Marie Colvin – Sunday Times March 9, 2008
The Hamas commander was in a hurry. Hunched forward in a navy-blue parka, with the wind-chapped skin and drawn eyes of someone who had been outdoors all night, he had just returned from the front line with Israel. The whine of drones overhead signalled that his enemy was hunting for blood.
For someone who had survived the fiercest fighting between Israelis and Palestinians since 2000 and the deaths of scores of his fellow fighters, the commander, already a senior figure in his late twenties, appeared remarkably composed.
He is in the vanguard of the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas which is growing into a disciplined army, trained to fight for victory rather than be consigned to the “martyr’s death” of the suicide bomber.
Israel has long insisted that Iran is behind this training. Last week Yuval Diskin, the head of the Israeli internal security service Shin Bet, said as much when he claimed that Hamas had “started to dispatch people to Iran, tens and a promise of hundreds”. He provided no evidence.
The Hamas commander, however, confirmed for the first time that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has been training its men in Tehran for more than two years and is currently honing the skills of 150 fighters.
The details he gave suggested that, if anything, Shin Bet has underestimated the extent of Iran’s influence on Hamas’s increasingly sophisticated tactics and weaponry.
Speaking on the record but withholding his identity as a target of Israeli forces, the commander, who has a sparse moustache and oiled black hair, said Hamas had been sending fighters to Iran for training in both field tactics and weapons technology since Israeli troops pulled out of the Gaza strip of Palestinian territory in 2005. Others go to Syria for more basic training.
“We have sent seven ‘courses’ of our fighters to Iran,” he said. “During each course, the group receives training that he will use to increase our capacity to fight.”
The most promising members of each group stay longer for an advanced course and return as trainers themselves, he said.
So far, 150 members of Qassam have passed through training in Tehran, where they study for between 45 days and six months at a closed military base under the command of the elite Revolutionary Guard force.
Of the additional 150 who are in Tehran now, some will go into Hamas’s research unit if they are not deemed strong enough for fighting.
Conditions at the base are strict, the commander said. The Palestinians are allowed out only one day a week. Even then, they may leave the base only in a group and with Iranian security. They shop and “always come back with really good boots”.
According to the commander, a further 650 Hamas fighters have trained in Syria under instructors who learnt their techniques in Iran. Sixty-two are in Syria now.
But what Hamas values most is the knowledge that comes directly from Iran. Some of it was used to devastating effect by the militant group Hezbollah against Israeli forces in Lebanon in 2006.
“They come home with more abilities that we need,” said the Hamas commander, “such as high-tech capabilities, knowledge about land mines and rockets, sniping, and fighting tactics like the ones used by Hezbollah, when they were able to come out of tunnels from behind the Israelis and attack them successfully.
“Those who go to Iran have to swear on the Koran not to reveal details, even to their mothers.”
He said the Hamas military, which numbers about 15,000 fighters, was modelling itself on Hezbollah. “We don’t have tanks. We don’t have planes. We are street fighters and we will use our own ways,” he said.
Nodding in agreement was his companion, another senior Qassam fighter, from Hamas’s manufacturing wing. Dressed in a new, olive-green uniform, he said his job entailed “cooking” – putting together the explosive mixture that Hamas inserts into Qassam rockets.
Everyone was working overtime, he added. He too had been out all night. He said he had launched five mortars and faced heavy machinegun fire in return from Israeli lines.
The commander was particularly impressed with advances made using Iranian technology. “One of the things that has been helpful is that they have taught us how to use the most ordinary things we have here and make them into explosives,” he said.
Such technology had been most useful of all in developing the Qassam rocket and mines deployed against Israeli tanks.
Hamas had just developed the Shawas 4, a new generation of mine, with Iranian expertise, he added.
“We send our best brains to Tehran. It would be a waste of money to send them and then have them come back with nothing.”
They travelled to Egypt, flew to Syria and, on arrival and departure from Tehran, were allowed through without a stamp for security reasons.
“Anything they think will be useful, our guys there e-mail it to us right away,” the military technician said. THE latest spiral of violence, which has killed 130 Palestinians and 12 Israelis, including eight students massacred at their seminary in Jerusalem last Thursday, was triggered 10 days ago by a chance event.
For weeks, Hamas had been launching rockets into Israel to little effect. But then a rocket aimed at Sderot, a town in the western Negev desert, killed Roni Yichia, a 47-year-old mature student, as he stood in his college car park. The next day, Israel launched the fierce ground and air assault on Gaza dubbed Operation Hot Winter.
Its targets, as Hamas intensified the rocket attacks, ranged from Qassam launchers in the northern Gaza Strip to the interior ministry in the centre of Gaza City. Last week, as the blasts and counter-blasts subsided, it was not only Hamas that was counting its losses. As many civilians as fighters had died.
