The Hamas File

Ephraim Sneh was Head of the Civil Administration in the West Bank between 1985 and 1987 under the Labour government of Yitzhak Rabin, just as the nascent Hamas movement was about to emerge onto the world stage. According to Sneh,l his role at that time 'was to encourage moderate Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to come out against the hardliners. I had an open door to those whom I would describe as the pragmatic elements of Fatah.' In this camp, Sneh placed people like Helmi Hanoun, known as Abu Youssuf, the Mayor of Tulkarem, Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibah, Hannah Saniora, editor of Al Fajer newspaper, lawyer Jameel Al Tarifi and intellectual Faisal Husseini, who eventually became a minister, in charge of Jerusalem affairs, for the Palestinian Authority. All were identified as Fatah moderates who later became key political figures in the PLO.

Sneh, who believed he was one of those closest to the late Rabin, didn't recall any alarm bells ringing at the mention of Hamas. At that time, he said, 'it was not considered a dangerous movement. It was a rising force. They were neither prominent nor important politically, nor considered a significant military organization.' Elected to the Knesset in 1992, where he represented the Labour Party, Sneh has served as a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee.

He believes that the problem in the Middle East 'is not between Israel and the Palestinians but between the moderates and the fanatics'. He would like to see the moderates joining hands as soon as possible to implement a permanent agreement on a two-state solution and to build a new Middle East 'of modernity, of progress and of economic development'. In doing so, he cautioned, 'we must contain the hardliners who want to turn all of the Middle East into a Mogadishu. I don't know if [Olmert] is willing, but he has to. The alternative is horrifying. Compromise and moderation are the only answer.'

Sneh was resolute that:
Hamas will not change. I have no illusions about that. But sooner or later I would like to see that the majority of Palestinian people will be represented in the government. It is not my business but I care about it. I think the only way to defeat Hamas which is as dangerous, or almost as dangerous as Hezbollah, is to give hope of a political future to the Palestinian people through the implementation and fulfilment of their vision of an independent Palestinian state. Without this prospect, Hamas cannot be defeated because Hamas is building on despair and poverty.

Sneh's opinion is not shared throughout the Israeli establishment. Politician and Knesset4.member Israel Hasson participated in many of the peace negotiations, including Wye River, Taba and Ehud Barak's Camp David negotiations. The former deputy director of the Shabak had an altogether different perspective from Ephraim Sneh's. The Civil Administration in Gaza 's attitude towards the Islamic movement which nurtured Hamas in the early 1980s was 'to turn a blind eye'. This remained until 1983 when Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was arrested for possessing weapons.

In fluent Arabic, Hasson, who was born in Damascus before emigrating to Israel , told me that Hamas first became a significant blip on the political radar around 1992. At that time, Shabak and other intelligence agencies were warning both the Israeli government and the Civil Administration that the movement should be treated as a terrorist organization. Hasson went on to say that, after the signing of the Oslo Agreement in 1993: We advised the government to pressure the Palestinian Authority to take action against Hamas, but not only would Arafat not cooperate with us, he even allowed Hamas' military wing to take revenge for the assassination of their leader, Yehia Ayyash. It was only when Netanyahu was elected, that Arafat began carrying out mass arrests of Hamas members. Around 2,400 were rounded up and incarcerated in Palestinian jails.

Hasson suggested that the general feeling within the intelligence community was that the Israeli government would only establish contact or negotiate with Hamas if the movement changed its charter and abandoned its threats to destroy Israel . He believed there was a strong feeling inside Israel that Hamas' 2006 election win was merely a temporary victory, adding that the Palestinians in general 'are not militant and prefer to live peacefully. We don't know what the future will reveal. Hamas will take into consideration the outcome of Israel 's war in Lebanon against Hezbollah, and whatever steps Israel might take in the future concerning Syria and Iran.

It is not just in Israel that Hamas is seen as an implacable force, almost a force of nature, which came out of nowhere. Dennis Ross was the first to tell me of America 's fears about the new movement in the Palestinian territories which, he said, 'first rang anxiety bells' at the time of the kidnapping by Palestinians of the nineteen-year-old Israeli-American Corporal Nachson Waxman in 1994. Ross shuttled between the region's capitals to alert Arab and Israeli leaders to 'the danger ahead', as he described Hamas. Ross gave the same message to every leader, from President Mubarak of Egypt and the late Hafez AI Assad of Syria to Arafat and Rabin: his peace plan had to remain on track. When he visited Damascus in the early 1990s, there was no one from Hamas who was seriously operational. According to Ross:

The late Hafez AI Assad told me that he was giving them [Hamas] refuge 'because I owe it to the Palestinians', but that he kept them on a tight leash. In '96, we couldn't even get the Syrians to condemn the suicide bombings at a time when we had these agreements going on at Wye River. I tried to say to Farouk AI Sharraa, the Syrian Foreign Minister at that time, that at the end of the day these people will subvert what you say, so you really must get them out. But Damascus didn't want them out.

In late 1995, following the assassination of the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and the series of suicide bomb attacks which brought Netanyahu to power, Ross recalled Mohammed Dahlan, who was head of the Preventive Security Services and Fatah at that time, telling him that, out of concern about Hamas, 'he went to Arafat saying to him: "Look, let me go after Hamas because they are building themselves up too much." He wanted written instructions from Arafat, but the Palestinian leader wouldn't give him written instructions, he said, "Yeah, you can do it, but I'm not going to say so in writing".

Looking back, it is possible to trace the shift in strategy from the desire to promote Islamic resistance to the desire to knock the PLO off its perch to 1993, when Hamas announced its rejection of the Oslo Accords and began the campaign of 'martyrdom operations' in the region to impede any consensus between the two sides. The period between 1994 and 2002 witnessed the climax of Hamas' suicide missions, preventing any possibility of a reconciliation with Israel . The impact of those operations eventually resulted in the humiliating Israeli siege of President Arafat inside his headquarters in Ramallah and a thorough destruction of the national infrastructure in the territory, includ'tng the newly built international airport.

Although Mahmoud Abbas was democratically elected on the strength of his programme of peace with Israel and the demili tarization of the Intifada, Israel , with US support, not only isolated him, but also suppressed his efforts and ignored his opinions and suggestions for peace, leaving him incapable of solving his people's problems.

As the Palestinian Authority became weakened politically, economically and socially, the way was paved for Hamas to show its mettle. The movement had been energetic in its benevolent works in the West Bank and Gaza , earning significant popularity and moral strength in the region. Not only did Hamas defy the Legislative Council, it also had the gall to ask for a share of office, claiming the movement had sacrificed considerable blood in its struggle against the enemy. Hamas is not a gang although it behaves sometimes as such. Hamas is part of an Islamic society the USA has committed a grave error in writing it off as a t(; I' 1'0 I organization with whom there can be no negotiation. The movement will not change its Islamic dimension, which is a constant, is not to say that a Hamas government is the future; simply  attacking and isolating Hamas, as has been done, is merely maid the movement more popular.

Fatah is still influential in Palestinian society, its roots firn entrenched in the Palestinians' recent history. Its political prof suffered a knock when it proved incapable of protecting its 0\ leader when Yasser Arafat was under siege; it suffered another wh it failed to call for an open and serious investigation into his deat Fatah's only hope is for Hamas to fail to make headway while government, giving Fatah the chance to retrieve its powerba~ The powerlessness of Mahmoud Abbas is undermining Fata It still has a powerful grassroots network, which could help it recover majority support for its policies in the future, if it reforr. its structure.

The Palestinian Authority itself as we haveseen ample proof of this past month, meanwhile, has weakened und Abbas, because neither the Israelis nor the Americans have helpf him to implement reforms to improve the appalling security situatia and standard of living for its citizens. Moreover, the Authority w: not given the opportunity to act as a negotiator in the final leg; framework. Unlike his predecessor Arafat, Abbas was elected by d: people with unlimited American and Israeli support. The momentur was there for him to reach a deal with Israel which was welcomed b both George Bush and Ariel Sharon at their Jordan summit at th Dead Sea in June 2003. But Israel delivered nothing in exchang for Abbas' concessions; instead, the Israeli government dithered an, stalled on the details. The momentum was lost and, ultimately, th concessions delivered nothing. A deadly cycle resumed.

Sharon then shifted his tactics to unilateral solutions on th grounds that the Palestinians provided 'no real partner'. Eventually Sharon withdrew Israeli occupation forces from Gaza and dismantle! the Jewish settlements. Sharon 's new political party, Kadima continues but, with Sharon out of the frame, his real agenda was lost by his successors.

The two countries wirh the lowest profile but the most influence in the current stand-off are Iran and Syria. Neither has ever recognized Israel. Both have openly voiced their support for Hamas, but they are playing an even stronger hand behind the scenes. Khalid Mishal, the real leader of Hamas, is based in Syria . Any actions he takes will be influenced by the policies of Bashar Ai Assad and his government. Even the futures of Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian Prime Minister, and his successors are more likely to be decided in Syria than Gaza .

Hamas cannot turn back the clock to its former days of championing a military struggle and encouraging suicide bombing. As Mishal sits in his apartment in a Damascus suburb, guarded by undercover Syrian intelligence agents who do their best to blend in with the locals, he will be mentally juggling his goals with Hamas and those of his allies and foes in the Middle East. Hamas' acceptance of a coalition government would give the movement the breathing space to assess what's going on in the region. It is clear that the Americans are not, for now, going to launch a new initiative and it's difficult to see Mahmoud Abbas reaching an understanding with a Damascus-based Mishal. For Mishal, the best option for the time being would be to stick to the Syrian position, allied with Iran . There are behind the-scenes plans by Arab moderates to bring Syria into the fold by tempting Damascus with economic incentives and the guarantee of stability in exchange for reaking its alliance with Iran. If those plans succeed, Mishal may well have to reconsider his options.

The Syrian-Iranian alliance succeeded in challenging Washington in the playground of Lebanon in the summer of 2006. The strength of this partnership will no doubt be further tested in future confrontations. During the brief war between Israel and Hezbollah, Hamas was instrumental in galvanizing the Sunni Arab world to support the Shia Hezbollah, which deepened the alliance between Syria , Hamas , Iran and Hezbollah. There is certainly still a good chance that this alliance will not dominate Palestinian political life, but ifIsrael wants to put an end to its conflict with the Palestinians, which could take Iran and Syria out of what is essentially a conflict between two peoples, the price will be to withdraw from the West Bank and reach an agreement on Jerusalem.

The facts on the ground are that, whatever Hamas' political fonunes, they are not just going to melt into the background, nor will any military action succeed in eradicating them. The idea that the Israeli army could destroy Hamas by rolling in the tanks and raining down the missiles brings to mind a chilling American comment during the Vietnam War: 'We destroyed that village in order to save it.' This strategy did not work in Vietnam and it will not work with Hamas. Hamas is not some alien guerrilla force. It is someone's brother, neighbor, or the guy who gives your son money for his education. For as long as these people represent the Palestinian people at the ballot box, the West and any future Palestinian Authority will have to accept it for what it is - a leopard that is unlikely to change its spots - and negotiate with Hamas.

The military wing's namesake, Ez Ed Din Ai Qassam, was born in 1882 in Jabla, a Phoenician settlement on Syria 's Mediterranean coast, south of Latakiya. At that time, there were no established schools in the area so Ai Qassam's father, Abdul Latif, who was an expert on Islamic shari a, committed himself to teaching the Qur'an, Arabic language and calligraphy, religious poetry and music, and encouraged Ai Qassam and other youngsters in the town to understand the doctrine of jihad. Armed with this grounding in all things spiritual, cultural and religious, Ai Qassam travelled to Cairo where he became a student at Ai Azhar Universiry, at that time the most famous institution worldwide for sharia law and Islamic study. lie became interested in some of the freedom movements in Egypt where there was massive support for resistance against the British occupation. He was particularly drawn to writers like Mohammed Abdu, who was inspired by the Salafi school ofIslamic thought.

For example few know that already in 1906, AI Qassam travelled around Turkey 's mosques to learn ,about their teachings methods before returning home to teach in his father’s school. When the Italian forces occupied Tripoli in Libya in 1911, Al Qassam led a demonstration on the streets of Jabla, calling on fellow citizens to volunteer to oust the Italian occupation. When the French forces occupied Syria in 1920, Al Qassam led the resistance against the French on the northern coast of Syria , selling his house and everything he owned to buy twenty-four guns. The French tried to convince him to abandon his revolution and return to his home town, offering him a position in their administration. He refused and was sentenced to death by the French authorities in Latakiya. He escaped and fled first to Damascus and from there to Palestine where he set up home in one of the old neighborhoods of Haifa. Al Qassam was drawn towards helping the uneducated and working classes, holding evening workshops to teach them to read using the Qur'an as text, and the duty of jihad. His pupils were a mixture of railway workers, construction workers, artisans, small shopkeepers and tenant farmers who had been driven from their land by Zionist purchasers of the late 1920s. The Muslim equivalent of the YMCA movement, the Muslim Youth Association, was founded by Al Qassam, impressing on the youth their duty of jihad, the danger facing them as a result of the British occupation and the indirect support the British forces were giving to the Jewish movement.

By the time he was appointed as a judge for Haifa 's sharia court in 1930, he had strengthened his ties and popularity with Palestinians from all walks of life. He began holding secret meetings in his house, his followers chosen from amongst the people who attended his classes or his Friday speeches at the mosque. Small jihadist cells were formed, whose membership was exclusive to those prepared to sacrifice everything. The cells formed part of a larger jihadist force, which AI Qassam divided into different units: one to buy arms; one for intelligence to monitor British and Jewish activities; a third for military training; another for communications and publicity and calls for Jihad. A fifth dealt with martyrs, prisoners and their families.

Once these units were established, they began attacking settlements in order to stop Jewish immigration to Palestine. The British government made large sums of money available to encourage Palestinian informers to betray Al Qassam's freedom fighters. On 20 November 1935, the British police in Palestine closed in on AI Qassam and his fighters, on the outskirts of Yabud village in Jenin county. Together with a large contingent of British forces, they fanned out in Yabud woods, where a heavy exchange of fire took place. A large number of AI Qassam fighters were killed, including their leader. The rest were taken prisoner.2 The Friday following his death became a day of mourning observed in mosques throughout Palestine when Ez Ed Din Al Qassam was held up as an inspiration for national sacrifice and jihad.

Whilst Al Qassam's men used firearms to inflict heavy losses on the British forces, fighters with the newly formed Al Qassam Brigades of Hamas were initially armed with nothing more dangerous than plastic guns and knives. Comrades of Imad Aqel, the military commander of Hamas' fledgling military wing, recall how frustrated he was that their weapons were limited to stones and home-made grenades and bombs.

