Hamas is the Address for Doing Business

Mark Perry

The voice of Usamah Hamdan comes over the cell phone groggy, exhausted. It is five in the morning in Beirut, but Hamdan -- one of Hamas's senior leaders -- has stayed up through the night and into the early hours of the morning. This is not unusual for him; he is an inveterate workaholic. He has just finished an interview on CNN International in the wake of the release of BBC reporter Alan Johnston from captivity.

"Congratulations on the release of Mr. Johnston."

"Thank you," he says.

"It was a difficult time."

"Well, it was," he says. "But we worked hard and we had success."

"It was touch and go in the end?"

"Yes, we had difficulties," Hamdan says. "But the man is free and we are happy."

Hamdan was not nearly so understated just three weeks ago, when he sat down for lunch in Beirut with a group of Westerners. He talked of the recent failed Fatah attempt to unseat the democratically elected Hamas government in Gaza, of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' dismissal of the National Unity Government, of the arrest of dozens of Hamas activists in the West Bank -- and of Johnston's continuing captivity. "The most important thing is that our people know him well," Hamdan said, "they know him well. They visited him in his office. They respect him."

Hamdan identified the large Dagmoush clan as Johnston's captors and said that now Mohammad Dahlan's Preventive Security Service's had abandoned Gaza, the Hamas leadership was focusing on gaining Johnston's release. The resolution of the Gaza situation, and the imposition of political stability, had given Hamas the opportunity to focus on Johnston. After Dahlan's forces were routed, on June 15, it became their top priority. "We are working to have the man secure and safe," Hamdan said. "If we do anything wrong they may hurt him so we are making the pressure slowly in order to have him released."

Hamdan was naturally reticent to give any details of Hamas's strategy for gaining Johnston's release, though it was soon clear that the leadership had adopted a less than subtle set of tactics to win his freedom. "We are talking to some senior members of the family, telling them this will not help the whole family, and they have to play a role. They can't cover their backs while they are kidnapping this man," Hamdan said. Another Palestinian leader was less charitable: "These people are not Rhodes scholars," he said of the Dagmoush's. "This is essentially a criminal gang, a politicized political gang, but a gang. They understand the use of force."

At first, Hamas worked carefully -- slowly bringing pressure against the family. The Hamas leadership was particularly sensitive to the pleadings of British officials, including Richard Makepeace, the British Consul General in Jerusalem, who held a series of quiet meetings with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza City. But the go-slow approach advocated by Makepeace soon gave way to a tougher line. The key to gaining Johnston's release was convincing 28-year-old Mumtaz Dagmoush, the leader of the family, that there would be a steep price to pay should any harm come to the BBC reporter. Hamas's message to Dagmoush was clear: if he cooperated, he and his family would be left alone, but if he did not -- and if something were to happen to Johnston -- then he and the Dagmoush would have to face the armed might of Hamas's Executive Force, now firmly in control in Gaza.

There was never any doubt where Johnston was being held. The thick warren of alleys and streets on the south end of Gaza City -- the well-known Sabra neighborhood -- had been under control of the Dagmoush clan for years and had been impenetrable to the combined might of the Palestinian security services from the day that Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Army marched into Gaza. But following their mid-June defeat of Dahlan's militia, Hamas's Executive Force began taking up positions, slowly tightening control of the area. "They tightened the noose. They were very effective," one Western journalist notes. That might have been predicted: unlike the outsiders in Dahlan's PSS who had marched into the Strip through Egypt, the forces used by the Hamas-led security services had been hand-picked by the leadership. Their most important lead team -- crawling in along the rooftops of Sabra -- had grown up in the neighborhood. Some of them were itching to get at Mumtaz Darmoush. "We just hope and pray Mumtaz Dagmoush says no [to any deal]," one Hamas militia official told The Times of London. "If they refuse to hand him over, we'll massacre them. They think they're so powerful, but we really want to drag their noses through the mud."

