"Palestinians are not afraid of death"

Just a week before a deadly Jerusalem pizzeria bombing, the spiritual leader for Hamas told Salon how, by "protecting the dignity of his people," a suicide bomber "becomes a martyr."

Published August 11, 2001 12:23AM (EDT)

A week before Thursdays suicide bombing of a Jerusalem restaurant left 15 dead, Salon sat down with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, one of the two militant Palestinian groups (along with Islamic Jihad) that has now taken credit for the bombing. Yassin was asked about an attack by Israel just two days earlier that left six Hamas militants dead. Two children, ages 8 and 10, were also killed after the attack, in which Israel launched missiles at a seven-story building in the West Bank town of Nablus.

"I want you to understand that we Palestinians are not afraid of death," Yassin said, later adding that a "suicide bomber sacrifices his life for the sake of others. By protecting the dignity of his people, he becomes a martyr."

After the June 1 attack at the Dolphinarium disco in Tel Aviv in which 21 people were killed, Yasser Arafat declared a cease-fire and asked you to stop your activities. After the killings in Nablus, will you change your policy?

Hamas was established to resist and kick out the occupier. Hamas never considered freezing its activities. We don't get red or green lights from anybody. The military wing decides what to do.

If Israel continues its assassination policy, is there anything you can do to protect people like Abdelaziz Rantissi (a top Hamas leader in Gaza)?

Is there any Palestinian who is not in danger? What did the kids who were killed in Nablus do to deserve dying? I want you to understand that we Palestinians are not afraid of death. When one of us is killed, it's like a wedding day for him. We can only protect our men from street attacks, but there's nothing we can do against tank or helicopters. For Rantissi and others, God is the only protection.

Are you afraid Israel will try to kill you?

Please, they are welcome.

Some Muslim clerics believe suicide bombers are headed for hell because the Koran forbids suicide. What do you think?

You must distinguish between a person who commits suicide because he hates the world and wants to get rid of his life and someone who kills himself to protect his land and his people. Their intention is different, and prophet Mohammed said you should judge a person's actions according to his intentions. A suicide bomber sacrifices his life for the sake of others. By protecting the dignity of his people, he becomes a martyr.

Have Israel's efforts weakened your operational capacities by killing bomb-making experts?

When one of us is killed, ten others are born after him. If not hundreds. Killing us is actually making our numbers grow. Even if they kill experts, others will be born. They killed the Engineer [a famous bomb-maker killed in 1996] but our struggle didn't stop after he died.

What is the consequence of the deaths of Sheikh Jamal Mansur and Sheikh Jamal Selim (the two top Hamas leaders killed in Nablus) for your organization?

Their deaths push us towards more resistance and increase our determination. The way the two sheikhs were killed was cowardly. They were sitting in a media office, they were not in a military base or engaged in a military operation. Military people know they risk dying in battle, but civilians should be protected by the Geneva Convention.

How about Israeli civilians, shouldn't they be kept out of the conflict as well?

The Geneva convention protects civilians in occupied territories, not civilians who are in fact occupiers.

Wasn't it cowardly to attack young people at a Tel Aviv disco (a terror attack for which Hamas has claimed responsibility)?

They're the ones who are criminals. They took my house and my country. The soldier who attacks us, the pilot who shells us, where do they live? All of Israel, Tel Aviv included, is occupied Palestine. So we're not actually targeting civilians -- that would go against Islam. The crime of occupation is not more legitimate in Tel Aviv [than it is in the West Bank, seized by Israel in 1967] because it is older. If Israel stole my house in Ashkelon in 1948, does it mean it's OK to have made me homeless? Up to this day Jews are running after Nazis and suing countries although their losses happened a long time ago.

The relationship between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority has improved a lot with the Intifada. What kind of contacts do you have with Arafat?

I had an hour long face-to-face meeting with Arafat a month ago.

Are there any political differences these days between you two?

Definitely. He has his vision and I have mine. He focuses on negotiations while we refuse this policy.

By Flore de Preneuf

Flore de Preneuf is a Jerusalem writer and photographer.

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Middle East Terrorism