Palestinian leader shows a softer side of Hamas

Had Israel’s quarter-ton bomb been a bit bigger, Ismail Haniyeh might have gone down in history three years ago as a minor Hamas figure killed in a surgical strike aimed at the militant group’s leadership.

Instead, the fisherman’s son who survived attempted assassination, exile and imprisonment has emerged as the softer, pragmatic face of Hamas as it moves into power.

Charged with creating the first Hamas-dominated Palestinian government as the next prime minister, Haniyeh is expected to play a central role in guiding his group toward detente with Israel — or into a deadly confrontation with the Jewish nation.

Although Haniyeh comes from a dogmatic Islamist group that’s used suicide bombings as its weapon to destroy Israel, some see the son of Palestinian refugee camps as a moderate who might augur a new chapter for Hamas.

“In many respects, he is a man of compromise,” said Anat Kurz, an expert on Hamas with the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. “He’s a politician. Not a religious leader. Not a military leader. Therefore, he stands a chance to become even more powerful.”

On paper and in public, Hamas refuses to accept Israel’s right to live next to a Palestinian nation. The United States and European Union consider Hamas a terrorist group.

But some leaders are offering Israel a long-term truce in exchange for the creation of a Palestinian nation free of disputed Jewish settlements in all of the West Bank. Of course, Israel would find it nearly impossible to accept that outcome, even if such negotiations were to become possible.

Central to any compromise will be Haniyeh, the 42-year-old father of 11 who still lives on the same narrow Shati refugee camp street where he was born.

From the roof of his three-story home a block from the Mediterranean Sea, Haniyeh can look north into Israel and see the village where his family still claims title to the 40 acres of land they left when they fled in 1948. Although Israel bars Haniyeh from entering the country, three of his sisters are married to Arab Israelis and live in the nation’s Negev desert, said his older brother Khaled.

Raised in a religious family, Haniyeh was known as a mosque boy, the Muslim equivalent of a Catholic altar boy. He spent hours in the neighborhood mosque around the corner from the family home.

As a teenager, Haniyeh left the refugee camp soccer team to become a playmaker for the Islamic Society club before becoming active in politics as a student at Islamic University in Gaza. While studying Arabic, he joined the student council just as the Muslim Brotherhood was laying the foundations for Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

When an Israeli army jeep patrolling the nearby Jabalya refugee camp killed four Palestinians in a 1987 car crash that sparked the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, Haniyeh quickly became a street organizer.

“What changed Ismail was the intifada,” his brother said. “Everyone changed after the intifada.”

After two stints in jail, Haniyeh was imprisoned for three years. Israel then deported him, and more than 400 Hamas and Islamic Jihad figures, to southern Lebanon in 1992.

Meant to demoralize Hamas, the deportations, in effect, created a yearlong Hamas training camp where Haniyeh studied with the emerging leadership, including leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

At the camp, the group established a university, created a library and reached out to nearby villages by offering to pick olives and fruit during harvest season. Haniyeh worked on the media committee and went from tent to tent to drink tea with the other deportees.

“He has gathered the wisdom of the older leaders and the spirit of the young,” said childhood friend Hani Abu Aoudah.

Upon his return, Haniyeh took an academic job at Islamic University before winning the confidence of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of Hamas. Yassin embraced Haniyeh almost like a son, and Haniyeh became his intellectual disciple.

Haniyeh was with Yassin and top Hamas members when Israel tried to assassinate Yassin, who used a wheelchair, in September 2003, by dropping a bomb on a house in Gaza where the group was meeting. Everyone escaped relatively unscathed, but it put Haniyeh in the crosshairs.

“This man was part of Hamas’ murder machine,” Avi Dichter, the former Israeli Shin Bet security agency director who oversaw the attempted assassinations, recently told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.

“In my eyes, he was and remains a terrorist, no matter what his position,” said Dichter, who’s part of the new centrist Kadima Party expected to win this month’s Israeli parliamentary elections.

“If a terror attack takes place to which Israel decides to respond with an assassination operation, Haniyeh will be a legitimate target because Hamas cannot execute a terror attack without authorization from the leadership,” he said.

Within a year, Israeli air strikes killed Yassin and Rantisi, and Hamas went underground, cloaking its new leadership in secrecy.

The Israeli campaign to eliminate militants created an opening for Hamas’ political wing.

Even then, Haniyeh largely remained in the shadows of Mahmoud Zahar, the more caustic and dogmatic Gaza Strip leader who is a new Palestinian lawmaker.

But Haniyeh’s common touch and statesmanlike demeanor have made him the populist choice. Even now, the new prime minister keeps a low profile. He doesn’t drive a flashy car and has said he’ll accept a modest salary.

His political touch was on display when an emotional group of demonstrators carrying framed photographs of fathers, sons and brothers in Israeli prisons pushed their way inside a legislative meeting.

While other lawmakers ignored the irate protesters, Haniyeh strode over to reassure them and offer his cell phone number.

As the group calmed down, Haniyeh returned to his seat, raised his hand and took the oath of office.