But bloodshed was the last thing that Hamas wanted. As talks dragged on through late June, Hamas Executive Force officers began identifying and detaining Dagmoush clan members, the most important of which was 26-year-old spiritual leader Kattab al-Maqdesi. Maqdesi's detention was a blow to Dagmoush. Negotiations for the release of Johnston soon accelerated. On Sunday night, July 1, Hamas officials leaked word that unless the negotiations showed real progress, the Executive Force -- the lead elements now just two blocks from the room where Johnston was being held -- would storm the Sabra strongpoint in order to secure Johnston's release. The operation was set to go forward on Tuesday night, July 3. The pressure seemed to work: inside the Dagmoush family, religious advisors were counseling restraint and arguing that holding Johnston violated Islam's precepts.

A key negotiator was Salman Dayeh, a 49-year-old independent cleric from Gaza's Islamic University who served as a mediator between the Dagmoush family and the Hamas leadership. Dayeh was perfect for the job: low-key, always smiling -- but viewed throughout Gaza as a man of enormous stature who could be trusted. He would make certain that everyone kept their word. When he pronounced that holding Johnston captive was a breach of Sharia law, Mamtuz Dagmoush realized he'd run out of options. Early on Wednesday morning, Dayeh told Dagmoush that the Hamas leadership had agreed that so long as Johnston was freed, there would be no reprisals against his family -- they would be allowed to fade back into Sabra, their weapons intact. And, he added, Kattab al-Maqdesi would also be freed. It was the last assurance the family needed. And so it was that when Alan Johnston was escorted from his car to meet Ismail Haniyah, Kattab al-Maqdesi could be seen, his face shrouded in the darkness, escorted by Hamas Executive Force officers, to a nearby car.

Three weeks ago, as soon as Hamas assumed exclusive responsibility for security in Gaza, the release of Johnston was held up as a litmus test of the government's ability to exercise authority. In a matter of days, Hamas' law and order agenda was bringing calm to the infamously lawless streets of the Gaza Strip. Even so, it was only Alan Johnston's freedom that would command international attention.

Now, in less than a month, bold promises have been translated into reality and as a columnist put it yesterday in Israel's leading daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, this success delivers a simple message, "... when it comes to the Palestinians, Hamas is the address for doing business."



5 Comments

  1. Battal Agha wrote:

    Agreed – Hamas is the address for business. BUT… what kind of business?? Eradication of Israel? How could Israel negotiate with someone who does not recognize it? Would Hamas accept to sit down with Israeli officials?
    Affirmatively, that would be indeed a major breakthrough….

  2. Eve Loftus wrote:

    A comment for Battal Agha, Hamas does not want to destroy Israel, they accept that Israel is there and they want to negotiate with Israel, it’s just that they don’t think Israel had originally a right to be created because there were a Palestinian people already living there. But now that Israel is there, they will negotiate with them and try to come to a just solution for the problem.

  3. Bill Neddow wrote:

    Let us just look at the other side of this bit of Israeli propaganda. Hamas is not a terrorist operation. It is a democratically elected government. Why does Israel refuse to recognize it? If you want to talk of terrorist organizations, look to the Israelis who to set up the state of Israel, and talk to some of the British troops who had many of their friends killed by these “freedom fighters” (remember the King David Hotel).

  4. Mohamed wrote:

    I would like to say this by a small story.

    If you expelled out of your house and occupied by some one and then if you fight to get back your home if the occupier says not to fight with him and negotiate with him to give a go down of your own house to you not even a house will you accept it?

    As an outside observer will you say as no right to fighting to get back the stolen house? who ever having a house or atleast little sence will not bluff like this kind of negotiations

  5. razag el drwish wrote:

    Hamas does the right thing, but isreali convinced the whole world that Hamas a terroist orgnization. I think isreali wants to make some dilalogue with Hamas elected members but they afriad and they embrassed from this situation. Hamas again insted that we can live together in peace in the tenth years without recognize thier right on the land. the bigest question now Who was ready to do busniss with Hamas, arab country, amercain, erpion union or isreali