Men in ski masks are always a little unnerving. They conjure up memories of the Black September terrorists who held Israeli athletes hostage during the 1972 Munich Olympics. But here I was in Gaza, hoping to spend some time with men in black face masks -- specifically, with Hamas fighters.
For a full week, we had been begging our field producer, Azmi Keshawi, to set up meetings with the armed wing of the militant Palestinian group. He wasn’t terribly optimistic. “If you’d come before Hamas was elected to power, they’d be easy to interview,” Keshawi told me. “But these days, fighting is not really the message Hamas wants to send. Hamas,” he added, “wants to show a different face to the world.”
Granted, producer Marcela Gaviria and I were focusing on the implications of Hamas’s political win, but we still wanted to hear from its military wing. The Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades have about 5,000 fighters. They gained notoriety for launching suicide and rocket attacks against Israel, mainly during the second intifada, which raged from September 2000 until early 2005. Hamas claimed that the group’s military successes against the Israeli army were what led then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in the fall of 2005.
I wanted to know what the al-Qassam Brigades thought about the organization’s new political role and how they felt about the informal cease-fire that Hamas had generally adhered to for the last year.
We had been playing a waiting game when the energetic Keshawi called us. A little more excited than usual, he told us that we might be allowed on a patrol that night with both Hamas and Islamic jihad fighters. Realizing I wasn’t entirely prepared, I did a quick Google search on Qassam rockets. Named after the Hamas militia, the homemade projectiles are among the Palestinian militants’ favorite weapon. With a range of about 12 miles, Qassams frequently were launched at Israeli settlements and into Israel proper during the second intifada. (As part of the cease-fire, Hamas has allegedly stopped firing Qassams, but other militant groups continued to do so during our time in Gaza.) Hundreds of Qassam rockets have rained down on Israel over the last few years, and although they succeeded in sowing terror, they have done relatively little damage. Qassams lack a missile guidance system and are famously inaccurate.
Several hours later, cameraman Tim Grucza and I were speeding with Keshawi to our first rendezvous. Much to our surprise, we arrived at a large housing project. We’d passed the apartment complex numerous times during our week in Gaza. The project was funded by the United Arab Emirates and was one of the toniest in all of Gaza. I’d never noticed the dusty soccer field right next to it. On this night the field had been transformed into a Hamas training ground, right in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
A stocky Hamas commander greeted us warmly; he seemed to know Keshawi well. He said we could film a group of about 20 men wearing face masks. Another, larger group of men, training at the far end of the field, were off limits, the commander told us. Their faces weren’t covered, and as Keshawi explained, filming these men could leave them vulnerable to Israeli assassinations.
The 20 masked recruits, I was told, were between 18 and 20 years old, and they were in their first month of a lengthy training process. They had been selected on the basis of their commitment to Hamas’s principles -- a belief in fundamentalist Islam, a rejection of the Oslo peace accords and a dedication to fighting the occupation.
The young recruits crawled in the sand clasping fake wooden rifles. They practiced a series of karate moves and did somersaults. Then they jogged around the field waving a green Hamas flag shouting, “God is great.” Despite the black masks, they didn’t look terribly threatening. Their thin bodies gave away their youth and inexperience.
The training session was just ending when the new recruits abruptly began to shout and scatter. Was this part of the exercise, I wondered?
Keshawi moved quickly to my side. “Kate, Kate, it’s an Israeli helicopter. We have to get out of here.” His voice was anxious as the chopping sound of helicopter blades drew closer in the night sky.
He ordered Tim and me into his car, and with our hearts pounding, we sped to a small well-lit roundabout, just a few hundred feet away, next to the housing complex. We were well aware that Israel had strafed Hamas training camps in the past; it was entirely possible they were here to do the same tonight.
“Out of the car,” Keshawi signaled. “Kate, take off your headscarf. You want the Israelis to see your hair.”
It was the only time in conservative Gaza that Keshawi had asked me to take off my scarf and reveal my blonde hair. And for just a second I relished the moment.
The helicopter passed somewhere overhead and our fear subsided.
Keshawi drove us to another section of Gaza for our next appointment -- a patrol with Islamic jihad fighters. This Iranian-backed organization is one of the most hard-line groups in Gaza and rejects Hamas’s informal cease-fire with Israel. Throughout our 10 days reporting in Gaza, Islamic jihad fighters were launching Qassam rockets into southern Israel. Although past Qassam attacks have killed at least four Israeli children and wounded others, most of these landed harmlessly in fields near the city of Sederot or in the Mediterranean Sea.