Ra’ad Abu Seif, a 40-year-old lorry driver, had herded his family into an interior room as their street exploded. His 12-year-old daughter Safa ran to an upstairs flat to fetch her uncle. An Israeli sniper shot her just below the heart, he said.
Abu Seif heard screams and ran to find her lying on the floor. “I didn’t see the bullet hole so I picked her up and then I felt the blood on her back,” he said. “We put her by the water tank and opened her clothes and found the bullet holes.
“We tried to close the holes by holding them and putting cotton on them,” he said. Safa lived for two more hours. “Then her head went back, and her eyes rolled,” he said, covering his face with his hands. “The one who shot her, I just want to ask him, how can you be a human being and shoot a little kid?”
Abu Seif blames not only Israel but Hamas as well. “They have been firing these rockets for seven years, and look what happens,” he said. “Hamas should admit it has made a mistake and try another path.”
A short distance away, Mohamed Abu Shabak was mourning his daughter Jacqueline, 17, and son Iyad, 16. He sat gaping at a hole in a second-floor window that he said had been made by an Israeli sniper. His hand shook and he could not speak for a while.
Iyad was the first to die. He had got up at about 1am to go to the lavatory and was hit in the chest by a single shot through the window. Jacqueline came running in and was shot in the head.
Their father was in the West Bank city of Ramallah, having fled Gaza because he was an official in the Fatah administration deposed by Hamas last year, and was on the militants’ wanted list.
The last time he spoke to Jacqueline, who wanted to be a doctor, she had minutes to live. “She called to tell me, father I am so scared, there is shooting everywhere. She was worried about her 12-year-old brother, Mohamed,” he said.
When the Israelis withdrew last Monday, Hamas claimed victory, but it did not seem like one to many in Gaza. Attacks continued from both sides last week.
One of them would claim the youngest victim of the conflict.
Mohamed Abu Asser, a 37-year-old taxi driver, and his wife, Nadia, 30, took their two youngest daughters, two-year-old Nadine and 20-day-old Amira, to visit a sick friend of the family last Tuesday.
This weekend, however, Nadia lay in a hospital bed. Large tears spilled from her eyes as she described how Amira had died.
“We heard fierce shooting,” Nadia recalled. “The Israelis called over the microphone to evacuate the house. But when I went out, holding up my baby, a small red light came on me and they shot me. They didn’t let the ambulance come for three hours.”
Her husband told the same story. “We decided Nadia should go out first, with the baby – they would be less likely to shoot her,” he said. “Now my first photo of my smiley baby is when she is dead.”
Tragedy came to Israel as well. At 8.30pm on Thursday, Alaa Abu Dheim, a 25-year-old driver from largely Palestinian east Jerusalem, arrived at the entrance to Mercaz Harav seminary, carrying a big television box. He took an AK47 out of the box and shot his way in, carrying magazines as well as two hand guns.
While a student whispered for help to emergency services over his mobile, Abu Dheim was calmly replacing his AK47 magazines, one after another, and killing students trapped in the library with shots to the head.
He was eventually killed by David Shapira, an Israeli para-troop captain on leave, who had been reading a bedtime story to his children when he heard the shots and ran to the seminary.
Yehuda Hillel Shulman, 19, was one of the nine wounded who were still in hospital this weekend. His mother Miriam said that when the first shots were heard, a rabbi had turned off the lights and told his students to jump from a balcony.
“They all jumped out of the second floor and that’s how they saved their lives, before Abu Dheim reached their room. The rabbi was the last to jump,” she said.
Gaza’s gunmen poured into the streets on hearing the news, shooting into the air in celebration of the massacre. CAN anything be done to stem the bloodshed? Tortuous negotiations in which Egypt acted as an intermediary produced a truce that was still in place yesterday. But any further incident could result in another Israeli incursion.
Condoleezza Rice, the American secretary of state, also persuaded Fatah’s Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to resume talks with Israel, but he has not said when.
Hamas, which is pledged to destroy Israel, remains excluded from any negotiations. But it emerged this weekend that senior members of the Israeli security establishment were urging the government of Ehud Olmert to talk to Hamas. They believe any agreement made without Hamas would fail.
Fundamentally, however, the real problem may be that much of Hamas seems willing to fight on for “liberation”, no matter how hopeless the cause.
The conflict is further complicated by the role of Iran which, by supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, has created two potential fronts for Israel. If Israel’s military is occupied with an internal threat, its reasoning goes, Olmert will be loath to mount the attack Tehran fears on its nuclear programme.
As for the Hamas commander, he is focused on making sure his forces are equipped and trained for the next Israeli incursion. “They are occupying us, we are not occupying them,” he said. “We will never stop resisting.”
Last updated 12/03/2008