Hassan Yousef, a founder of Hamas, has been in and out of Israeli prisons since the early 1990s. In some ways, prison became his second home, where he has spent a little less than a third of his life.
The 63-year-old leader was most recently set free from prison last Thursday after being held for nearly two years under administrative detention. Yousef told The Jerusalem Post that, while he is pleased to return home to his family, he wonders how long it will last.
“So when are they going to take me away again?” he asked during an interview in his living room in Beitunya, a suburb of Ramallah, the de facto political capital of the Palestinian Authority. Over the past 40 months, Yousef has been home for approximately four-and-a-half months.
Despite spending so little time with his family, Yousef is still focused on the major issues facing Palestinian politics. One of these issues is defining Hamas’s relationship with Israel.
According to Yousef, Hamas, which has fought many wars with Israel, is ready to lay its weapons down for a long time, if Israel lifts its closure on the Gaza Strip.
“Hamas is prepared to make a long-term cease-fire with the Israeli occupation in return for it allowing the residents of Gaza to live like all other people in the world with everything that they need,” Yousef said.
“I mean the Israeli occupation needs to allow for freedom of movement – going and coming for travelers, students, sick people, expatriates, and all others who desire to move – exports and imports and everything else. It needs to lift its oppressive siege,” he said.
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In the past, Hamas’s leaders have called for long-term cease-fires with Israel, but such an arrangement has never been achieved. Meanwhile, they have resolutely objected to Western-backed proposals for a two-state solution to the conflict, and have rejected any recognition of Israel.
Since Hamas forcibly took over Gaza in a bloody coup against the Fatah-dominated PA in 2007, Israel has imposed a strict closure on the small territory, permitting a limited number of goods and people to move into and out of the Strip daily.
Israel holds that its closure ensures security and prevents Hamas from exploiting freedom of movement to carry out violent attacks against Israeli civilians, while many human rights groups see the restrictions as a major contributor to Gaza’s growing humanitarian crisis.
Yousef said that if Israel lifts its closure on Gaza, it would not have to worry about Hamas’s commitment to a cease-fire.
“We are a movement that holds firmly to its commitments,” Yousef remarked. “Since the last war, we have not been firing rockets into Israel – that is because of strategic calculations, but also because we are beholden to our commitments.”
While Hamas has not been blamed for shooting any rockets at Israel since Operation Protective Edge in 2014, it has encouraged and blessed stabbing, ramming and shooting attacks against Israelis in the West Bank. The IDF also believes that it is building a significant number of tunnels that could be used to launch cross-border attacks from Gaza in a future war.
Moreover, previous cease-fires, which were brokered between Hamas and Israel through third parties, have not proven to be durable.
Following Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, limited cease-fires were brokered that did not last for more than a couple of years.
In addition to talking about the possibility of a long-term truce, Yousef also spoke about his latest experience in an Israeli prison, elusive Hamas-Fatah reconciliation efforts, Hamas’s recent understandings with self-exiled Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan and Hamas’s status in the West Bank.
Yousef said that his most recent experience in prison was similar to his past ones. “The Prisons Service sometimes wants to pressure us and take away our rights and at other times they want to reach understandings with us,” the Hamas leader remarked.
“But that being said, Hamas’s policy has been clear that it does not want to make relations with the Prisons Service tense and prefers to resolve problems in prison through understandings.”
According to Yousef, the Hamas prisoners and the Prisons Service made some headway ahead of the recent hunger strike led by Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah leader serving multiple life sentences for murder, from his prison cell last April and May.
“We had understandings with the Prisons Service. They said they would work on dealing with the Hamas prisoners’ demands in exchange for Hamas prisoners not joining the hunger strike,” he said. During the strike only a handful of Hamas prisoners fasted.
“Our policy is basically if we can achieve a goal with the least amount of sacrifices, we’ll do that,” he said.