Imad Ibrahim Aqel was born in Jabaliya refugee camp, east of Gaza City , on 19 June 1971. Before the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, Jewish forces had forced Aqel's parents to flee their village close to the town of Al Majdal (now the Israeli city of Ashkelon ). The family village was within the Green Line, drawn up in an armistice between Israel and its opponents in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War - Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. The so-called Green Line delineated the de facto borders of Israel from those countries and their territories which Israel would later occupy in the Six Day War of 1967.

Imad's father, who was working in the Martyrs Mosque in Jabaliya camp at the time of his son's birth, had early aspirations of him becoming a mujahid. He named him after the twelfth-century Muslim hero and swordsman Imad Ad Din Zengi, who captured the land of Edessa3 from the Crusaders in 1144. This led to waves of Crusades ordered by European rulers to recover Palestine from the Muslims, which witnessed the rise of another Muslim legend - Salah El Din AI Ayoubi - referred to in the West as Saladin, who secured the city of Jerusalem from the marauding Christian armies in 1187.

Imad studied in the camp's UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) school where, by all accounts, he was considered an excellent scholar. From the age of twelve, he became a regular attender at the mosques in his neighbourhood, particularly the Al Noor Mosque, where he earned the respect of the elders and got his first taste of political activism through the Muslim Brotherhood. By the age of seventeen, he had made up his mind to become a chemist but, before he was able save up the fees for his studies, Imad got involved in anti-Israeli protests, daubing slogans on walls and taking part in general demonstrations as the first uprising in the Gaza Strip broke out in December 1987. He launched a group known then as 'Al SawaaedAl Ramieh!' ('Archer's Arms'), which later became the special military wing for youth called Al Ahdath. Imad's involvement was to lead and encourage teenagers to participate in Intifada-related activities which earned him several months in an Israeli jail. His ideas of becoming a chemist were abandoned but in turn he was accepted to study Islamic sharia law in Amman , where his brother was an Imam of a mosque. This too was thwarted by Israeli intelligence who intercepted his application, and refused him permission to travel to Jordan because of his known participation in the Intifada.

By early May of 1990, the military wing established by Salah Shehada and Sheikh Yassin had a nucleus of fighters. These were expanded by the recruitment of others operating throughout the Strip. The roll call of the early members of Hamas' military wing, with Aqel, their leader at the top, read as follows: Imad Aqel, born in"'-Jabaliya in 1971, killed on 24 November 1993 Ghassan Musbah Abu Al Nada, born in 1969 in Jabaliya, killed on 2 May 1991 Mohammed Abdul Karim Abu Al Ataya, born in Al Yarmouk neighbourhood in Gaza in 1968, arrested on 29 July 1992 and given seventeen life sentences Mohammed Gumaaian Abu Aisheh, born in 1967 inAl Yarmouk, and arrested by the Israeli army along with Abu Al Ataya and given five life sentences MohammedAli Harez, also fromAl Yarmouk, born in 1968, and arrested with the other two Mohammed's with a punishment of eight life sentences Majdi Ahmed Hammad, born in 1965 in Jabaliya, arrested on 26 December 1991 and given six life sentences Talal Saleh, born in 1969 in Al Zaytoun neighbourhood in Gaza, who left the area via the tunnel network together with Bashir Audi Hammad, born in 1967 in Jabaliya Nihro Massoud, also born in Jabaliya in 1971. Saleh, Hammad and Massoud fled the Gaza Strip for Egypt to avoid arrest after their homes and those they visited were raided and searched. As operational commander of the new organization, Aqel realized he had to source a supply of weapons to arm this new generation of fighters, and began recruiting young men specifically for this task. One Al Qassam leader who spoke to me under condition of anonymity - I will call him Tariq - told me that when Ez Ed Din Al Qassam Brigades began their attacks in 1991, they had at their disposal no more than twenty machine guns which remained the sum total of their arsenal until the year 2000.

Aqel wished to arm a new group he was assembling in the northern part of the Gaza Strip who called themselves the Martyrs Group. An obvious start was to target Palestinian collaborators who were usually well armed by their Israeli minders, to steal their weapons. The first to be killed was Yahya Al Ahwal, shortly followed by an attempt on the life of Mustapha Al Mashlouh.

The northern cells split into two groups and travelled in separate cars on a mission to kill Al Mashlouh who lived in a well-guarded house surrounded by bodyguards and armed Israeli border guards, who had trained in nearby settlements. On 2 May 1991, the two cars tailed Al Mashlouh's movements that morning in the hope of ambushing him and the impressive arsenal of weapons he was known to carry with him, including M16 rifles and Israeli-made Uzi sub-machine guns. When they intercepted his car, Al Mashlouh was, unsurprisingly, armed with a machine gun and killed Ghassan Abu Al Nada outright. Mohammed Abu Al Ataya who was trying to take control of Mashlouh's car, died on arrival at Al Mamadani Hospital where he worked. Mashlouh escaped into a nearby settlement. It was not an auspicious start.

The day in 1987 when the Hamas movement delivered an historic blueprint for its fight against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian :erritories. On the first anniversary of their inauguration, Ez Ed Din Al Qassam Brigades decided to mark the occasion with a parade .n Jabaliya refugee camp. Majdi Hammad who was the leader of a Brigades cell in the nearby AI Shati camp - or Beach Camp, as it IS known - attended the parade carrying an old Swedish-designed 8mm Cad-Gustav M45 sub-machine gun, which he had borrowed trom a member in his own cell. The Cad-Gustav was the official gun of the Swedish army after the Second Wodd War and berween 1965 and 1970 was manufactured under license in Egypt, where it was called the Port Said.3 None of the other participants in the parade were brandishing guns, real or otherwise, for fear that Israeli intelligence would round them up for being members of an armed militia. Majdi was an extremely well-built figure and, despite swaddling his head with a cheque red Palestinian scarf in an attempt at disguise, he was instantly recognizable and a liability as he fired shots into the air from the weapon in celebratory fashion. The leadership of the Martyrs Group called an urgent meeting and voted to send Majdi abroad as he was vulnerable to arrest and could be forced to reveal the identities of his comrades and more.

It was agreed that Majdi should cross the border into Egypt together with Hassan AI Ayidi who was also wanted by Israeli security for his involvement with the AI Ahdath in central Gaza . The pair attempted to bypass the tightly controlled Rafiah border crossing by swimming out into the Mediterranean Sea under cover of darkness, then cutting across to the safety of a beach on the Egyptian side of the border. Israeli forces patrolling the Gaza shoreline spotted Majdi and AI Ayidi in the water and they were arrested and taken to AI Saraya Prison, Gaza's main detention facility, where they were tortured and, as feared by their organization, forced to make confessions. Majdi had served at least four previous jail sentences and had only been released two months prior to this latest arrest.Majdi's confessions  meant that, as of 26 December 1991, Imad Aqel and his support team - Abu Al Ataya, Abu Aisheh, Harez, Bashir and Talal- became wanted men. One of his comrades described Aqel as always on the alert and in charge. One night, with the six men assembled in their safe house, he was asked to join them for prayers, Aqel told them that they should pray together but he would keep watch. It was noticed that he didn't eat much and he would tease his less frugal brothers that it was 'better to eat light so that I won't become lazy or feel the need for a nap'.

Being light on weapons didn't prevent the group from launching attacks against the Israeli army or Jewish settlers. Their first was on 14 May 1992, when Aqel attempted to shoot a high-ranking Israeli police officer in Gaza using the old Swedish warhorse, the Carl-Gustav. The attack damaged the car of his bodyguards but the target survived. The second attack was carried out three days later by Mohammed Abu AI Ataya, who, with one of his comrades, tailed a car driven by David Cohen, an Israeli sheep trader, in their Peugeot 404, on the road to Beit Lahyia. They forced him to stop, then killed him outright. Apart from attacks against Israeli targets, Aqel and his group killed at least thirteen Palestinians working as agents for Israeli intelligence as well as drug dealers who were operating in Gaza . The Israeli presence in Gaza at that time was heavy, which left Aqel and his group with no choice but to look for refuge elsewhere. Their lack of machine guns forced them to cross to the West Bank, as they had ruled out leaving the Palestinian territories after Majdi Hammad's failed escape to Egypt. With the sole protection of the Carl-Gustav machine gun, they knew they needed back-up, so they obtained a further Carl-Gustav and a pistol through the leadership of the movement.

Aqel and his fellow members in the Martyrs Group consulted the leadership of the AI Qassam Brigades in both regions and devised a plan to leave Gaza for the West Bank . Cells in the West Bank had been successful in stealing a number of ID cards belonging to Israeli Arabs living inside Israel and their idea was to doctor these, replacing the photographs and personal details with those of their own members. The men were to travel separately into Israel, mainly via the Erez border, crossing at the northern tip of the Gaza Strip, beginning on 22 May 1992.

The first to pass through the twenty-two-metre-Iong passage that feeds into several narrow lanes of iron-barred checkpoints was Imad Aqel. He took his place amongst the long lines of weary Palestinians who would wait for hours on end to enter Israel for work, under surveillance of the looming watchtowers. His forged Israeli ID card seemed to satisfY the border guards, and he was soon on his way to Jerusalem, an hour's taxi ride from the border. He rented a small flat in Abu Dis, a Palestinian village just outside the eastern municipal boundary of Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives. Abu Dis was awarded to Yasser Arafat's authority under the Oslo Peace Accord in 1993, and the view from the town of Jerusalem's famous landmarks, the golden and silver domes of the mosques of Omar and AI Aqsa, has bestowed upon the small village its controversial nomination as the future Palestinian capital.

The following day, Aqel registered at an educational institute to study media and communications as a cover for his activities. He attended classes regularly while waiting for the rest of his comrades to arrive in the West Bank . A few days later, Mohammed Abu Aisheh and Mohammed Harez joined him in Abu Dis, still armed with one pistol. Talal Saleh, who had crossed Erez in the same way, rented a flat in Ramallah along with five students from Gaza. He enrolled at a private institute, also to study media and communications. At that point, having not yet established contact with the Hamas leadership in the West Bank, the sum of the group's armaments was one pistol, two Carl-Gustav machine~uns and a few knives.

A few weeks passed Defore the arrival of Bashir Hammad, followed by Mohammed Abu AI Ataya, whose parting shot had been an attack in Gaza.4Two policemen who were standing in front of the Beach Hotel which the Israeli police were using as an office in Gaza City were distracted by two members of the youth wing as AI Ataya opened fire. Later that day, the police made a statement saying that, despite being used at close range, the Carl-Gustav failed to kill its targets. The gun was renowned in the Gaza Strip for its poor performance. It was capable of spitting out six hundreds rounds a minute but, once the barrel heated up, the bullets tended to 'drop' from the barrel rather than becoming high-velocity projectiles.

Three days later, just over the border in Israel, AI Ataya and his back-up team of youths from AI Ahdath wing stabbed two settlers who were working in a citrus-fruit-bottlingfactory in Kibbutz Nahal Oz. The factory was close to the Karni or 'Oz Shalom' checkpoint  which is a commercial zone where food and agricultural products and humanitarian aid enter and leave the Gaza Strip.

Once the Gaza group of six had finally assembled in Ramallah and Jerusalem , they made contact with Saleh AI Arouri, who was responsible for the military wing of Hamas in the West Bank . By then the group was desperate for weapons and were promised reinforcements. In the meantime, they wasted no time and began planning revenge with knife attacks for the massacre which had taken place at the AI Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem eighteen months earlier.They selected two of their number and a driver to go on a reconnaissance. They rose at 3 a.m. on Wednesday 29 July and drove to the Old City in Jerusalem. Their target was to be Israeli soldiers who were known to patrol inside the imposing forty-foot limestone walls that enshrine the Old City and its historic churches, mosques and the Wailing Wall of the Jews. The men arrived at about 3.30 a.m. and made their observations for the following day's attack. The driver dropped them back at their flat in Abu Dis and drove on to Ramallah, having made arrangements for an early morning pickup the following day. Late in the evening of that same day, Israeli intelligence arrested Mohammed Abu AI Ataya, Mohammed Abu Aisheh and Mohammed Harez after besieging one of the flats the group had rented in Ramallah.

The Shabak,7 together with special units belonging to the Israeli army and the Israeli Border Guards unit, had coordinated an extensive search to trace the AI Qassam group, whose disappearance from the Gaza Strip had raised the alarm. The assassination of a commander from AI Qassam Brigades, Yaser Al Namrouti, on 17 July 1992 in Khan Younis, following a tip-off by a Palestinian collaborator provided the Israelis with vital information. They obtained a recent photograph of Talal Saleh and were made aware that Mohammed Abu Aisheh's appearance was distinctive because of his unusually dark skin. These key visual references helped the Shabak tighten its net around the group. Only a last-minute change of plan saved Talal, Bashir and Imad from capture. A little before 10.30 p.m., Talal had spontaneously invited Bashir and Imad to spend the night at the nearby flat he was sharing, as his student flatmates had returned to Gaza for the holidays.

A little before 10.30 p.m., Talal had spontaneously invited Bashir and Imad to spend  the night at the other flat and it saved Imad from travelling back to Abu Dis at a dangerous time of night. They drove off in their Peugeot and, along the route, they spotted an Israeli jeep. Imad, whose antennae was always on the alert, was suspicious, but the three men drove on, unaware that their remaining three colleagues had been ambushed.Nine days after the arrests, an Israeli army spokesperson confirmed that a rubber boat, a Carl-Gustav machine gun, ammunition, knives, videotapes of recorded attacks and faked Israeli IDs had been recovered from the flat rented by the group.8

Sheikh Saleh Al Arouri, the leader of Ham as in the West Bank , had warned the group in his first meeting with them about the dangers of living in Ramallah as there were a large number of suspected Israeli informers in the area. They were advised to move from one safe house to another until they decided to relocate to the larger city of Hebron where Hamas has a sizeable support network. There, Aqel became a regular at the local mosques where he used different names, amongst them Hussein and Ayyoub, in an attempt to throw Israeli intelligence off the scent, and later devised new tactics which included kidnapping Israeli soldiers in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. He sent a messenger, Abbas Chabanah, a twenty-two-year-old Al Qassam fighter, to see Mohammed Abdul Fattah Dokhan, son of one of the founders, who was responsible for the coordination of Al Qassam activities in the West Bank and Gaza . He needed a car with yellow Israeli number plates, weapons and ammunition. Other assistants in Hebron were asked to find a cave in the surrounding hills which could be used to detain kidnapped Israeli soldiers. More than a thousand Palestinian cave-dwellers live a biblical life with their goats and families in the caves of South Hebron . The cave Aqel had in mind would also double as a training facility for four of their new recruits who had just joined the Al Qassam Brigades a few days before.

The most audacious attack carried out by Imad Aqel and his comrades was in broad daylight on 25 October 1992 against a military camp beside the Mosque of Abraham. They shot two soldiers from thirty metres, then escaped the area without trace, despite the large number of soldiers inside the well-guarded camp.

