Yet elsewhere in our conversation he will seek to justify Hamas's succession of suicide bombings, calling such premeditated killings of Israeli civilians "revenge" for Israeli killings of Palestinians.
But then contradictions, major and more minor, abound in the course of our meeting.
Two hours earlier, when I arrived at the sheikh's house, his eldest son, Musab, greeted me politely in Hebrew at the gate of the parking area.
Just then, a van drove up with a young couple inside. It was Musab's sister and her fianc . "Ma 'inyanim?
[How's it going?]" Musab asked them in vernacular Hebrew, which sounded strange, to put it mildly, coming from the son of a leader of an organization that claims responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis over the last decade.
Yet it also illustrated the odd reality of Palestinians living in east Jerusalem: On the one hand, they live adjacent to and work among Israelis. And they speak Hebrew. Yet they are not - nor do they consider themselves - Israelis, and in those recent PLC elections, many of them voted for the movement, Abu Tir's movement, that demands an end to Jewish statehood.
THE HEBRON Road is about a 20-second drive from the border that divided east and west Jerusalem until the Six Day War.
Abu Tir was 16 years old when the city was unified under Israel in 1967. Thirteen years later, in 1980, the Knesset passed the Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel, imposing Israeli sovereignty over the part of it in which he lives.
The result was that east Jerusalemites, who until then held orange West Bank ID cards, were given blue Israeli ID cards, thus becoming "residents" of Israel. Overnight, they had to pay Israeli taxes and abide by Israeli laws, rather than the conglomeration of Ottoman, Jordanian and Israeli military laws that governed the West Bank.
There were obvious advantages. Instead of no social security, health care and unemployment benefits, they were now able to enjoy these services like all Israeli citizens. Instead of being limited in their movement, they were now free to travel around the country like all Israeli citizens.
There were also a few catches. One was that they if they left the country for more than three years they lost their right to reside in the city. Second, it was very difficult for them to receive permits to build in the city. And third, they weren't full-fledged citizens: They could apply for citizenship if they wanted to, but few did, and so they weren't and aren't eligible to vote in Israeli elections, other than that for the city council and mayor which most of them boycott anyway.
During the first Palestinian elections in 1996, Israel allowed them to cast absentee ballots at post offices, as they did again during the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, giving Hamas four of the six Jerusalem seats (the other two were reserved for Christians).
Abu Tir has no interest in obtaining Israeli citizenship and nor, he says, does he seek to benefit from Israeli social services. He wants east Jerusalem to be under Palestinian control, as the capital of the Palestinian state. And what about the rest of the country, about Israel? "I'll give you a 20-year hudna (cease-fire)," he said.
Twenty years? "What about my children?" I asked.
"Inshallah [With God's will], you will have children and our families will be neighbors."
WITH HIS henna-dyed bright orange beard (in the vein of the Prophet Mohammed and other Muslim leaders), many Israelis have come to see Abu Tir as something of a comical figure. That signature facial hair prompted Tal Friedman to "play" him on Channel 2's immensely popular satire program Eretz Nehederet.
But the Shin Bet, the Prisons Authority, and tens of thousands of Palestinians have a very different take.
A former Arafat loyalist-turned-Islamic preacher, he became a highly influential figure among Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, having spent the overwhelming proportion of the last 30 years there until his release last year. His 1974-89 stretch was in the Fatah years; from 1989-2005, with a three-year break from 1990 and short break in 1998, he was a Hamas inmate. He served time mainly for possession of weapons and membership in a terror organization, and confirmed to the The Jerusalem Post
that he likes weapons and was one of the first members of Hamas's Izzadin al-Kassam Brigades. He denied reports that he was involved in a failed plot to poison Israel's water supply.
"He was the key to peace and the key to war in the prison," a former fellow Hamas inmate told the 'Post.'
Following his election to the PLC, Abu Tir himself noted, he was even summoned for a meeting with Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin. "He wanted to get my perspective," he said with a note of pride. "We talked about life, politics and religion."
Even out of jail and in the PLC, however, his affiliation and place of residence has meant ongoing friction with the Israeli authorities.
Last month, the cabinet decided in principle to revoke his Jerusalem residency and that of the three other Jerusalem-resident Hamas PLC members, as punishment for the Hamas-led PLC's failure to condemn the Islamic Jihad-sponsored suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed 11 people.
Last week, Interior Minister Roni Bar-On ordered letters delivered to the quartet giving them a month to resign their membership in Hamas or lose their Jerusalem residency rights. They would then have the status of foreigners, a ministry spokeswoman said, and would need visas to stay in the country. If these were not granted, they could be removed from their homes for staying in the city illegally, she said.
"I'm from this house," Abu Tir said. "I have been living here, not for 20 years, not for 50 years, not for 100 years. Um Tuba existed well before this. We have been here from the time of the Muslim arrival [in the seventh century]."