Yousef said the Prisons Service has responded positively to some of the Hamas prisoners’ demands, which mainly relate to visits and conditions, while leaving a number of other demands unaddressed.
In an interview with Palestinian television in January 2014, Yousef passionately advocated for reconciliation. “Let’s end the division file,” he said, alluding to the geographic and political split between Gaza and the West Bank. Several months later, Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation deal, but ultimately failed to implement it. Today, the two rival parties seem to be further apart than ever, with each arresting the other’s cadres and accusing one another of undermining the Palestinian cause.
Despite the growing tensions between Hamas and Fatah, Yousef continues to believe reconciliation could become a reality. “I did and I still believe in reconciliation and our leaders do, too. Many of them told me that in my conversations with them this week,” he said.
“The best example to prove why we can reconcile is our recent rapprochement with Muhammad Dahlan. If we can overcome our differences with Dahlan, who was the head of those who stood against Hamas, we can certainly work out our differences with others.”
Dahlan, a Fatah leader and opponent of Abbas, is believed to have arrested and even tortured Hamas members when he was in charge of Gaza’s security in the 1990s and 2000s.
According to Yousef, the recipe for reconciliation requires the PA to take full responsibility for Gaza and its governmental affairs.
“If the [PA] government takes responsibility for Gaza, Hamas would dissolve its administrative committee,” Yousef said.
In March, Hamas formed an administrative committee to run governmental affairs in Gaza, a move that infuriated PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who has since cut a quarter of the authority’s funding for Gaza.
Yousef stressed that taking responsibility for Gaza would mean taking responsibility for the tens of thousands of employees Hamas has appointed over the past decade.
“These are people who have been providing for the people of Gaza even during the wars,” Yousef said. “The [Palestinian] Authority cannot just tell them to go home.”
Following its ouster of the PA from Gaza a decade ago, Hamas appointed some 40,000 employees. While Hamas has funded their salaries, it would like the PA to take responsibility for paying for them. However, the PA has some 55,000 employees of its own in Gaza and has said it cannot absorb an additional 40,000 employees on its payroll.
Yousef also said that he has no problem with recently improved ties with Dahlan. “We welcome anyone who wants to help improve the conditions in Gaza, whether that be Dahlan or the international community.”
Dahlan, Hamas officials and Egyptian officials have met several times over the past months and agreed to pump some $15 million from the UAE into Gaza monthly.
Nevertheless, Yousef said that while he appreciates Dahlan’s efforts, the formerly hated Fatah official is no alternative to the PA.
“The PA is only the political address,” Yousef said.
The PA usually provides Gaza with hundreds of millions of dollars monthly, far more than the $15 million Gaza is supposed to receive through the recent Dahlan-Hamas rapprochement.
Relating to Hamas’s standing in the West Bank, Yousef believes his movement enjoys strong popularity.
“We are living between the hammer of occupation and the hammer of the PA,” Yousef said, “But I think if we held clean and fair elections today, Hamas would overwhelmingly win.”
Both the IDF and the PA security forces arrest Hamas activists and militants almost daily and frequently close Hamas-affiliated institutions.
Yousef explained his belief that Hamas is still very popular in the West Bank through his personal experience. “So many groups, especially young people, have visited me this week and I saw thousands at a funeral of one our leaders in the North,” Yousef said.
“They support us because we are not corrupt and we help the people. Most Hamas members have barely any shekels in their bank accounts,” he asserted.
While Yousef has a lot of confidence in his movement, a recent poll showed the Palestinian public may feel otherwise. Fourteen percent of Palestinians surveyed said they trust Hamas the most as a faction, compared to 25% who said they trust Fatah the most, a Jerusalem Media and Communications Center survey found.
Yousef has had a rather hectic homecoming, in the six days since his release. He has hosted friends, family and supporters into the late hours of the night, fielded phone calls from Hamas leaders in Gaza and journalists and attended a Hamas leader’s funeral in the northern West Bank.
“I’m finally home and back to work,” Yousef said.
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