Mr. Abu Shanab is a founding member and a current leader of Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement. The following interview was conducted on November 18, 1997, at his home in Gaza City by Roger Gaess, a free-lance journalist based in New York.
GAESS: What's been the status of relations between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority over the past several months?
ABU SHANAB: Around the end of March  we participated in a national-unity conference that had been called by the Palestinian Authority (PA). It was held in Nablus. The conference was a step towards mutual understanding. A second conference followed in August, in Gaza. And that brought us another step closer to each other.
The unexpected release of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin [from an Israeli prison in late September] also helped to firm up the basis for better relations between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas because from the first moment of his release, the sheikh talked about the Authority in terms of its being a legitimate body that deserved the respect of all Palestinians. The Authority liked what they heard and considered it a further move towards unity. So in general terms that's where we stand now. On the other hand, many Hamas prisoners are still being held in PA jails, and we hope that with this improved atmosphere they will soon be released.
Q: How many Hamas people are imprisoned?
A: About 60 in Gaza and 70 in the West Bank.
Q: With his return to Gaza, what role will Sheikh Yassin be playing in Hamas, given that the Hamas leadership is fanned out across Amman and Gaza, the West Bank and Damascus?
A: The sheikh is very popular and he is widely admired among his supporters. Although he is a simple man, his words are very deep and people take them seriously. It's in this way that he leads and helps outline strategy.
Q: So he's a kind of unifying force?
A: Yes, because if there is a difference of opinion and the sheikh indicates that he sides with a particular stance, the second party will agree and accept the outcome even though that wasn't their own opinion.
Q: Since the formation of Khalas [Islamic National Salvation Party] in Gaza in early 1996, there's been a lot of speculation in the foreign press about whether it amounts to a breakaway faction that signals a splintering of Hamas. During your last several months of imprisonment, you had temporarily served as Khalas's first chairman, though you've resumed an active role in Hamas since your release. What's the junction of Khalas, as distinguished from Hamas?
A: We think of Khalas as a political party that is working inside the Palestinian community within the framework of the Palestinian Authority. Khalas presents an Islamic viewpoint on internal political issues, but it does not deal with issues directly pertaining to the Israeli occupation. Hamas, in contrast, has a different goal–to resist the occupation–although it also is concerned about the rebuilding of Palestinian society. So Hamas's agenda is more encompassing than that of Khalas.
Q: The municipal elections, as opposed to balloting/or Palestinian Authority offices –will it be Khalas or Hamas that will field candidates in those elections, assuming that Arafat eventually allows them to be held?
A: It will be Hamas, but Khalas and Hamas will work together if there are municipal elections.
Q: In terms of physical infrastructure, does Khalas have offices in both the West Bank and Gaza?
A: No, not in the West Bank, but Khalas has offices in each of Gaza's five electoral districts. Their main office is here in Gaza City.
Q: The new Risala newspaper is a kind of successor to the now defunct Hamas newspaper Al-Watan, which had been repeatedly closed down by the Palestinian Authority. Is Risala a Hamas or Khalas entity?
A: Officially, it belongs to Al-Khalas. But people who are in Al-Khalas were originally in Hamas, so both organizations share a general approach in that their understanding of the Palestinian issue is based on Islam.
Q: So the reason that somebody would be working in Khalas, as opposed to Hamas, is essentially because it does a somewhat different thing, not because they believe something different?
A: Yes. The roles of each are different, that's all.
Q: I have a few questions concerning the idea of a two-state solution. I can understand Hamas's reluctance to talk about specific borders, in part because there are many Israelis who won't talk about borders. But, for instance, some Israeli Mossad officials have tried to justify their assassination attempt on Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal in Amman, Jordan, on September 25, 1997) by saying that they were right to do that because Hamas is out to destroy Israel. And when I've read some of the published interviews with Sheikh Yassin, it's been difficult to conclude with certainty whether he's willing to accept an Israeli state existing side by side with a Palestinian state.
A: The destruction of Israel is not at issue. We in Hamas talk about two things. We talk about our rights in general and about the occupation. We know that the land that is now occupied by Israel and on which they are building their state is our land. They took it by force, and they forced us to leave. No one among the Palestinians, not the sheikh and not Arafat, doubts that this land belongs to us. It is from this perspective that you can understand the meaning of the words employed by Hamas; why, when we address this issue we say, "This is our land."
But as to the actual situation and what we need, the sheikh said, and all Hamas agrees, that if the Israelis withdraw from the territories they've occupied since 1967, he will agree to a cease-fire so that the fighting can stop. That is the sheikh's red line - that the Israelis must leave. He is saying that the Israelis are building their state at the expense of our rights. But he is not saying that we want to destroy Israel. If we had the force to get our land back, I think he would do it. After all, if you were in our position, you would do it as well. But we don't have that power, and we will not forget our rights to our land. The Israelis think that we might forget, but we teach this to our children and our children will teach it to their children.
We have no objection to the Israelis . living together with us here as long as they don't destroy us for their state. And we will not destroy them for our state. This is the compromise that Arafat offered. He affirmed the concept of two states for two peoples, a state for the Palestinians and a state for the Israelis. From the standpoint of rights, you can say that the Palestinians relinquished the right to some of their land and agreed to a compromise. Now from our Islamic point of view, we consider that the wrong interpretation. We believe Palestine is an Islamic land and that no one has the authority to compromise that right. But despite that, Hamas does not want to destroy Israel. When we have our state we will accept the Israelis in our land as a guest and as a nationality. And as to the overall nuances of relations between the Israeli and Palestinian states, that is something that should be left for future generations to work out.