None of the Palestinian organizations had problems in recruiting members or volunteers. The university campuses were one source, the mosques were another. AI Qassam fighters were chosen from within the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Gaza using the selection criteria that they should have a strong religious commitment and demonstrate fiery determination towards the cause. 'In conflict, everything is possible,' my informant, Tariq, said simply. 'Hamas is not an organization with angels for members.'Like Fatah, the Popular Front, Islamic Jihad and all the other Palestinian organizations, Hamas has been subject to assassination attempts. They have been penetrated by Israeli spies or by Palestinians coerced into becoming collaborators for the Israelis through torture, blackmail or financial remuneration, or all three. In turn, Hamas has infiltrated Israel's intelligence agencies using Israeli collaborators or persuading Palestinians to join the Shabak who would pass  information about their activities to their Palestinian handlers.

Israeli intelligence appeared to keep one step ahead of every move made by the Palestinian resistance. It was only after Israel 's withdrawal in 2005 and the subsequent takeover by the Palesrinian Authority that the various military organizations gained easily  access to their members outside the Gaza Strip. The development and manufacture of locally made explosives and missiles then became possible.Political leaders of Hamas, including Sheikh Alhmul Yassin, Mahmoud Zahar, AbdulAziz Al Ranrisi and Abu Shanab would distance themselves from the military wing and deny any personal responsibility for their attacks. This was emphasized in the wake of each attack or suicide mission carried out by AI Qassam Brigades into the heart of Israel . In a typical statement they would say: 'There is no relationship between the political leadership and the AI Qassam Brigades. The political leadership has no interest in forging a connection with the military wing. They have their own leadership and fighters, who plan and execute their attacks and everything related to this aspect.

Nevertheless, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was in jail at the time the military wing was established, was highly respected by AI Qassam Brigades, and his religious guidance was considered and implemented. Along with other Hamas political leaders, he was kept informed about its developments and relationships with other Palestinian organizations. There were many interconnecting links within the Palestinian arena which made it necessary for all the Palestinian organizations AI Qassam Brigades, AI Jihad AI Islami, AI Aqsa Brigades and others - to cooperate and coordinate with one another. Tariq described the intense pressure placed on all factions by the Israelis which forced the Palestinians to demonstrate a unified front and carry out joint operations, 'but unfortunately,' he said, 'there are members of all factions who attempt to stir up conflict, hatred and envy which creates disunity.

Joint operations began in 1992, towards the end of the first Intifada, when Hamas and Fatah united in an operation in Khan Younis, where they killed Israeli settlers and military personnel. By the beginning of the second Intifada, cooperation between all the groups had become essential. AI Qassam fighters who were known to the Israelis led a tough existence, according to Tariq, who was on the Israeli Defense Force's hit list for many years: 'The IDF was everywhere in the Gaza Strip.' While the IDF was the visible enemy, it was hard to defend against the invisible enemy - the Palestinian spies who were a dangerous presence throughout the region's neighbourhoods.

Hamas' election victory in January 2006 and its subsequent formation of a government, caused a fracture within the movement which was at odds with its slogan of 'A Hand to Resist and a Hand to Rebuild', the implication of which was that there should be a balance between resistance and political participation. As Hamas propelled itself onto the political scene, it began to realize that there was a contradiction between building a secure society and creating warfare on the streets.

Then there was Yehia Ayyash the bomb maker, called the engineer. He was raised in the village of Rafat , north of Jerusalem , which has become the centre for the international outcry about Israel's illegal Wall. Ayyash was born on 22 March 1966 and grew up in a conservative household wirh little money. He has been described as a shy, quiet, intelligent boy who began memo rising the Qur' an when he was just six years old and his passion for the liberation of Palestine grew with him: He studied in the village elementary school and among his abi{ling memories is that of standing at the side of the road after school, watching the trucks belonging to the settlers widening the village road to accommodate the flow of traffic to the settlement beside his village. The settlement has now merged into the twenty-seven-settlement bloc of Ariel, the largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank with a population of 37,000.8

Ayyash changed his appearance daily, rarely sleeping more than one night in the same house. Even his closest comrades were tricked by his variety of disguises. Sometimes he would be dressed as an Israeli settler, complete with sideburn ringlets, a Jewish skullcap and an Uzi machine gun slung over his shoulder. Other times he would be walking the streets of Tel Aviv in the guise of a foreign diplomat, or driving around with the yellow registration plates of an Israeli car. It was said that he attended the funeral of Kamal Khahil, a senior member of Al Qassam, in the West Bank , disguised as a woman. Rabin once remarked in the Israeli Parliament, 'I am afraid he might be sitting between us here in the Knesset.'

On 6 April 1994: Raed Zakarneh became the first Hamas suicide bomber. He drove a bomb (wired up with explosives by Ayyash) to a bus stop at Afula and detonated it, killing eight Israelis and injuring forty-four. Ayyash, who was sad to lose Raed for the cause, promised that this was just the tip of the iceberg for what he had planned. Ayyash was at boiling point and made a commitment to his comrades that his revere would cause every Israeli and their government to feel deep remorse. He was already number one on the wanted list after the discovery of a car filled with explosives in Ramat Efal settlement two years before in November 1992. Using the forty-day anniversary of the massacre in AI Haram AI Ibrahimi, in AI Khalil, as his launch pad, he engineered a rapid succession of attacks. Less than a week later, on 13 April, Ammar Ammarneh also exploded one of Ayyash's signature bomb bags on a bus in Hadera inside the Green Zone, taking six Israelis with him and wounding twenty-eight, including eighteen IDF soldiers. On 19 October 1994, at around 8.55 a.m. and during the commuter rush hour, Saleh Nazzal boarded a number five Dan Line bus near Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv. His bomb killed twenty-two Israelis, injuring forty-eight others. This last attack prompted Yitzhal- Rabin to cut short a trip to London and immediately return to hold emergency meetings with his security staff.

According to Jadoun Azra, a former head of Shabak, Rabin was astonished by the endurance of Ayyash, who had perplexed and outfoxed the army, the Israeli government, the whole country. He was so elusive that he was likened to a ghost who chased them, and a nightmare which overtook their dreams. Israeli analysts wrote at the time that the phantom Ayyash had completely taken over Rabin's life, involving his entire army, security systems and large amounts of money in pursuit of his arrest.

Some Israeli intellectuals selected the Engineer as their Man of the Year in 1995 because of the inRuence he had over the Israeli people at that time, swaying their choice of government. Many TV and radio programmes were dedicated to discussions about him. The most talked about was an Israeli TV discussion programme aired on 25 January 1995. A panel of four analysts were assembled to discuss his tactics and strategy and, in particular, why the various Israeli intelligence agencies had failed to capture him. The panel included Shimon Romah, a former Shabak commander, and Ehud Ya'Ari, a respected TV correspondent and expert in Middle East affairs. Shimon Romah commented wryly: 'I'm sorry to tell you that I am forced to show some admiration for this man who has displayed abilities and experience beyond all bounds.'Things became harder for Ayyash after the deaths of his two friends Ali Asi and Bashar AI Amoudi - both AI Qassam activists who were trusted by Ayyash and worked with him closely. He transferred his theatre of operations from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip which was a blow to Israeli intelligence who had felt they were closing in on him, a shy man of few words' is how his wife Asrar described Ayyash.

Her husband was being pursued by the Israelis, she moved with their son to her father-in-law's house in the West Bank . Every so often, Ayyash would send her a handwritten note asking if she would like to join him in Gaza . One of his comrades would arrive at her father-in-law's village using a password to confirm that he was a safe messenger and he would accompany Asrar, her young son and her mother-in-law to Gaza . The young man was armed with many fake IDs which enabled him to pass through Israeli checkpoints with relative ease. They would change cars after every checkpoint as a precaution but it was relatively easy for women and children to pass through at that time. 'Usually my husband doesn't spend more than a few hours in each place and never says where he is going or when,' Asrar explained, talking of her visits to Gaza . She herself didn't stay in one particular house for more than a week: I hardly met anyone as I didn't want them to have any suspicions about me. I would sleep with hand grenades next to my head and my machine gun as well. I have done my training and I am very good at using them. Our lives. were always in danger so I was mentally prepared for any raids. I knew that the Israelis would use me as a means to blackmail my husband. On one occasion, I stayed in a house for a whole week without leaving it once, because I noticed that the neighbours around where we were staying, appeared suspicious. So I kept out of their sight, not meeting anyone, except the wife of one of Yehiya's comrades who used to come once a day to bring food for me and my son and stay for twenty minutes or so, then leave us.

One day the house was raided by the Israelis and I jumped into the cupboard along with my son, AI Bara'a, who was only four years old but he was aware of the dangers both his father and myself were under. Instead of me calming him down and begging him not to make a noise, he put his hand over my mouth so I wouldn't say anything! Even when he went to play with kids in the neighbourhood, he always introduced himself as 'Ahmad'.Always on the move, he made a snap decision to go south to Rafiah and spend the night at another safe house which he had been going to for about five months. It belonged to a long-established friend, Osama Hammad, who had been one of his classmates at Birzeit University ten years before. They had befriended one another when it was discovered they both lived in Abu Kash village, not far from the University compound in the West Bank.

The conversation between the Engineer and his old friend began with the usual kinds of things discussed between friends of long acquaintance. Then Ayyash talked tactics with Osama, saying they should carry out more attacks in the heart of Israel so that Israeli politicians would get the message that their policies would not bring them security but provoke even more killing. Ayyash then switched topics to express how much he missed his parents and family, which reminded Osama to tell him that his father, Abdul Al Latif, had been trying to reach him on the landline at his previous safe house but there was a fault on the line so he called Osama on the mobile number Ayyash had given him for emergencies.The next morning, at about eight o'clock, Osama Hammad's cousin Kamal came to the house with a message for Osama that someone from Israel had been trying to get in touch with him on the mobile they shared. The three men chatted together and, after some time, the mobile rang and Kamal immediately handed it over to his cousin. It wasn't the expected call from Israel but Ayyash's anxious father. The two cousins left the room to allow Ayyash to talk to his father in private. Shortly afterwards, there was an explosion and smoke billowed from the room. When Osama rushed in, he found his friend lying on the floor with a gaping hole in the right side of his head.

The Hamas membership wondered who could possibly replace the master bomb-maker. Dr Mahmoud Zahar, Hamas' Foreign Minister in the first elected government of January 2006, spoke to me by telephone immediately after the assassination. He told me that Ayyash's death would create 'a huge vacuum in the movement'. But he added: 'The Engineer has passed on his bomb-making skills to a new generation of Gaza 's youth.' Continuing, Zahar said that during the month prior to his death, Ayyash had stopped using mobile phones explaining to his comrades that he feared that Israeli intelligence was closing in on him. He even warned his parents that they should only contact him on his landline. Kamal Hammad had taken advantage of an apparent lapse in the security precautions taken by Hamas and informed Israeli intelligence that his cousin Osama was providing a safe house for the Engineer. They invented a scenario whereby a mobile telephone rigged with a small time bomb could be handed to Ayyash whenever the opportunity arose. In a touch of irony, the Engineer, famous for his sophisticated bombs, was killed as if by his own hand, when a mobile telephone exploded in his ear.

Kamal Hammad was the owner of a building in AI Naser Street in Gaza where Moussa Arafat, the head of one of the intelligence organizations attached to the Palestinian Authority, rented his apartment. Hammad teld family members that Palestinian intelligence were trying to arrest Ayyash, in an effort to curb Hamas' militant activities which had become a serious embarrassment to the PA. He was presumably trying to deflect from his own shame as a collaborator.Osama Hammad, the only witness to the assassination, told me that his cousin Kamal, a businessman involved in property, had been hinting to him for some time that he should get a mobile telephone and offered to share his. On occasion, Kamal would lend Osama the mobile for a day or two to get the feel of it and would then ask for it back.Despite being in the pay of the Israelis, Kamal Hammad had warned Ayyash, in a moment of guilt, about the danger he was under and advised him to be cautious. But Ayyash answered philosophically that no one dies before their time and that he was aware his days were numbered.

Abdul AI Latif would occasionally call his son on Osama's shared mobile but Ayyash, who had grown nervous in the course of his fugitive lifestyle, had asked his father only to use the landline, discreetly arranging that he should call him on Friday mornings only. On that particular Friday, 5 January 1996, the landlines at the various safe houses Ayyash used, appeared to have been cut off. At 9.00 a.m., Ayyash's father anxiously called the mobile to tell Osama that he couldn't get through to his son. Within a few seconds of answering the phone, the last words Osama heard the Engineer say as he was leaving the room were: 'Father, don't call me on the mobile telephone.' Dr Zahar confirmed to  that Kamal Hammad was a member of Hamas and it was widely rumoured that he was paid a million dollars by Israeli intelligence as his reward for killing Ayyash. Kamal was moved to a safe house inside Israel for his own protection.

Zahar called on the Palestinian Authority to return the weapons which were seized from Hamas so that it could protect its fighters against the large numbers of informers who were still free and active in the Strip. The Palestinian Authority made frequent raids on homes belonging to Hamas military wing activists as the Authority believed that their aim was to derail the peace agreements the PA had signed with Israel.Mohammed Dahlan, who was in charge of the Palestinian security services, held Israel responsible for Ayyash's death, saying that Hamas had respected the tacit agreement reached with Israel not to carry out attacks which up until that point had resulted in the deaths of a large number of Israeli civilians. He criticized Israel 's attitude saying that 'by their reckoning, every Palestinian is wanted by the Israelis, including myself who coordinates with them.' Dahlan predicted that 'Israel would never succeed in securing its borders,' after threats were made by Hamas to take revenge for Ayyash's death - just as there had been after the Baruch Goldstein attack at the Mosque of Abraham. Hamas and PA officials described the Gaza Strip as being 'riddled' with Israeli informers following decades of occupation and intimidation.

Dahlan had always insisted that Hamas leaders and their military wing activists were careless. The exceptions were few but he named Mohammed Al Dayef as one. Mohammed Ibrahim Diab Al Masri, known as Mohammed Dayef from Khan Younis, was named as the Engineer's replacement because of his talent for orchestrating attacks. He was educated at the Islamic University in Gaza and worked closely with Imad Aqel and Ayyash. Dayef has been a target for Israel for more than a decade, who hold him responsible for the deaths of dozens of people in suicide bombings since 1996. He has survived at least five assassination attempts including two helicopter-borne missile strikes in August 200I and September 2002. The latter left him injured, destroyed his car and killed two bodyguards. Like Yehia Ayyash, he is said to be a master bomb-maker and was part of the team which designed and produced "he Al Qassam short-range rocket. He is invariably described as a 'shadowy' figure and his appearance in silhouette in a videotape on 27 August 2005 did nothing to dispel his mystique. In the tape, which was released by Al Qassam, he made several threatening comments towards Israel in the wake of its withdrawal from Gaza: 'You conquered our land. Today you are leaving Gaza humiliated. Hamas will not disarm and will continue the struggle against Israel until it is erased from the map.'