"Would you accept anyone taking you from your house and throwing you out of your house?" he asked, apparently immune to the irony of that statement following last summer's Gaza pullout.
"There is a passage in the Koran about the tribe of Israel which says, 'If I instruct you to kill them or to force them to leave their homes, no one will do so except for a very few,'" he went on. "Do you know what the meaning of this is? It means that throwing someone from their home is equivalent to killing them, and only very few would do such a thing to someone else."
There was no indication that the Hamas leader saw any irony in that outraged statement, either.
Abu Tir has two Jewish Israeli lawyers, Andre Rosenthal and Avigdor Feldman, preparing to to position the residency decision in Israel's Supreme Court and, if necessary, at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. "What's wrong with having Jewish lawyers?" he asked, departing briefly from Arabic into a few words of Hebrew when asked about his choice.
"This is a violation of human rights," he went on.
What about the rather graver violations of human rights when Hamas kills Israelis?
"That is revenge," he said, for the first but not the last time in the interview.
Though Hamas does not recognize Israel, Abu Tir said he saw no contradiction in using the Israeli court system to fight his case. "It's not about the recognition of Israel," he said. "It's like putting a cat in a corner. What will he do? Everything he can to get out... I'll go to an Israeli court because we are under occupation. We have no choice but to go to an Israeli court. The injustice being done to me because of this issue forces me to go to an Israeli court."
He paused, then added: "I know that a judge would want to be fair."
BEFORE HIS recent entry into politics, Abu Tir served as the imam of the local mosque in Um Tuba, and later of the Israeli jails where he did time. But he was not always religious. He was a Fatah member from the early '70s, close to PLO leader Yasser Arafat, and did "military training" in Beirut, according to Palestinian sources. He was jailed for the first time in 1974, and freed 11 years later in the "Jibril deal" [when Israel released 1,150 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for three Israeli soldiers held by Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command].
He had turned to religion and joined the Muslim Brotherhood, the precursor to Hamas, during this incarceration. Asked about reports that he was a founder and sometime director of Izzadine al-Kassam, which in its early days attacked soldiers and settlers in the territories, he said only that he was in it before Yihyeh Ayash, the Hamas bombmaker.
Jailed again for most of the years since the late 1980s, he was regarded as a leader by all Palestinian factions in Israeli jails, according to an ex-Palestinian security prisoner. "The prison administrators were fearful of him. If he told the prisoners to do something, they would," this former prisoner said.
"Such instructions usually concerned whether to eat or not," he went on. War was, and continues to be, waged in Israeli prisons with the prisoners' stomachs as the weapons. "Israel can't let people in its jails die of hunger," he explained. "It needs stability there. A prison chief who can't maintain that, can lose his position."
And a prisoner who can tell fellow inmates when to eat, and when not to, thus becomes a power-broker.
Said a Hamas source: "Some are famous for their 'military experience,' while others are famous for their social networks. Tens of thousands of people know Abu Tir: the prisoners and their families. That he was listed as number 2 on the Hamas list was a message from Hamas [about his status and its concern for Palestinian prisoners].
RELATIVELY SPEAKING, Abu Tir is considered a moderate politician by Hamas standards. Last month, he marched with left-wing Israeli peace activists in a demonstration in east Jerusalem against the security barrier. In an interview with a Hebrew daily in January, he was quoted as saying that Hamas would negotiate with Israel "better than the others, who negotiated for 10 years and achieved nothing." (He later issued a denial of the quotation, even though the interview was taped.)
To the 'Post'
he asserted repeatedly that "the occupation" and "Israeli killings" were the causes of suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis. By way of example, he cited the 1994 massacre by Baruch Goldstein at Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs as the start of such attacks, and accused Israel of acting indiscriminately in its retaliatory strikes against Kassam attacks from Gaza. "What do you want from me?" he asked. "Am I supposed to raise my hands in the air?... We never, not once, liked the killing and blood and the explosions on the buses," he claimed. "Not Jews, nor Arabs, not Muslims, nor Christians... We don't want to massacre the Jews, we don't want to throw them into the sea."
He said Hamas had not been involved in attacks on Israel since it called for a tahadiyeh
(period of calm) last March, and that all violence could end when "the occupation ends" and there was a Palestinian state.
But he would not be drawn on what he considered occupied areas or on the intended dimensions of an independent Palestine and did not indicate legitimization of Israel. Having established that this correspondent's father was born in Poland, he said, "You see. Why doesn't he go back to Poland?"
He named Menachem Begin as an Israeli who fought for independence using terror, but said such actions by Jews were unacceptable, while his own organization's use of violence was legitimate. "The difference is that the [Jews] came from the outside and occupied our land," he said. "We are fighting to get it back."
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