I think it's in Israel's own interest to accept this formula. After all, the Palestinians would not be able to say that we had accepted it under the threat of Israeli force, and later present that argument as a reason for developing ourselves and attacking Israel. The compromise of Arafat is something that can be acceptable to both the Israelis and the Muslims. Israel's withdrawal from the territories they've occupied since 1967 is a good solution for both sides. We should not dwell on the distant future; instead, we should focus on the future that we can see. Let us both live in peace in our separate states, without interference from the other, and let future generations solve the details of this crisis.
Q: And this is Sheikh Yassin's position as well?
A: Yes, this is the position of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. He has talked about this very frankly and very openly. Sheik Yassin wants the Israelis to understand that if they accept this, we will stop fighting. But the Israelis have refused to compromise. So now the ball is in their court.
Q: You've been quoted in the Israeli press as talking about the possibility that the intifada would be reignited What's the thinking on that? That if nothing happens in the negotiating process, then some kind of pressure is needed to get it moving?
A: Yes, but more than that. We are committed to our rights, and we will not surrender. With these two points in mind, we want a solution - a just solution. If no such solution is in motion, we will not wait until somebody from the outside comes to say, "Yes, these are your rights and I'll give them to you on a silver platter." Nations with dignity should resist occupation and struggle for their freedom. So if no solution is forthcoming, what do you think we will expect other than a resumption of the intifada? But not the same intifada. It might be very much stronger than the intifada that occurred earlier.
Q: Who would the targets be? The Israelis in the territories occupied since 1967?
A: Right, because who is our enemy? Who is pressuring us? It's the Israelis. They are at the core of the denial of our rights, not anyone inside the Palestinian territories.
Take the proposed safe-passageway between the West Bank and Gaza. When that was discussed, the Israelis said, "Yes, we will let a few cars pass." The Palestinian negotiator asked them, What do you mean by "a few" – 10 or 20 cars? They said, "Yes, something like that." The Palestinian pointed out that we already have permission for 80 cars. So are negotiations moving forwards or backwards?
The Israeli mentality is to not give anything unless pressured to do so. I lived eight years in prison with the Israelis. We shared very close quarters. Although they were the guards and we were their prisoners, we shared everything from politics to everyday life. And the primary lesson we learned from them can be summed up in what one guard said to me:
"We Israelis do not give anything back without being pressured." He very frankly told me, "Force me to give it back; otherwise, why should I return it?" So to get back some of our clothes, for instance, we would go on strikes. We would strike for months and months and months until some of our clothing was returned. If the United States understood this situation and firmly told the parties what solution was acceptable to it as a superpower, I think everything would be resolved. And even we Muslims would accept this and let later generations decide the fine points. But if the United States does not do this, we can only conclude that the world is not going to help us regain our rights. So we will take the initiative ourselves. We will continue our struggle because we have nothing to lose.
Q: In late September , about a month after the second of the two unity conferences, Arafat ordered Palestinian Authority security forces to close down some 16 Islamic social-service institutions in the West Bank and Gaza. What was his motivation for doing that?
A: Arafat had met with Mrs. Albright [Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright] around that time. She was, as we say, talking to him in the voice of the Israelis. The Israelis wanted him to put pressure on Hamas. They want to destroy the infrastructure of Hamas, and they say these organizations are part of Hamas's infrastructure. So Arafat, to please Mrs. Albright, agreed to close them.
But the Islamic Women's Association and the other organizations he closed were providing services to the poor and other needy people. Those were simply Islamic organizations. People here often use Islamic words when naming their institutions. These organizations have nothing to do with Hamas. Closing them does not affect Hamas –it harms the people. So Arafat ended up creating more of a crisis for the poor, and his own popularity suffered as a result.
Q: Do you think Secretary of State Albright understands what Hamas is?
A: No. I remember that when journalists asked her what she meant by Hamas's infrastructure, she did not give a clear answer. She just repeated what the Israelis say. And if you ask the Israelis what they mean by the infrastructure of Hamas, they will respond by demanding that everything Islamic be closed. But we are a Muslim nation. So they would close our mosques and our schools, and bring our lives to a halt. The irony here is that when the Israelis were themselves occupying Gaza, they arrested Hamas figures but did not close these institutions. Now they are asking Arafat to close them. I think they have no other motive than wanting Palestinians to fight each other. They want our society to be in disarray, whether through pressure on Hamas or Arafat or the entire population. They think they can control us that way. Maybe they will succeed to some extent. But pressure leads to explosion. They pressured us many times in the days of the occupation, and finally we found the solution. It was the intifada. It was not a solution that somebody from the outside created. It came from inside the Palestinian territories. Things just exploded without any directing hand. Even Yasser Arafat from outside the country could not have created the intifada. Israeli pressure ignited it. And now, if the Israelis continue to pressure the Palestinians, there will be another explosion, and nobody knows where it will lead, other than that it will be directed at our enemies and not at ourselves.