Yehia Ayyash made his final public appearance at his funeral ceremony, his coffin held aloft above a vast sea of an estimated quarter of a million banner-waving supporters. Al Qassam fighters were out in force, displaying the full might of the military wing of Hamas, a stark contrast with the early days when they had been armed with plastic guns, sticks and knives and one solitary Carl-Gustav machine gun.

No one felt the death of Ayyash more keenly than Adnan Al Ghoul. Adnan was responsible for the manufacture and distribution of weapons and the development of Al Qassam missiles under the supervision of Mohammed Dayef. In the early 1980s, prior to the official launch of the Al Qassam Brigades, Al Ghoul had already made a name for himself within the Hamas movement. Along with many other young men at that time, he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in his home town of Al Migraha , south of Gaza City. He was assigned as a weapons collector but he also carried out attacks against the Israeli occupying forces, notably killing Ron Tal, the head of the military police in the Gaza Strip, and one of the leaders of the Shabak, Victor Rijwan, in September 1987. Shortly after these attacks, Israeli forces seized large amounts of weapons which Al Ghoul had stockpiled and so Al Ghoul found himself one of the first Hamas leaders on Israel 's wanted list, even before the first Intifada.

He escaped from Gaza by sea on 11 January 1988, slipping along the coast into Egypt with the help of fishermen. He was landed at Al Arish, where he spent the night. The following morning, Al Ghoul contacted one of his relatives who advised him to hand himself over to the Egyptian authorities after discovering that he had neither travel documents nor money. He was questioned politely and 'treated with respect', Al Ghoul recalled (Imerview with Adnan AI Ghoul, Islam Today, 27 October 2004, a few days before his assassination) but he was told he would have to remain in custody until they could organize his travel arrangements out of the country. Two months later, on 2I March, he was taken to the airport and put on a plane to Syria. He spent five years in exile, honing his skills in Syria, Lebanon and Iran, where he received extensive training and expertise in manufacturing missiles, explosives, hand grenades and light weapons. Many Palestinian military experts called him the father of the weapons industry. He eventually returned to Gaza via Egypt using the swimmers' route in 1994, with forty kilograms of TNT explosives and other 'souvenirs' from his extended trip abroad which were not available in Gaza.

He was immediately promoted to head of weapons for Al Qassam Brigades. The membership of Al Qassam Brigades in the West Bank and Gaza in the mid 1990s was in double figures at most - it never reached a hundred. Their strategy was to rely on quality not quantity as they saw it, and to operate in small cells. These cells concentrated on selecting targets, watching those intended targets, reconnaissance missions and carrying out actual attacks.

The turning point in Al Ghoul's career was meeting Yehia Ayyash in 1995. Together they formed a partnership designing military operations and manufacturing bombs, initially from everyday materials, and assisted by others from the Al Qassam Brigades such as Youssef Abu Hain and Saad Al Arabid.

Four months before the Al Aqsa Intifada began in September 2000, Salah Shehada, the leader of Hamas' military wing, met with Mohammed Dayef, Adnan Al Ghoul and other senior officials in Al Qassam to discuss a major regrouping of their military cells. The heavy losses they had suffered through arrest or assassination by either the Palestinian Authority or Israeli intelligence were taking their toll. Al Ghoul decided he should concentrate solely on developing weapons. He put together a strategy for arming Hamas, starting with weapons - from hand grenades, anti-tank weapons and explosives belts for suicide bombers to Al Qassam missiles. He was also responsible for training hundreds of Al Qassam recruits.

On 16 February 2003, Nidal received word that the second component of a small, remote-controlled aerial drone he was assembling had arrived at his home in the AI Zeitun neighbourhood of Gaza City . The component had been dispatched through an Israeli Arab agent which, at the time, rang faint alarm bells for Nidal. Nevertheless, he went to AI Zeitun and, by the time he arrived, two groups of AI Qassam Brigades were ahead of him and had offered to supervise the final assembly of the drone on his behalf Nidal's contact had specifically advised him via his mobile phone to take personal responsibility for its assembly and, according to those at the scene, he immediately set to work, using a detailed instruction manual.

Nidal and his comrades were excited about this futuristic piece of technology, which had great potential to advance their war against Israel . The drone was intended to fly over Israeli settlements as a surveillance device which could double as a pilotless bomb. As they were examining the new part, they became aware of the sound of an Israeli aircraft buzzing the area. A few seconds later, explosives which had been hidden in a section of the drone were detonated, killing Nidal Farhat, Akram Fahmi and Ayman Muhanna, all senior members of AI Qassam Brigades, together with three other members. Hamas leader Abdul Aziz Rantisi held the Israeli Defense Minister, Shaul Mofaz, responsible for their deaths. The following day, more than 50,000 Palestinians took part in the joint funeral procession. Over one hundred armed fighters from AI Qassam Brigades joined top leaders of Hamas - Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Abdul Aziz Rantisi, Ismail Haniyeh and others - at the vanguard of the procession which began at AI Shifa Hospital in Gaza, and ended at the Martyrs' Graveyard east of Gaza City, where the men were buried together, according to their will.

One of Nidal's comrades in Adnan AI Ghoul's missiles development team was Abu Hussein, who designed a local Rocket-Propelled Grenade (RPG) known as a 'Yassin' rocket in tribute to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Abu Hussein claimed he could make a bomb out of nothing. On 22 October 2004, Israel finally cornered the forty-six-year-old weapons expert. An Israeli surveillance aircraft launched two missiles at his car as he drove along Jaffa Street in Gaza City on his return from Friday evening prayers. The car, which was also carrying explosives, completely combusted. Ismail Haniyeh, who was then responsible for the office of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was at the forefront of the massive funeral procession and described his death as 'a loss for Hamas and a loss for the Palestinian people'.

Then on the morning of 25 June 2006, nineteen-year-old Corporal Gilad Shalit was abducted by a group of Palestinians from three different militant groups including Ez Ed Din AI Qassam. The Hamas fighters crossed the border from Gaza into Israel via a tunnel, emerging at an Israeli army post near Kerem Shalom at the southern edge of the Gaza Strip. They stormed the checkpoint, killing two soldiers and wounding another four, before snatching Corporal Shalit and taking him back along the tunnel to the safety of the Gaza Strip. Next, Hezbollah fighters managed to slip across the border into Israel from Southern Lebanon in an operation called 'True Promise'. On Wednesday 12 July, they waited for an Israeli patrol to pass by and attacked two military Humvees, kidnapped two soldiers and killed at least seven, while twenty-seven others were injured. Hezbollah fighters shelled the area north of Shtula settlement near Nakoura on the border, which prevented the Israeli soldiers from retrieving the bodies of their fellow soldiers. Israeli troops held back.

In fact this brings us back to the story of the just released BBC journalist Alan Johnston The same group kidnapped Israeli hostage Gil'ad Shallt – however his release will take much, much longer.

Hamas' most significant foreign relationships todate no doubt where Syria and Iran. The Iranian relationship is all the more interesting for the fact that Iran has traditionally supported Shia groups, and Ham is Sunni Muslim. Nonetheless, the Iranian connection is very real especially today.

After the fall of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a triumphant Imam Ruhollah Moussavi Khomeini arrived at Tehran international airport, returning from exile in France to an overwhelming hero's welcome of an estimated six million revolutionaries. He established himself as the Supreme Leader of the new Islamic Republic of Iran. The three amateur footballers also returned to their homeland, and it wasn't long before they too were making news.

Under the theocratic leadership of the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, Abu Al Hassan Bani Sadr was elected President, Mustapha Mohammed Najjar became Minister of Defence and Mohsen Rafiq Doust was appointed head of the Revolutionary Guard. The Pasadaran, as it is known in Iran, was established to guard the Revolutionary regime and assist the ruling clerics to enforce Islamic codes and morality. Five years before, an influential Iranian cleric organized a gathering in my home town of Tyre, the size of which probably hasn't been witnessed since the heady days of the Romans.

Following a similar rally held in Baalbeck, more than 100,000 armed Shia from all over the Bekaa Valley, Southern Lebanon and Beirut's southern suburbs assembled in massed support of a new political movement which was to be called the Lebanese Resistance Detachments, later known as 'Amal'. Imam Sayed Moussa AI Sadr, a popular cleric in the region, said that the movement's launch was necessary because Israeli aggression had reached its highest level and the Lebanese authorities had failed to perform their duty to protect their citizens. He felt compelled to organize the Shia into a military faction to defend the southern Lebanese villages, which were suffering regular bombardments during intense exchanges between Israel and the PLO from their military bases in the south. At that time, Lebanon was on the brink of civil war and other religious factions - the Christians, Druze and Sunnis - were already well­organized politically, with functioning militias. Fiefdoms of wealthy landowners had fled the region as Palestinian guerrillas established a strong foothold following their expulsion from Jordan by King Hussein in 1971. These fighters, or fedayeen as they liked to be known, had been engaged in a guerrilla war with King Hussein's army in an attempt to overthrow the Jordanian monarch. King Hussein declared martial law and eventually the Jordanian army seized control and the fedayeen were forced to leave. They made their way via Syria to the southern border region of Lebanon, which provided a launch-pad from which to carry out their attacks against Israeli settlements along Israel's northern border.

Fatah  leader and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat where  considered a hero’s, and  senior Fatah officials, under instructions from Arafat, would  rally round their members to donate whatever weapons they could to the fledgling Amal militia. The alliance between the Fatah movement and the Amal Shia revivalist movement proved popular. In this tradition  the Shia militia went on to participate in many bloody battles against; Christians, Druze, Palestinians and even the Shi'ite Hezbollah during Lebanon's fifteen-year civil war. The movement provided a dramatic about-turn for a region which was traditionally governed by well-established, conservative Shia families who were rich, right wing, pro-Shah and with western values. Families like the AI Asaads, AI Khalils, Oseirans and Safie El Dins, who owned large tracts of agricultural land. And while the Palestinian movement was predominantly Sunni, sizeable numbers of Shi'ites joined its ranks, and two of its main factions were even led by Christians: George Habash led the PFLP and NayefHawatmeh the DFLP.

The Iranian presence in Lebanon at that time was not just restricted to anti-Shah revolutionaries. The Iranian Communist Party, Tudeh, and other secular movements such as Mujahideen­e Khalq (MEK) were also represented. They joined the leftist Palestinian factions which became active in Lebanon during the 1970s and these Iranian political figures were to become familiar faces to me when I started out in journalism, writing for various Palestinian and Lebanese publications. Their representatives would regularly visit Beirut's newspaper offices to deliver press releases voicing their opposition to the Shah's regime in Tehran.

Uninvited, Arafat and his entourage of fifty-eight PLO officials turned up in Tehran on 18 February 1979, just days after the victory of the revolution. Arafat would have lunch meetings in Moscow followed by breakfast talks in Washington, courting any government no matter what their complexion if he felt it would positively influence the crisis in the Palestinian territories. At such an early stage of their Islamic revival, the revolutionaries were caught off-guard by this unscheduled visit of a foreign dignitary. Nevertheless, several Iranian officials greeted Arafat at the airport and provided the Palestinians with red-carpet accommodation at the former Government Club on Fereshteh Street, in northern Tehran..

In fact the white-bearded, black-robed and turbaned Ayatollah was photographed in an unlikely clinch with the diminutive Arafat, wearing his trademark fatigues and carefully arranged Palestinian chequered headscarf Khomeini's normally taciturn expression was frozen into a smile.

In celebration of this meeting, Khomeini announced that the Islamic Revolution would 'march until the liberation of Jerusalem. Hours after his arrival, Arafat was invited for a two­ hour meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini during which, much to Arafat's surprise, Khomeini was quite critical of the PLO and lectured the Palestinian leader on 'the necessity of dropping his leftist and nationalistic tendencies'.

Accompanied by Khomeini's son, Ahmed, Arafat toured the major cities of Iran where he too received a hero's welcome. His speeches were attended by hundreds of thousands in Tehran's Revolution Square and likewise in the holy city of Qom, which proved an emotional experience for the Palestinian leader. The Iranian Revolution offered a beacon of hope with which Arafat could inspire his people. It illuminated the strength the disadvantaged masses could generate when they collectively stood up to a powerful regime. Iran was a perfect role model for the PLO, and the admiration was mutual. Jerusalem had been a symbol for the Iranian revolutionaries and Khomeini decreed the last Friday of Ramadan as Al Quds Day Qerusalem Day), when government workers were encouraged to take part in protests against the 'bloodthirsty Zionist state'.

Hani Al Hassan, Arafat's chief political adviser and a member of the Fatah Central Committee, was appointed as Palestinian Ambassador to Tehran to validate the strength of their alliance. The new Iranian government lavished financial support on groups opposing Israel and its state television described suicide bombings as 'martyrdom operations'.

Arafat was seen as being so close to the Iranians that when student supporters of the revolution stormed the US Embassy in November 1979, taking its inhabitants hostage, he was indirectly approached through a CIA operative in Beirut to broker the situation with Khomeini. The Iranian government was stunned to learn that a Palestinian delegation led by Saad Sayel, a member of the Fatah Central Committee and Commander of military central operations, had arrived in Tehran to mediate in the crisis. The move backfired, and the relationship between Arafat and Iran never recovered from this point. This, however, was Hamas' gain.

Mohsen Rafiq Doust, moved on as head of the Revolutionary Guard and a powerful multi-billion-dollar foundation called Bonyad-e Mostazafan za Janbazan ('the Foundation of the Oppressed and War Veterans'), in charge of a third of the Iranian budget. Described as 'a state within the State', the foundation is one of the richest organizations in the world, controlling more than six hundred key industrial complexes, and some of the country's biggest and most lucrative businesses, firms and hotels, farms and factories which were abandoned by their owners who 'fled the country before the victory of the Glorious Islamic Revolution and settled down in the Land of Infidels'. 16 Properties seized from the former Shah of Iran provided the new foundation with sizeable opening assets. It now owns airline and shipping companies, deals in oil and arms, export and import and above all, claims the Iran Free Press, 'facilitates Iranian funding of some Islamic organizations such as the Lebanese Hezbollah of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad'.

Despite Doust's earlier admiration for Arafat, also he from that point on quickly became disenchanted with the PLO leader. Arafat's support for Iraq at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 and the peaceful overtures he was extending towards Israel left Doust feeling disillusioned and he told Arafat so in no uncertain terms. In a speech to a Fatah conference in 1981, which earned Doust a rousing reception, he told the assembled delegates: 'The Iranian Revolution learned a lot from the Palestinian Revolution and because of our belief in God we were capable of defeating the might of the imperialist Shah.' Turning to Arafat he chided: 'Carrying an olive branch is the beginning of your downfall, because Palestine can only be liberated through the barrel of the gun.'