Nevertheless, Israeli response was fierce. In addition to the frequent shelling of northern Gaza, an unmanned Israeli air force drone strafed a car carrying two Islamic jihad fighters, killing them and several bystanders.
We had watched as the dead and wounded from the attack were brought to Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. An emotional crowd had gathered outside the emergency room. Inside, family members wept with grief and rage. A young Islamic jihad partisan had pulled me into the hospital morgue to show me the remains of one of the victims, as if challenging me to do something about the killing.
So, frankly, the last thing I wanted to do was trail a group of young Islamic jihad fighters who were on a mission to launch Qassams. The chances of an immediate Israeli retaliation seemed too great. Apparently our jihad hosts thought the same. After several agitated phone calls between Keshawi and a local leader, the patrol was called off.
But our night was not yet over. We still had a foot patrol with Qassam fighters at 1 a.m. Keshawi raced through the deserted streets of northern Gaza, and we picked up his Hamas contact. We were led along rutted dirt roads until we reached our destination, a mile or so from the Israeli border. There, next to a cow shed, we were met by four men in face masks and fatigues, carrying Kalishnikovs. One also carried a Yassin, a crude shoulder-held rocket launcher.
We walked a short way with the four men. Then they stopped, as though posing for the camera, and seemed uncertain about what to do next. Was this a real foot patrol, I wondered, or had Keshawi asked four of his friends to dress up for us?
They assured me they were Hamas fighters who regularly patrolled northern Gaza to keep an eye out for the Israelis. We strolled with them past the eerie visage of bombed-out buildings, destroyed during Israeli military invasions into Gaza in the second intifada.
A fighter, whose black mask obscured his face, said he was happy Hamas had been rewarded at the polls. After years of fighting the Israelis, Hamas deserved to win, he said, especially since they were not corrupt, like the former ruling party, Fatah. The fighter told me he had no desire to spend his life in combat, but felt he had little choice. Palestinian violence, he said, was a direct result of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
He, like other Hamas fighters we met, felt frustrated that Fatah’s peaceful negotiations with the Israelis had gotten nothing for the Palestinian people. Since Yasser Arafat’s signing of a peace treaty with Israel in 1993, Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank had grown significantly. Hamas, he believed, should never compromise its principles by agreeing to negotiate with Israel.
I asked if we could take a picture with him and his three other nameless, faceless friends. He happily agreed.
I was still wondering whether these fighters were for real when we went out a few nights later with the commander of Hamas’s northern brigade, Abu Hamzeh. He said groups of men from his command and others go out every night to patrol Gaza’s border with Israel. These patrols, he said, are critical to stopping potential Israeli threats, despite their troop withdrawal last fall.
“The Israelis have not left us alone,” Hamzeh told me. “You have heard the bullets and the rockets that come … and we don’t trust that they won’t come back.”
As we walked through fields of strawberries and potatoes under a silver moon, Hamzeh told me that he came from a rich family. He could have done other things with his life. But he felt he owed it to his people to become a Hamas fighter, given what he called the horrors of the Israeli occupation -- the home demolitions, the targeted assassinations, the destruction of Palestinian orchards.
“When we were brought up,” he told me, “we had no way to respond.”
He decided that fighting back was the best way to take action.
It was hard to imagine the mild-mannered and easygoing Hamzeh planning a suicide attack or launching a Qassam rocket, but like other Hamas supporters, Hamzeh believed that suicide attacks were an ugly albeit necessary tool in Hamas’s war against a much more heavily armed occupier. Without elaborating, he told me he was wanted by the Israelis -- so wanted that he no longer bothered to wear a face mask in front of the camera.
Standing in the chilly night air, Hamzeh said he supported Hamas’s rise to power and insisted that they would never compromise their main principles -- jihad and armed resistance. But the truce, he noted, was a good thing. It gave his men time to rest and, as he put it, refresh themselves spiritually.
It’s not clear how much longer Hamas’s informal cease-fire will last. In early April, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades issued their first statement in months, vowing to avenge Israeli air strikes that had killed some 15 Palestinians in Gaza.
‘‘The Zionist enemy will pay a high price and will drink from the same cup from which our people drink day and night,’’ the Brigades said.
And now the Israeli government is threatening to seek revenge against the Hamas government after an Islamic jihad follower blew himself up in Tel Aviv in mid-April, killing 10 people.
With tensions rising so precipitously just weeks after Hamas came to power, a return to the cycle of violence that marked the last intifada doesn’t seem far-fetched. It’s unlikely that Hamzeh and his masked men will have much time to focus on spiritual renewal.