By the time Arafat paid a return visit to Tehran on 28 February 1981, the hovering smile of Ayatollah Khomeini had been replaced by a hostile crowd gathered in front of the Hilton Hotel in protest at the Palestinians' lack of support for Iran in their war with Iraq, which had begun on 22 September 1980. Iran had expected their friends in the PLO to side with them, the underdogs in the conflict. Instead, the PLO played the role of mediators alongside the non­aligned countries and the OIC, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which made many attempts to broker the conflict between Iran and Iraq peacefully.

Not long afterwards, Arafat confirmed his commitment to the peace process with Israel at an Arab Summit held in November 1981 in Fez, Morocco. To talk peace with your enemy and be a friend of 'the Great Satan', as the Iranian revolutionaries referred to the USA, was anathema to Khomeini's revolutionary principles. What's more, Arafat went on to forge diplomatic relations with the Afghan regime of President Mohammed Najeb which was less than complimentary about Iran.

Salah Zawawi, the PLO representative in Iran, believed that Iran's penultimate humiliation towards the PLO came at the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada in 1987, when Iranian spokespersons and media outlets downplayed the role of the PLO while exaggerating Hamas' and Islamic Jihad's contribution in fuelling the uprising. At the time, Zawawi denied that Hamas and Islamic Jihad representatives in Tehran were attempting to take over or marginalize the PLO, despite having conducted their business without coordinating with the Palestinian diplomatic mission. They established their own separate contacts and circles within the Iranian regime. AI; the 1980s played our, following ten years of crumbling enchantment with Arafat and his PLO, the Iranian government had had enough.

The coup de grace was struck one Sunday in late November 1994, when students and demonstrators belonging to the Revolutionary Guard broke into Zawawi's Embassy, chanting slogans against the PLO, describing them as 'agents of Israel and the Americans'. During the six-hour siege in which the Ambassador and his staff were held hostage, the demonstrators destroyed the furniture and tore down the PLO flag. They claimed the building was an 'HQ for informers' and demanded that the PLO staff be replaced by officials from Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Zawawi issued a statement to IRNA, the Islamic Republic News Agency, as well as Iranian newspapers, condemning the assault, which, he said, had been planned by pro­government forces. His statements went ignored and the siege of his Embassy went unreported. Around the same time, the Iranian press had published a news item about a clash between Palestinian police and Hamas followers in Gaza in which they criticized the Palestinian Authority and its police in apparent sympathy for Hamas. The beleaguered Palestinian Ambassador was left with no illusions. His Embassy was trashed and the Iranian government was sending overtures to Hamas. The Iranian leadership had finally decided to terminate its stale relationship with the PLO and start afresh with new Palestinian friends, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Hamas' spokesperson in Jordan during the early 1990s, Ibrahim Goshi, explained that their relationship with Iran began shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990.21 At that time, Hamas was a member of a delegation representing Islamic movements and organizations from many Arab and Islamic countries. In October 1991, Goshi received an invitation to take part in a conference in Tehran in support of the Intifada. 'We held meetings at the highest level,' Goshi said, 'and [Iran] agreed to Hamas opening an office. Imad AI AIami who had been deported by the Israelis was appointed as our representative in the Iranian capital.' Goshi shrugged off his organization's relationship with Tehran as nothing remarkable or untoward. 'It's true Islamic Jihad have offices in Tehran, but it's no different from the presence Hamas and other movements have established in many countries worldwide including the United States and the UK.' He also dismissed claims that Hamas was receiving significant financial assistance from Iran.

During 1992, as he recalled, Goshi received further invitations to Tehran together with Dr Moussa Abu Marzouk, head of the Hamas political bureau based in Damascus. They held meetings with the Iranian leadership to discuss financial methods to support the Palestinian cause and agreed to unite against the peace initiatives being forged between the PLO and Israel. Citing a news story published during his visit, which claimed that he had visited Iranian Revolutionary Guards training camps, he said: 'This never took place. There are so many fabricated news stories about the cooperation which existed between Hamas and Iran.' He blamed Arafat for mounting a 'propaganda campaign' to make a connection between Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Iran and to accuse them for the failure of the Oslo Peace Accords.

Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Iran in 1994, admitted that the flourishing relations between Tehran and Hamas were at the expense of the previous marriage between Tehran and the PLO. But, he said, 'There is an absence of any proof or evidence of Iranian financial support to Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian factions who have established contacts with Iran. It is merely rumours and speculation.' According to Hamdan, the budget allocated in 1991 by Iran to support the Palestinian Intifada was used to finance political campaigns to increase awareness amongst the Iranian public of the Palestinian cause. He named the Martyrs Foundation, as the organization responsible for giving help and support to about four hundred Palestinian families of martyrs and prisoners. The Martyrs Foundation had been formed in Iran in 1980, during the Iran-Iraq war, specifically to give financial support to the families of those killed, missing or taken captive. As one of Iran's 'means of exporting the revolution', the foundation has branches worldwide. Hamdan thought it unlikely that any illegal money transfers were being undertaken from the outside to the West Bank and Gaza because of the 'stringent measures employed by the Israelis'.

Atop Iranian diplomat to London, Mr Gulam Ansari, whom I consulted at the time, laughed off accusations that Iran was funding 'terrorist organizations' as hyperbole manifested by the West. 'If they have any proof about our support, they should come clean and disclose it.' Despite protestations to the contrary by Ansari and others, it became patently clear that the many shipments of weapons which were either intercepted by the Israeli navy in the Mediterranean Seas, seized on land in Jordan or which successfully reached their intended destination, had one thing in common. They all originated in Iran.

Syria's symbiotic relationship with Hamas harks back to the early 1990s, when the first Intifada was developing into a full-blown military battle. In concert ,with Iran, disagreement over Arafat's championing of the Oslo and Madrid peace deals with Israel further cemented their bond. Arafat's many encounters with Syria's President Hafez AI Assad had been lukewarm at best; generally, each regarded the other with suspicion, and Arafat held the belief that Syria wanted the last word on any solution for Palestine. I remember, as a young journalist, attending my first meeting of the Palestinian National Council (PNe) which was held at Damascus University in 1979. It was a rare, if not the only occasion Hafez AI Assad attended a session of the Palestinian parliament in exile. In his speech, AI Assad made a reference to Palestine as 'the southern part of Syria'. Arafat, who was presenting the final speech at the conference, retaliated with a hint of humour by calling Syria 'the northern part of Palestine'.

Following Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Arafat and the PLO were thrown out and given safe passage out of Lebanon. Rather than choose the obvious and transfer his base to Damascus with its significant Palestinian population, he elected to set up base in Tunis where, according to the Palestinian President, he could maintain his independence; this irked the Syrian President. When Arafat later paid a visit to Damascus from Tunis, he was told he was persona non grata and asked to leave.

After their forced departure from Lebanon, rather than follow Arafat to Tunis, they established an independent HQ in Damascus according to Kadri - all very senior within the organization. Arafat also set up a secondary base in Tripoli in northern Lebanon, returning by sea from Tunis in complete defiance of Israel. Around this time (December of 1983). Arafat had called an emergency meeting of the Fatah Revolutionary Council in an attempt convince dissenting members of his movement to remain united. The meeting was heated and, as the acrimonious session drew to a close, Arafat's bodyguards signalled to me to jump into their car as the Chairman's departure was imminent.

As Arafat strode towards his car, having failed in his mission, anger was written all over his face. We drove off in a large convoy at top speed, hurtling along the newly built highway, back towards Tripoli via the Syrian cities of Horns and Tartus. At about the halfway point, Arafat's car, which was in second position in the convoy, suddenly drove off the highway taking a slip road, forcing the string of Mercedes and four-wheel drives to follow suit. The still-angry Palestinian President emerged from his elderly, bullet­proof American Chevrolet and sat down in a wheat and corn field where he remained in deep thought for several minutes. As the convoy regrouped, Arafat rose from his reverie, announcing that we should abandon the planned route and take an alternative road with no border controls, which wound through a region of hills and caves called Joroud AI Harmel, before slipping down towards the Tripoli coast. The road resembled a dried-up river bed and, as we bumped and swerved our way along the rough and pitted surface, a rock hit the smoke-screen device on Arafat's car creating dense black smoke, delaying the convoy for many minutes until the fog cleared. President Arafat was fully prepared for an assassination attempt and this sudden route change signified what had been occupying his mind. Following the failed Damascus trip, Arafat's relationship with Syria plunged to new depths and pitched battles between pro-­Syrian Palestinian factions and Arafat's fighters became frequent. By the summer of 1983, Arafat was forced out of Tripoli, and with a guard of French navy ships, he travelled by sea via the Suez Canal to Al Hodeida in Yemen.

The political network between Iran, Syria, Hamas and Islamic Jihad strengthened following each suicide bombing or military attack attributed to these groups. Hamas opened an information office in Damascus. Soon members of the movement's political bureau moved to the Syrian capital where they became active in the 'Alliance of the Ten Palestinian Factions' meeting regularly to coordinate their activities and reach a consensus on how to confront the USA, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. As support for Hamas swelled inside the West Bank and Gaza, the relationship between Syria and Hamas strengthened.

Many of the Palestinian factions based in Damascus did not share the support Hamas was enjoying, and Syria realized that here was an organization to be reckoned with, hailing it as a legitimate resistance movement against the Israeli occupation. At their 1996 conference, the ruling Ba' ath Party signalled the importance of forming an alliance between themselves, as nationalists, and the Islamists, meaning Hamas.

Syria's earlier associations with Islamists in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood had ended in bloodshed which began with an attack by the Brotherhood on an artillery school in Aleppo, northern Syria, killing eighty-three Alawite cadets. The Sunni Islamist political movement had emerged as a strong force in Syria in the late 1960s, when Sunnis represented a majority of the population. As its influence spread during the 1970s, it began to threaten the secular Ba' athist regime in Damascus, which tried to suppress it. There was continual warfare between the Syrian army and the Syrian Brothers, who made an assassination attempt on President Hafez Al Assad during an official state reception for the President of Mali in June 1980. A few hours later, the Syrian army retaliated by massacring up to 1,000 members of the Brotherhood, who were imprisoned in Palmyra in the Syrian desert. The following month, the Ba' athist regime passed a law making membership of the Brotherhood punishable by death.

The most bloody period in this sectarian battle came in February 1982, when the Brotherhood led a major insurrection in the city of Hama. The Syrian army responded by bombing the city for several weeks, leaving a fatality count of between 10,000 and 25,000 men, women and children27 This final massacre marked the defeat of the Syrian Brotherhood and Islamist groups in general until the new millennium, when President Bashar AI Assad succeeded his father and pardoned and released many imprisoned Brotherhood members.

Sweeping aside the historically complex relationship between the Syrian branch of the Brotherhood and the Syrian government, branches from other countries including Egypt and Jordan were invited to take part in a Damascus-based conference to discuss their vision concerning the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Some of its leaders, like Ishaq AI Farhan, head of the Jordan Muslim Brothers, along with other representatives of Arab and Islamic parties, met the Syrian President during the Arab Nationalist­Islamic Conference which was held in Damascus. Khalid Abdul Majid, leader of one of the Palestinian factions in Damascus, said  that AI Farhan had given a speech praising Syria for its stand against Israel.

Despite the cooperation between Hamas and Hezbollah, Hamas is free to operate its own separate strategy inside the occupied territories. While their political relationship stems from the two, factions' combined resistance to the occupation, the relationship' between Hamas and Hezbollah has undeniably strengthened through their connections to both Syria and Iran. Israel had hoped to create a schism between Sunnis and Shias but they failed to factor in the strength of unity that exists against the common enemy. In Israel's recent war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, which began in the summer of 2006, many Arab countries, amongst them Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, criticized Hezbollah for initiating the fighting and giving Israel the excuse to destroy Lebanon's infrastructure. According to Hamas officials, however, there was support for Hezbollah: they claimed they had successfully lobbied Sunni Islamic movements in the Arab world, which held demonstrations in the streets of Egypt, Jordan, and North Africa. Israel's attempts to marginalize Hezbollah as a Shia movement appear to have failed. Sunni religious leaders in the Arab world issued fatwas, which sanctioned Hezbollah's fight against Israel. Mohammed Mahdi Aqel, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt issued a statement which expressed his movement's readiness to send '10,000 mujahid to Lebanon'. If the Egyptian government would open its door to jihad, Aqel continued, 'millions of Brotherhood followers in addition to others from outside the movement, would be prepared to participate in the jihad to support Hezbollah and the Islamic resistance in Lebanon.'

Over the last two decades, Syria has been criticized by the USA and Israel for harbouring what have been termed 'terrorist organizations', and this has been raised with the Syrian government during each visit to Damascus by a senior American official or Secretary of State. Syria has always maintained that the various leaders - Khalid Mishal of Hamas, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah of Islamic Jihad and Ahmed Jibril of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command (PFLP-GC) -were in the capital for media and political purposes, not to carry out military operations. After every suicide bombing against Israeli citizens, Tel Aviv would immediately accuse Syria of either initiating or encouraging the attack, based on Khalid Mishal's presence in the country. Mishal became Hamas' political bureau chief and de facto head of the movement following the assassinations of both Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and his successor Dr Abdul Aziz AI Rantisi.

Hamas' former senior commander in Damascus, Ez El Din AI Sheikh Khalil, had been imprisoned many times between 1987 and 1992 and was one of the 415 Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders that Israel expelled to Southern Lebanon in 1992. The Gaza-born fighter was described by Israeli radio as the right-hand man of Ye hi a Ayyash, the Engineer, who had been assassinated by Israel nine years earlier. Nicknamed 'the snake's head', for his dangerous stealth and shadowy existence, Khalil chose not to return to Gaza, basing himself in Damascus from where he travelled restlessly between many Arab and Islamic cities including Khartoum, Aden, Sana' a, activists and leaders and their whereabouts in 'Tehran, Damascus, Beirut, Khartoum and Sana' a and certain Gulf States'. Mossad had requested the assistance of those Arab countries following a double bus bombing in Beer Sheva, which had killed sixteen Israelis. Israel accused the Hamas leadership abroad of ordering the attacks, specifically naming Damascus-based Khalid Mishal, and threatened to assassinate him in the Syrian capital. A few days after the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in a joint operation by Palestinian factions, including the military wing of Hamas, fourIsraeli warplanes buzzed the summer palace of President Bashar Al Assad, in Syria's Mediterranean port city of Latakia. Flying in a low-altitude formation, the jets were part of an overall Israeli operation aimed to pressure the Syrians to expel Khalid Mishal, Hamas' political bureau chief from Damascus. According to Israel, Mishal had been calling the shots from the Syrian capital and had orchestrated the joint kidnapping of the Israeli soldier. Justice Minister Haim Ramon said that Mishal was 'a target for assassination. He is definitely in our sights. He is someone who is overseeing, actually commanding the terror acts.' Interior Minister and former head of the ShabakAvi Dichter said that the only reason Mishal was not in an Israeli jail 'is that Israel, as an enlightened nation, has placed certain restrictions upon itself'.

What Dichter failed to reveal was that, two years earlier, Israel had tried to assassinate Khalid Mishal in Damascus. The mukhabarat, Syrian intelligence, foiled the assassination attempt with the arrest of four Arabs, including a woman, all Syrian citizens. Mohammed Nazzal, a Hamas leader, confirmed the arrests, which happened around the same time as Ez El DinAl Sheikh Khalil was assassinated. It was unclear if this foursome was involved in his death but, according to sources in Damascus, the Syrian  mukhabarat concluded that the group had been recruited in 'an Arab neighbouring country'. Nazzal appealed to all Arab governments to take measures to prevent Mossad from carrying out assassinations against Hamas in their countries, stating that they could only happen with logistical help from local agents of the respective governments.

The first official confession that Iran had extended its financial influence into the West Bank and Gaza came when I received a phone call from Damascus in early 1994. The person on the other end of the line was the Syrian-based leader ofIslamic Jihad in Palestine, Dr Fathi AI Shikaki. He was keen to give me a detailed account of the kind of support Iran was extending to different Palestinian factions at that time and to correct the rumour that Tehran was handing out funds in excess of $20 million. On condition that he should not be quoted, and that I should source my information as coming from a Palestinian official, he told me that Iran had budgeted $3 million to support the families of Palestinian martyrs, together with more than 10,000 prisoners held in Israeli jails, as well as many social projects and institutions in the occupied Palestinian territories. A few years later, Shikaki was assassinated in Malta on his return from a trip to Libya.

Long before Iran became a player in the politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Hamas relied - and still relies - heavily on fundraising by wealthy Arabs, mainly from the Gulf region, who finance the organization via zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam, which states that every Muslim has a duty to care for the poor, widows and orphans. Zakat became an obligatory tax paid by Muslims all over the world as a percentage of non-essential income. Historically, the giving of zakat, or alms, has been around since the early days of Islam but, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, charitable zakat organizations became more prominent, springing up in cities like Peshawar along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan to assist Afghan refugees who had fled over the border to escape the fighting. In recent times, these charities have provided disaster relief in the aftermath of the tsunami which swept away thousands of lives in several countries surrounding the Indian Ocean on 26 December 2004 and the earthquake which devastated Pakistan's Kashmir region in October 2005. In the 1990s, the USA began to weigh down heavily on these charities, calling on governments to establish procedures to ensure only the genuinely impoverished receive aid, flagging up the danger that these organizations could end up financing the violent activities of AI Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Hamas directly benefited from the hostile attitude of Arab governments towards Arafat and his Fatah movement for its support of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1980. Wealthy Saudis and Kuwaitis offered money to Hamas and publicly supported it through the media. They made no secret of channelling money to Hamas by many ingenious routes. One of these was to set up charitable social institutions such as nurseries and educational facilities attached to the expanding number of mosques in the Palestinian territories.

In the twenty-year span between the 1967 Six Day War and Hamas' emergence on the international stage, the number ofIslamic minarets decorating Gaza's skyline tripled from 200 to 600. In the West Bank during the same period, the number of mosques grew from 400 to 750.38 Sheikh Ahmed Yassin had built up a strong network of welfare institutions based around the mosques during his years as leader of the Islamic Compound and his association with the Muslim Brotherhood. It is no secret that Israel encouraged the Islamists ­first the Muslim Brotherhood, then its younger brother, Hamas - to flourish, in order to destabilize Fatah. The money for their mosques was allowed to flow unhindered into the occupied territories from wealthy Islamists in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States.

When Hamas was added to the terrorist list by the US State Department on 24 January 1995, Washington used its diplomatic channels to ask the Gulf States to take punitive action against all those in the oil-rich states who had donated money to the discredited organization. President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order, No 12947, making it 'a felony to raise or transfer funds to the signated terrorist groups or their front organizations'.

Two Hamas members were arrested on 19 August 2004 for allegedly participating in a fifteen-year racketeering conspiracy. Muhammad Hamid Khalil Salah of Chicago and Abdul Haleem Hasan Abdul Raziq Ashqar of Washington, DC were accused of illegally financing terrorist activities. In addition, an arrest warrant was issued for a third Hamas member, Moussa Mohammed Abu Marzouk, a former US citizen living in Damascus, who was described as 'a fugitive from justice'. This was the first time Hamas had been identified as a criminal enterprise, citing activities which included:

conspiracy ro commit first degree murder, conspiracy to kill, kidnap, maim or injure persons in a foreign country, money laundering, obstruction of justice, providing material support or resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations, hostage taking, forgery or false use of a passport, structuring financial transactions and travel in aid of racketeering.

Ashqar was said to have opened various bank accounts in Mississippi, using them as a clearing house for Hamas funds. Abu Marzouk allegedly maintained and shared numerous bank accounts in the USA, which received substantial deposits from overseas, then transferred the funds among other domestic accounts before the money was ultimately disbursed to accounts and individuals abroad to benefit Hamas activities. Salah was alleged to have travelled throughout the United States and to London, Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip on behalf of Hamas, meeting with its leaders and members, recruiting and training new members in the USA. Abu Marzouk and Ashqar, together with a man named Elbarasse and other unnamed co-conspirators, were said to have used various accounts at banks in Cleveland, Milwaukee, New York, Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia from as early as 1989 until January 1993, transferring amounts ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time into the USA from various sources abroad, including Saudi Arabia, before transferring funds out of the country to Israel and Switzerland.

Following their arrests, Attorney General John .A.shcroft said, 'Our record on terrorist financing is clear: We will hunt down the suppliers of terrorist blood money. We will shut down these sources, and we will ensure that both terrorists and their financiers meet the full justice of the United States of America.'

All too often, however, hunting down 'the suppliers of terrorist blood money' meant hurting ordinary charities with humanitarian aims. When a spate of Hamas suicide attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv between 25 February and 4 March 1996 resulted in fifty­nine deaths, the Israeli Ambassador to London, Moshe Raviv, requested a meeting at the office of the British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind in King Charles Street, London. The Israeli Ambassador claimed to have clear evidence that a British-based charity was supporting Hamas and funding its campaign of terror. The accusations, which were similar to those published in the Daily Express the following day, claimed that bombing campaigns in Israel were being funded by cells operating in the United Kingdom.

The Israeli Ambassador presented Rifkind with signed documents purportedly sent by the London-based charity Interpal to the head of a charity run by Dr Suleiman Igbarieh, the Mayor of Umm A1 Fahem, the largest town in Galilee. Commenting on the document, a British Foreign Office official told me: 'Nothing in the information supplied to us through our diplomatic channels contains enough evidence to pursue or make any arrests of a member of Hamas or its sympathizers.'

Nevertheless, the Council of British Jews called on the government to close down all British organizations which had any connections to Hamas and targeted two London-based publications: Filisteen Al Muslima ('Islamic Palestine'), published in Arabic, and the English language Palestine Times. But it was 'Interpal', the abbreviated name for the International Palestinian Relief and Development Fund, which came in for the heaviest criticism. The Board of Deputies of British Jews published a report on its website in September 2003, describing Interpal as a 'terrorist organization'.

Interpal grew out of consultations between active members of the Muslim community in the UK, including Yusuf Islam, the 1970s international heart-throb and folk-singing star formerly known as Cat Stevens, and Bashir Azam, OBE. Despite describing Interpal as a 'well-run and committed organization', the British Charity Commission felt obliged to freeze the Fund's bank accounts in August 2003, while carrying out a thorough investigation of what the USA had labelled a 'Specially Designated Global Terrorist organization' (SDGT). outcome was that, within two weeks, Interpal had become 'the most famous Islamic charity in Britain, and this is reflected in the scale of our donations'.

The decision by the American administration to freeze the assets of 'the Holy Land Foundation' devastated the family of Ahmed Abu Al Kheir. The charity had been providing a small but for them significant monthly sum of money to help the family of eleven. The amount was between US$55 and US$85 each month. Ahmed, aged forty-nine, had been paralysed in an accident. When he heard about the freeze, he asked his wife to go to the Zakat Committee in Nablus to confirm whether the rumours were true. She was not given a satisfactory response. Abu Kheir's family is one of hundreds of Palestinian families in Nablus who receive regular assistance from the US-based Holy Land Foundation. The Head of the Zakat Committee in Nablus, Dr Abdul Rahim Al Hanbali, said, 'The American foundation looks after many poor families, orphans, disabled Palestinians, and students whose families cannot afford to educate them.' But Hanbali said that this assistance did not serve Hamas directly, rather it served the Islamic principles that Hamas and other Islamic movements were trying to preserve. Commenting on the asset freeze, US President George W Bush said: 'The Holy Land Foundation funds are used by Hamas to support schools that serve Hamas' ends by encouraging children to become suicide bombers and to recruit suicide bombers by offering support to families.'

Hamas has denied any direct links with the Holy Land Foundation, and its leaders have consistently and strenuously denied that they receive financial support from Arab and Islamic governments, Unlike its predecessor, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas has a reasonable reputation for financial transparency and admits to relying heavily  on donations from individuals or institutions in the Gulf States or from Palestinians and Arabs in the global Diaspora. Despite denials from Hamas, the USA and Israel have repeatedly claimed that charitable donations received by Hamas are further channelled to its military wing. Mohammed Anati, the Director of the Holy Land Foundation who was questioned by the Israeli authorities, denied the accusation. Israel has not revealed any documents to support their claim. As for Abu AI Kheir, sitting in his poorly maintained house in Nablus, he declared America to be 'the worst country in the world. It supports Sharon and fights the Palestinians.' His wife told me: 'We are poor. We have nothing to do with Hamas and its politics. This Zakat Committee used to give us a few dinars to save us from starving, but now they have cut off  our aid.'

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States have been widely criticized by Israel and America for their system of zakat, allowing Muslims to donate money to Islamic charities operating in many troubled regions of the world, from Afghanistan through to the West Bank and Gaza. Prince AI Walid Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia issued a press release in April 2002, following discussions with the Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat, admitting that he had donated 100 million Saudi Rials - US$26.5 million, half of it in cash - to help the Palestinians rebuild their infrastructure, which had been destroyed by the Israeli army. The other half of the donation was given in clothes and transportation for Palestinian institutions. The Saudi government has long denied either encouraging Palestinians to carry out military attacks against Israel or sending money to the families of Palestinians who had participated in suicide missions. The Saudi government's statements do use the word 'martyrs' to describe Palestinian victims caught up in the conflict with Israel but deny allegations which link Saudi Arabia to funding the families of suicide bombers, describing them as 'misleading and an attempt to drive attention away from crimes committed by Israel against the Palestinians' .

An American newspaper, quoting a Saudi news agency, published an article in which the Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Nayef Bin Abdul Aziz, was said to have sanctioned US$5,300 per family from the Saudi budget to support more than a hundred Palestinian families who had taken part in the Intifada. The newspaper went on to say that Saudi Arabia had joined Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in giving financial support to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. The Iraqi government had always encouraged suicide bombing attacks against Israel, giving each family US$ 25,000. The families of Palestinians killed in day-to-day fighting with Israel would receive US$10,000.48 Iraq distributed the money through the Arab Liberation Front in Gaza and West Bank, a local organization with links to the Iraqi Ba' ath Party, and one of the founding members of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

A report prepared by the Israeli Administration in the Gaza Strip in June 2003 named three main societies in Gaza - Ai Islah, Ai Jumayeh Islamia and the Islamic Compound, founded by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin - which received tens of millions of dollars annually from abroad. One million dollars it claimed was handed out monthly to needy families and large amounts of money were received from Iran and Israeli Arabs who donated generously.49 According to Sheikh Ahmad Ai Kurd, the head of Ai Islah Society in Gaza, his organization donates money according to a scale of one­ off payments, which depend on the circumstances of the families: $5,300 is given to families whose bread-winner has been killed or has suffered long-term injuries and is unable to work; $1,300 is given to the wounded and $2,650 to families whose home has been destroyed or damaged. Families of prisoners receive $2,600. To put this into context, according to the United Nations, more than half of the Palestinian population are living below the poverty line, so they survive on less than $2 a day.

Ziad Abu Amr, an independent member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, told Human Rights Watch that, in his capacity as head of the political committee in the Palestinian Legislative Council, he had conducted an audit on the accounts of the largest charity connected to Hamas in Gaza, the Ai Islah Society, whose offices Arafat had closed in December 2001. Al Islah has large amounts of money but, Amr stressed, 'We didn't find any wrongdoing.' His complaints to Arafat that 'we couldn't find anything suspicious' were met with the response: 'Hamas' military activities must be funded by foreign countries like Iran.' Arafat was convinced that Hamas was abusing the financial support it received for its social programmes to fund their political agenda and military ambitions.

Hamas leader Ibrahim AI Yazuri said the movement was striving to liberate all of Palestine from Israeli occupation as its  main concern. Documents removed by the Israeli army from the offices of the Palestinian Authority in April and May 2001 showed that sums of money were received from a Saudi committee headed by Prince NayefBin Abdul Aziz and used to support the AI Aqsa Intifada, the money was sent to a zakat charity committee in Tulkarem in the West Bank. According to the documents, the money was distributed to fourteen local charities, many with links to Hamas' social projects giving money or food to the needy. Psychiatrist and human-rights activist Dr Iyad AI Sarraj said that, while he strongly condemned suicide bombings, he supported families in need. 'I can't let children suffer just because their fathers carry out missions like this. I will do whatever I can in my professional capacity to give these kids some hope and dignity.'

Weakening Hamas became Washington's top priority. When Secretary of State Colin Powell travelled to Damascus to discuss the issue of terrorist sanctuary with President Bashar AI Assad in April 2003, he emerged from the three-hour meeting with a pledge from the Syrian President to close down the offices of Hamas and restrict their communications. Three months later, Powell told a news conference that Hamas provides 'good works' for the Palestinians and could be reformed ... but unfortunately, it's good works are contaminated by the fact that it has a terrorist wing that kills innocent people and kills the hopes of the Palestinian people for a state of their own.'

'There is no plan; there is no plot,' a State Department spokesman emphatically announced in an attempt to brush off a US newspaper report, which claimed that America and Israel were planning to isolate, destabilize and ultimately bring down the new Hamas government, by starving the Palestinian Authority of cash. The State Department reiterated the Quartet's position that Hamas must recognize Israel's right to exist, renounce terror and accept past agreements which the Palestinians have reached with Israel. 'We are not having conversations with the Israelis that we are not having with others, including the Quartet,' it confirmed with finality.

Plot or no plot, at 4 p.m. GMT on 29 March 2006, the USA severed diplomatic and financial ties with the newly sworn­in Hamas government. While communications would still be permitted with non-Hamas members of the Palestinian Parliament and with the office of President Mahmoud Abbas, an email was sent to every American diplomat and contractor ordering them to cease any cooperation with Hamas-appointed government ministers. America's labelled rebels had already been on the State Department's list of 'Foreign Terrorist Organizations' for several years and therefore subject to American law, which bars the US government from providing direct assistance to the named organizations. The October 2005 list included Ai Qaeda, Shining Path, the Tamil Tigers, Hezbollah and several Palestinian factions, including, of course, Hamas. Such a decision by the USA was received in the Arab and Islamic world as yet another example of Washington siding with Israel. The American government would rather look the other way than condemn Israel for its atrocities against the Arab world, and had similarly failed to force Tel Aviv to abide by UN resolutions calling for Israeli withdrawal from the Arab-occupied territories as defined by the 1967 war.

Fortunately for the first elected Hamas government, it is well­equipped with US-trained economists, engineers a.'1d planners to handle the financial straitjacket being zipped up around it. In a Cabinet of twenty-four, seven Hamas MP's obtained their university degrees and Ph.D.s in the USA, including Finance Minister Omar Abdul Razzak, who gained a BA with majors in Mathematics, Economics and Computer Science at Coe College, Iowa, followed by a Ph.D. in Economics at Iowa State University. Reminiscing about his university years, where his first-year roommate was Jewish, he sighed: 'They were the best four years in my life, actually.'

Razzak went on to become an economics professor at Nablus University.

Almost three years before Hamas swept to power, a suicide bomber detonated his five-kilogram device, packed with ball bearings, on a No 2 Egged bus as it passed through Jerusalem's Shmuel Hanavi neighbourhood, killing twenty-three people and wounding more than 130. Many of the passengers had been returning from prayers at the Western Wall. Three days later, on 22 August 2003, President George Bush announced that the US Treasury was labelling six senior Hamas leaders and five Hamas-related charities as SDGTs - Specially Designated Global Terrorists. The six individual SDGTs were named as Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the leader of Hamas in Gaza; Imad Khalil Al Alami, a member of the Hamas political bureau in Damascus; Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas leader in Lebanon; Khalid Mishal, head of Hamas' political bureau in Damascus; Abdul Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader in Gaza reporting to Sheikh Yassin and Moussa Abu Marzouk, Deputy Chief of the political bureau in Damascus.

Abu Marzouk was arrested in New York on 25 July 1995 and held on an unspecified charge for twenty-two months without trial. The unofficial accusation against him was that he was a 'terrorist'. Within ten days of his arrest, the Labour government of Shim on Peres made a request to the USA to extraditeAbu Marzouk to Israel. The extended period of his vague confinement was to give Israel sufficient time to present legal documents to support their extradition charge. They failed to produce anything which carried enough weight and, when elected as Israeli President in May 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu did not pursue his predecessor's request. On occasion, Abu Marzouk's jailors would allow him to speak to the media but they became concerned by his inflammatory statements against Israel and his fighting rhetoric. 'They asked me to acknowledge my involvement with Hamas as a condition to free me,' recalled Abu Marzouk.

 During the entire period of his incarceration, he claimed he was never questioned by any investigator. A letter addressed to Janet Reno, the Attorney General, from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright expressed concerns that Mr Marzouk's prolonged presence in the United States would 'seriously undermine compelling foreign policy objectives in the Middle East and in the fight against terrorism'. American officials retrospectively realized that the 'terrorist' charge would create a problem for them if, through insufficient evidence, they were forced to release him. Eventually, on 25 April 1997, Abu Marzouk signed an agreement with the American administration which stated the conditions of his release: that he left American soil forever, refrained from initiating any legal action against the US government while seeking compensation for his confinement and desisted from making any press statements. First, though, America had to find a mutually acceptable country which would take him. Their obvious choice was either Jordan or Egypt. According to Abu Marzouk, a delegation from the FBI visited both countries prior to his discharge and requested that they prevent him from carrying out political activities and insist that he renounce violence towards Israel. Both governments turned down the American request. 55 King Hussein ofJordan personally agreed to receive the SDGT and, on 5 May 1997, he was freed.

Hamas didn't register on America's political radar until the series of suicide bomb attacks in Israel which brought Netanyahu, Israel's youngest Prime Minister, to power in 1996. Until then, none of the American officials or secretaries of state or even US President Bill Clinton had intimated that the Hamas issue was of major concern to them.

While President Clinton was trying to broker an elusive peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the FBI was secretly funnelling money to suspected Hamas members in a sting operation to see whether the money would be used to fund terror attacks. The FBI's 1998- 1999 counter-terrorism operation was run from its Phoenix, Arizona bureau in coordination with Israeli intelligence and, according to FBI officials, was approved by the Attorney General, Janet Reno.56 Several thousands of US dollars were sent to suspected Hamas supporters during the operation as the FBI tried to 'track the flow of cash'. It was a rare acknowledgement of an undercover sting that resulted in no prosecutions.

Officially, America has no contact with SDGT organizations, and rumours that the CIA were covertly in touch with Hamas were brushed off by a former senior US policy adviser I spoke to with the comment. 'The CIA barely [even] talks to Fatah! Israel has the power of veto over whom the CIA in the West Bank and Gaza meets,' he said. 'That's the working relationship between the US and Israel.' He made a distinction between Hamas having contact with 'the Americans' and Hamas having contact with 'the American government'. He named Martin Burton, a former CIA officer, Graham E. Fuller, former Vice-Chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, and Fred Hof, Former Staff Director of the Mitchell Commission, as Americans who had had discussions with Hamas. They were not flouting the law because they were former government officials. The intention of these 'within the law' meetings was essentially an intelligence-gathering operation. Two such meetings were held on 21- 22 March and 23- 24 July 2005 in Beirut, organized by Alastair Crooke, a former M-I6 senior officer. By listening to what Hamas had to say and establishing a relationship with them, they could inform policy-makers in Washington what Hamas was thinking and, more importantly, planning. 'Our discussions were quite detailed,' the US policy adviser continued. 'We talked about how Hamas viewed the resistance; how they defend suicide bombings; what their political position is and under what circumstances they would deal and negotiate with Israel; how they viewed Fatah; and what they intended to do if they were to take office.

The Harnas victory came as a tremendous jolt which rocked the foundations of George W. Bush's administration at a time when it was championing the US war against terror and promoting democracy in the Middle East. In a keynote speech delivered in 2002 from the Rose Garden of the White House, Bush announced a set of conditions which Palestinian Arabs had to fulfil in order to merit US support for the creation of a Palestinian state. Among the major obligations was that Palestinians must 'elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror'. Four years later, these words fell on stony ground. The Palestinians made their uncompromising choice, forcing the administration to adopt a balancing act: accepting that they had exercised their democratic choice, while describing it as a protest vote against their previous leadership, which had been tainted by corruption and bad governance. When George Bush was asked if these ambitions were now dead during a White House press conference, he tried his best to sound optimistic: 'Peace is never dead because people want peace. The best hope for peace in the Middle East is two democracies living side by side.' Bush added, 'I don't see how you can be a partner in peace if you advocate the destruction of a country as part of your platform. And I know you can't be a partner in peace if your party has got an armed wing.'

The USA claims to have spent more than US$1.7 billion in the West Bank and Gaza since 1993 to combat poverty, improve infrastructure and promote good governance. Dennis Ross, former Special Envoy to the Middle East under President Clinton, said that Washington was unlikely to change its position on Hamas. 'The only way you will see the administration make an effort to stay involved, is if there is a common front with the international community to insist on a set of standards that Hamas would have to meet if they are to have relations, or be royally receiving material assistance from the outside.' Ross added: 'Hamas did not expect to win the election. They hoped to take over the Palestinian Authority in time. Now they have to deal with the consequences of their success.'

Just as Sharm AI Sheikh provides neutral territory on which to thrash out the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Doha in the Gulf state of Qatar plays host to the annual US-Islamic World Forum. 'The stability and prosperity of the Islamic world should be of great importance to the international community, as it represents twenty-seven per cent of the global population,' announced Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani on 10 April 2005 at the opening of the 2005 gathering, whose guest list from Algeria to Uzbekistan reads like an A- Z of key figures in the world of business, politics, media, academia and civil society. The aim of the Forum is to generate dialogue and prevent discourse between the West and the Islamic world.

Former US Ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution and an expert in the Arab-Israeli conflict, gave two different examples of moderate Islam as highlighted at the Forum. One came from Kazi Hussein Ahmad, the Emir of Jama'at-e Islami, the Pakistani branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ahmad, considered to be one of the moderate Sunni leaders in Pakistan, told the conference: 'Dialogue is possible for people of all faiths, including Christians and Jews.' But the balance was redressed by Sheikh Youssef Al Karadawi, who has been described as the most influential contemporary Sunni scholar, well­known for his fatwas on many issues relating to politics, women and social concerns. He is progressive and condemned the 9/11 attacks, and many believe that he represents a credible alternative to radical Islam. However, he appeared to toe the more extreme line with the words: 'We can talk to the Christians but we can't talk to the Jews. They are occupying Palestine and until they are no longer in occupation of Palestine, we can't have any dialogue with them,,' Al Karadawi called on the USA to make a choice between 'Extrem'~ Islam' and 'Liberal Islam'. Putting himself firmly in the camp of 'Liberal Islam', he said: 'We represent it along with the Muslim Brotherhood worldwide.'

Many Arab intellectuals who have had relationships with consecutive US administrations, believe Washington would prefer to deal with Hamas rather than Fatah or other nationalist factions, provided that Hamas agrees to become part of the political process. The US administration is keen to foster an Islamic Sunni movement which would side with them and with which it could be on good terms - as is the case with the mainstream Sunni movements, namely the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, in order to confront the extreme Islamic elements of both Sunni and Shia sects such as Hezbollah, Al Qaeda and their affiliates.

Martin Indyk, was the US Ambassador to Israel from 1995 to 1997 and then again from 2000 to 2001. Prior to that, he was President Clinton's Middle East adviser at the National Security Council and was responsible for handling the 1993 Oslo signing ceremony. Recalling the moment when Hamas first came to his attention, he said it was early on in the Clinton administration, around 1993, when a diplomat attached to the American Embassy in Tel Aviv who was responsible for the Gaza Strip, had gone to Gaza to meet with a Hamas official. 'I received a call from the Deputy National Security Advisor, Sandy Berger, saying, "What the hell's going on? How come we've got somebody meeting with a Hamas official?" I was in the White House in those days and I said, "Gee, I don't know anything about it." But as a consequence of that meeting, a decision was made at the beginning of the Clinton administration, that there would be no political contact with Hamas.'

The West had only three options in dealing with Islamist organizations, according to Alastair Crooke, former Middle East adviser to European Union High Representative Javier Solana. 'We can bomb them, we can ignore them, or we can talk to them. By now the evidence should be clear: the first option has not [worked] and cannot work, while the second is simply a defence of intellectual laziness.'

Crooke favoured the third option. For more than five years, he acted as mediator between Palestinian groups like Hamas, providing Britain, which is officially forbidden to talk to those on the 'terrorist list', with its only link with the organization. The former senior spy for MI6, who spent three decades as one of Britain's intermediaries where he became acquainted with militias in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Namibia, and Northern Ireland, found himself sipping mint tea with members of Ham as on behalf of the ED.

Crooke compared the USA to a juggernaut: 'It is possible to move it but, because of its unwieldy size, it will take time. This can be equated with foreign policy where we don't expect a change overnight.' He has been described as 'brave to the point of madness' for shunning the safety of armoured CIA vehicles, in favour of travelling unarmed by local taxis to shuttle between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Crooke was also a key figure in putting together a ceasefire agreed by Hamas in 2002 which he hoped would put an end to the rash of suicide bombings. The deal was scuppered when Israel assassinated Salah Shehada, the Hamas military commander, in an aerial attack on his home.

Despite the delicate links forged by Crooke between the Israeli military and the intelligence service of Hamas, many Israelis and Palestinians were suspicious of the Graham Greene-style Brit. One who particularly distrusted him was Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian Authority's security minister who felt Crooke showered too much attention on Hamas. According to Hamas insiders, Sheikh Yassin made the assumption that anything he told Crooke would be immediately passed to the Israeli government, and consequently would deliberately feed disinformation to the Middle East negotiator. Yassin would caution his senior advisers, particularly if they had any connection to the military wing, to be wary of talking to AIastair Crooke, and he transmitted similar warnings to Hamas leaders in the West Bank.

The Hamas meeting was attended by Sheikh Yassin, Dr Abdul Aziz Rantisi and Dr Mahmoud Zahar, and the minutes were taken by Mohammed AI Najjar. Parallel meetings were held abroad. Crooke was heavily involved in the arrangements for the ceasefire, which was negotiated by Hamas and the PA and announced in Egypt on 29 June 2003. He stressed the importance of understanding the views of Ham as, saying, 'the EU was in favour of following a policy which would ease the tension and diffuse the violence.'

Crooke was cautious that the meetings should be kept secret to prevent Israel and the US from 'taking advantage of such information'. However, he assumed Israel was aware of such meetings, 'because they were watching everyone who was communicating with Sheikh Yassin or visiting his house, and these meetings took place there'. The 'secret' eventually became public after documents seized by the Israeli army from the Palestinian Authority Preventive Security Compound in Gaza in November 2002 were found to contain transcripts of the clandestine meetings, written in Arabic on Palestinian Authority headed notepaper. The transcripts revealed that Crooke congratulated the Hamas organization for its welfare programmes and for being an important political factor, saying 'The main problem is the Israeli occupation.' He added that it was necessary to initiate trust-building measures and a mumallowering of the level of violence, and Crooke assured Sheikh Yassin and the Hamas seniors that the Europeans were unequivocally opposed to Israel's settlement activities. On his side, Sheikh Yassin agreed that the root of the problem was the Israeli occupation, which, as he defined it, extends over the territories of 1948, not just 1967 (meaning the liberation of the entire territory of Palestine and not just the post-1967 'occupied territories'). Sheikh Yassin told Crooke that he was unhappy with the EU's decision to include Hamas on its list of terrorist organizations and asked that the Europeans support him and resist the American policy. Crook's response was: 'We do not consider Hamas' political wing to be a terrorist organization.'

In September the following year, the British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, ordered the MI6 agent to leave Jerusalem, claiming fears for his safety. Closer to the truth was that Straw was under pressure from Israel, who felt that the British negotiator was getting uncomfortably close to Hamas. Undaunted, the man with a mission for dialogue in peace building went on to coordinate an unusual pair of meetings held in Beirut's chic Hotel Albergo and an undisclosed location in the city in March and July 2005. Coordinated by Crooke and Dr Beverley Milton-Edwards, a specialist in Middle Eastern and Islamic politics at Queen's University, Belfast, the two-day meetings were attended by an august group of specialists in global conflicts together with members of Hamas, Hezbollah, Lebanon's Muslim Brotherhood and Pakistan's Jama'at-e Islami. Apart from representatives from political Islam, the eclectic gathering included a former UK Ambassador to Syria, a former station chief in Kabul, Mghanistan during the Mghan War, a key negotiator of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, a former National Intelligence Chairman at the White House, an independent delegate from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Chairman of the Board of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and a former Executive Producer of the American investigative news programme 60 Minutes, who joined other delegates from the Conflicts Forum.

Hamas has a shared ideology with its sister branches in the Muslim Brotherhood movement and Washington and London has enjoyed a warm relationship with the Brotherhood branches in Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and even Syria. Some see it as only being a matter of time before Hamas comes on board, as all the signs are hinting at a sea-change in the movement's attitude towards Israel. At the end of June 2006, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh announced Hamas' willingness in principle, to sign a document drawn up by Palestinians from all factions, that they accept the existence of Israel.

This recognition of the Jewish State by Hamas is exactly what the international community demanded following the movement's success in the Palestinian elections, but their olive branch appears to have gone unheeded or misunderstood. This was illuminated by Prime Minister Tony Blair, just one month after Haniyeh's announcement. Speaking to a gathering of the press at his monthly conference in Downing Street in August 2006, he described the Hamas situation as a 'conundrum' to be resolved. 'We recognize the mandate of a democratically elected people' but, he said, 'the negotiation cannot be taken forward unless it is on the basis that people accept Israel also has a right to exist.'

Getting arms to an organization whose military operations are based in Israeli-occupied Gaza and the West Bank is tricky, and has to be done through cooperation with non-Hamas actors outside the Palestinian territories. How countries like Iran get weapons through to Hamas is illustrated by the 'Santorini' incident.

The Mediterranean was particularly choppy on the morning of 6 May 2001, causing the Santorini to dip and rear in the swell of the turbulent waves. The twenty-fIve-metre fishing boat was being tracked by Cypriot, Syrian and Lebanese coastguards, because of reports that a vessel was in trouble in international waters. In reality, the Santorini was being refuelled after delays left it short of petrol. In addition to the extra fuel, it was being loaded with weapons from Zodiac inflatable craft, which were escorting the boat until it reached high seas. Radio communications between the ship's captain and the Mediterranean coastguards were intercepted by the Israelis who sent a navy plane to investigate. They reported back that the boat was behaving suspiciously for a fishing trawler. 'It was a fishing boat that was not fishing,' the commander ofIsrael's navy, Admiral Yedidia Ya'ari, said at his office in Camp Rabin, the headquarters of the Israel Defense Forces, in Tel Aviv.63 The vessel was about 150 kilometres west of Tyre. They waited for the boat to head towards the Israeli coast before sending two Israeli missile boats, shortly joined by two attack boats from Flotilla Thirteen, the naval commando unit, then boarded the boat in international waters, meeting no resistance from the crew. They found thirty-nine barrel-loads of weapons which were to be dropped into the water off the Gaza coast at a pre-selected location. The explosive cargo included fifty 107mm Karyusha missiles with a range of 8.5 kilometres, four SA­7 'Strella' anti-aircraft missiles with a four-kilometre range, twenty rocket-propelled grenade launchers (RPG), 120 anti-tank grenades, two 60mm mortars with ninety-eight mortar shells, seventy mines, thirty Kalashnikov assault rifles and some 13,000 rounds of 7.62 ammunition.

Under interrogation, one of the Santorini crew, a Lebanese called Deeb Mohammed Rashid Oweida, told the Israelis that the smuggling operation involved twenty-five members of Hezbollah. Some of them secured the shore, while others participated in loading the weapons. Oweida had been involved in sourcing a suitable boat for the operation and had found a fishing boat called Abed At Hadi in Arwad port in Syria. The deal to buy the boat was struck in the Shahin restaurant in Tartus, northern Syria, and a Syrian crew transferred it from Tartus to Tripoli port in Lebanon. The boat was then registered as Lebanese and the Abed At Hadi was re-floated as the Santorini.

Israeli intelligence were quick to suspect Lebanese-based Jihad Jibril, the son of Ahmed Jibril, leader of the PFLP-GC, whose headquarters were in Damascus. According to Fadel Chororo, a member of the PFLP-GC political bureau and its head of communications, previous shipments had successfully made their way to Gaza and the Egyptian Sinai coast. He was uncertain of the exact dates but said that from November 2000 three cargo­loads of weapons had arrived at intervals of between fifteen days and one month. The shipments had been delivered by the Santorini and another boat named Calypso 2. Chororo blamed bad weather and choppy conditions for this failed mission, creating difficulties in loading the Santorini which subsequently aroused suspicion. At a press conference in Damascus a few days later, Ahmed Jibril proudly announced that the weapons belonged to his organization and boasted of three previous successful deliveries of arms to the Gaza coast. 'This was not the first shipment, nor will it be the last,' he said defiantly. 'What we are doing is in fact legal and the PFLP­GC had the right to arm the Palestinian people who are dying at the hands of Israeli aggression.'67 Other commanders within the PFLP-GC freely admitted that they lacked a significant presence in the West Bank and Gaza and had established links with Hamas in order to support the armed struggle in the region. According to Chororo, the first high-level meeting between leaders of Hamas and the PFLP-GC took place in Lebanon straight after Israel had expelled hundreds of Hamas activists and leaders to Marj AI Zahur in Southern Lebanon in December 1992.

Chororo told me that meetings took place between leaders of Hamas, who were amongst those who had been deported to Lebanon, and Ahmed Jibril, in which they agreed to set up a committee to coordinate activities in the West Bank and Gaza. Talal Naji, the number two in the PFLP-GC, and Fadel Chororo both attended the meeting. Dr Abdul Aziz AI Rantisi, subsequently assassinated by the Israelis, and other senior Hamas leaders were also present. Chororo himself was appointed to head the PFLP-GC side of the committee, whilst Hamas would be represented by 'engineer' Imad AI AIami. AI AIami is described by Israeli intelligence as the man responsible for coordinating the activities of Hamas' military wing.

As a child, Jihad Jibril spent much of his time in military camps in Lebanon and Syria. His father, Ahmed, gained notoriety for his creative schemes to reach enemy targets. The PFLP-GC's prime period of guerrilla activity had been during the 1970s and 1980s, and it was the first organization to carry out kamikaze-style attacks.

In one such operation, a member of PFLP-GC flew a hang-glider into an Israeli base near Kiryat Shemona, killing six officers and soldiers on 28 November 1987. Jibril junior would follow his father from military camps in Lebanon to military camps in Syria and back again. Jihad survived numerous assassination attempts, until he was finally killed by a powerful car bomb in the Mar Elias district of Beirut on 20 May 2002.

Israeli generals, who had become concerned at the scale of Palestinian efforts to arm themselves, kept a watchful eye on those involved in the arms trade. At the top of their list was Jihad Jibril who, along with other Fatah commanders, was scouring the world's weapons markets, shopping for armaments which could be delivered to the closest point to the Palestinian territories. The obvious country was Iran, and Fatah and others cultivated a hotline to Hezbollah. Although Fatah had decided to go along with the peace process, failure in achieving any progress forced Arafat and his commanders to prepare for the worst, especially after Israel destroyed his military infrastructure which was supposed to have been protected under the peace treaty.

At noon on Monday 21 May 2002, Mar Elias, West Beirut's busy commercial centre, was rocked by a huge explosion. A white Peugeot parked in Al Umm Street (Mother Street) had disintegrated. Lebanese police said the bomb consisting of high-explosive plastic, equal to two kilograms of TNT, had been planted under the driver's seat and detonated by remote control. Once the billowing smoke from the explosion had cleared, the dead man was revealed as Jihad Jibril.
PFLP-GC leaders blamed Israel for the killing of Jihad, a charge which the Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer strongly denied. Ahmed Jibril, speaking to reporters at his headquarters in Damascus shortly after the assassination, said: 'This time Mossad managed to assassinate my son, having tried in vain four times before.' He told Qatar-based Al Jazeera television that his son had been supervising the training and arming of the Islamic Palestinian group Hamas, which would have been almost unthinkable some years ago for a radical movement such as PFLP-GC.

 Jibril senior believed his son's killer was Hussein Khattab, a forty-year-old Palestinian from Lebanon's Ain Al Hilwa camp, who In one such operation, a member of PFLP-GC flew a hang-glider into an Israeli base near Kiryat Shemona, killing six officers and soldiers on 28 November 1987. Jibril junior would follow his father from military camps in Lebanon to military camps in Syria and back again. Jihad survived numerous assassination attempts, until he was finally killed by a powerful car bomb in the Mar Elias district of Beirut on 20 May 2002.

Israeli generals, who had become concerned at the scale of Palestinian efforts to arm themselves, kept a watchful eye on those involved in the arms trade. At the top of their list was Jihad Jibril who, along with other Fatah commanders, was scouring the world's weapons markets, shopping for armaments which could be delivered to the closest point to the Palestinian territories. The obvious country was Iran, and Fatah and others cultivated a hotline to Hezbollah. Although Fatah had decided to go along with the peace process, failure in achieving any progress forced Arafat and his commanders to prepare for the worst, especially after Israel destroyed his military infrastructure which was supposed to have been protected under the peace treaty.

At noon on Monday 21 May 2002, Mar Elias, West Beirut's busy commercial centre, was rocked by a huge explosion. A white Peugeot parked in Al Umm Street (Mother Street) had disintegrated. Lebanese police said the bomb consisting of high-explosive plastic, equal to two kilograms of TNT, had been planted under the driver's seat and detonated by remote control. Once the billowing smoke from the explosion had cleared, the dead man was revealed as Jihad Jibril.
PFLP-GC leaders blamed Israel for the killing of Jihad, a charge which the Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer strongly denied. Ahmed Jibril, speaking to reporters at his headquarters in Damascus shortly after the assassination, said: 'This time Mossad managed to assassinate my son, having tried in vain four times before.' He told Qatar-based Al Jazeera television that his son had been supervising the training and arming of the Islamic Palestinian group Hamas, which would have been almost unthinkable some years ago for a radical movement such as PFLP-GC.

Besides Iran another  state that has been using jihadist elements to pursue its foreign policy objectives is Syria. The government not only has allowed jihadists to use Syrian territory as a conduit to Iraq, but also has in recent months redirected some of that traffic toward Lebanon in a bid to regain control of its smaller neighbor -- control it lost in the storm that erupted after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Syria in the 1970s became the first Arab state to face a serious challenge from homegrown jihadists, which is why former President Hafez al Assad decided to strike hard at Islamist forces in 1982 -- an act that led to the killing of tens of thousands of people. The senior al Assad was motivated by the fact that his Alawite-Baathist regime was a minority government in a country where 85 percent of the population was Sunni. His son, President Bashar al Assad, however, is ignoring that statistic and is participating in a dangerous game of backing jihadists in Iraq and Lebanon. It will not be long before these same forces begin to threaten domestic security and stability in Syria, especially with Iraq exploding.

States that have exploited jihadists to further their own interests have derived some short-term benefits, but in the long run, these groups have come back to haunt their former sponsors -- in some cases even threatening the security and stability of the state. In either creating or supporting these groups, the states tend to forget that their proxies will have their own agendas. Given their ideology and transnational links, jihadists groups have proven to be the most deadly proxies.

Implications of Today’s Events in Egypt

The Palestinian Hamas and Jihad Islami, which depend on Iran, Syria and Hizballah for support in weapons, training and cash, have grabbed from Egypt a large section of northern Sinai. This means that Iran, Syria and Hamas’ partner, al Qaeda, have established a beachhead at a key Middle East crossroads. It stands athwart Israel, Egypt and Palestinian territory on the Mediterranean coast, within operating distance of the Suez Canal.

Only six months ago, the United States by dint of an airlift of weapons to the Lebanese army thwarted a joint Syrian military intelligence-al Qaeda-linked bid at the Palestinian camp of Nahar al-Bard to establish a similar forward position on Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast. Hundreds died in that attempt. This time, the coup was achieved without the loss of a single terrorist life.

Al Qaeda, which in the last two years depended on certain Bedouin nomadic elements for its foothold in Sinai, has acquired a stable territorial base on Egyptian soil.

The Bush administration’s Palestinian policy, fashioned by secretary of state Condoleezza Rice to afford the president the legacy of Middle East peacekeeper, has crashed. Hamas proved that its leaders Khaled Meshaal, prime minister Ismail Haniya, military chief Muhammad Jabari, and Siad Siyam, Hamas liaison officer with Tehran and the architect of the Northern Sinai grab, are the Palestinians’ true and faithful benefactors. They succeeded in showing up as of no use to the Palestinian people Mahmoud Abbas, Chairman of the Palestinian Authority and his prime minister Salam Fayyad, linchpins of Rice’s Palestinian initiative.

Cairo suffered the most unforeseen jolt. Mubarak faced a humiliating comedown from his role as the force with the most influence over Hamas and the clout for bringing the feuding Palestinian factions together, to the only Arab nation to lose a chunk of its sovereign territory to a paramilitary Palestinian terrorist group.

Seven months earlier that same group seized the Gaza Strip from the Abbas’ Palestinian Authority. This suggests an intriguing point: While Hamas poses as the most militant force fighting Israel, all its conquests have so far been confined to Arab territory, which raises questions about the Islamist fundamentalists’ next target.

For Israel, the political and military blow was devastating.Its military and economic siege for breaking the back of the Hamas government of the Gaza Strip has become an exercise in futility. With minimal effort, Hamas opened the way for the Palestinian population to reach the shops and markets of Egyptian El Arish, which they emptied in a few hours and returned home with bulging bags and full containers and no interference.

While Mubarak spoke of the “starving Palestinians” of Gaza, and the world of “a humanitarian crisis”, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians spent the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars in a few hours’ intensive shopping.

The military defensive system around Gaza, in which Israel had invested $1.5 bn dollars, became superfluous. Hamas, which on two days last week fired 102 missiles at Israeli civilian targets, appeared to have abandoned its offensive this week. Its center of operations moved to Sinai, and was directed against Egypt.

Furthermore, the Palestinian extremists are now able to bypass the closely-monitored Gazan border and access Israel through the sparsely-guarded Egyptian-Israeli frontier for hit and run attacks. They can then escape out of Israel’s reach across the border to their new base in Egypt.

1. Telephone interview

2. Telephone interview

3. Telephone interview

4. Salafism describes a movement that seeks ro return to what its adherems see as the purest form of Islam. See Case Study.

5. Hosni Jarrar, Sheikh Ezz Al Din Al Qassam: Movement Leader and Martyr to the Cause (AI Dia'a House for Publishing, 1989).

6. See Infantry Weapons, 1999-2000, Jane's Publications. une 1992.

7. Sherur ha-Bitachon ha-Kiali (Shabak) is also known as Shin Bet, the Israeli coumer-intelligence and internal security service.

8. Al Quds Al Arabi, 9 August 1992.