Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Day 37 (July 9): Sheikh Bittawi

Today I had what is probably the longest as well as the best-translated conversation with a Hamas member I have had since arriving in the West Bank. As he walked, he had an aura of wisdom and honor which enveloped and surrounded him. I had been attempting to set a meeting up with Sheikh Hamid Bittawi for some time, as he is one of the few free members of Hamas in the West Bank. He had was quite short and walked with a cane, his large white beard covered much of his round face. For clothes he wore long flowing robes, giving him an official aura. He took me completely by surprise, at least part of which was due to the fact that he had come without any warning, and I had not prepared any questions. But, this was the time he had, so I would have to accept it.

Since I had no questions prepared, I simply decided to have a conversation with Bittawi, which was only mildly hampered by the necessity of a translator. I asked him about his feelings on violent resistance, the existence of Israel, the political decisions of Fatah, his feeling on Americans, and on establishing an Islamic state. Each of his answers was thorough and interesting, and far too long to recount here. He accepted the existence of Israel on 78% of the land, and said that if a two-state solution was reached, Hamas would be completely willing to give up its resistance activities immediately. Furthermore, he accepted all the relevant UN Resolutions on the conflict, and insisted that if Israel would renounce violence against Palestinian civilians, then Hamas would gladly do so for Israel. He framed most of his ideology in secular and nationalist terms, insisting that Hamas does not seek to establish an Islamic Palestinian state government by Sharia law, but rather simply a secular democratic state. He wished the American people well, while insisting that I should look into converting to Islam to see if I “liked it.” If not, he said I need not convert. However, his repeated suggestions that I read the Quran and investigate Islam let his preference be more clearly known.

He also insisted that a world Islamic state must be created, which will justly govern the whole of the Earth. How, exactly, he reconciled this belief with his acceptance of Israel on 78% of Palestine remains beyond me; it could simply be that Hamas has had to adapt to political realities which contradict its official dogma. Eventually, one or the other will have to be abandoned. From recent events, it appears to me that they are more willing to abandon the dogma in favor of a more pragmatic approach, especially in light of the conciliatory attitude each member of Hamas I have spoken to takes toward Fatah. The harshest criticism of Fatah which I have discovered this far comes from those who aren't clearly affiliated with each party, and are willing to be critical of both. In the West Bank, there is no shortage of Hamas criticisms floating around, largely backed with official dollars and spread through various channels. It is Fatah that is hard to fault, for obvious reasons. This could also be a reason for the conciliatory attitude of many Hamas members I interviewed – fear of imprisonment by the increasingly dictatorial PA. At the end of the interview, Bittawi invited us back to Nablus later in the week, where he promised to show us around the city and teach us more about Palestinian culture and Islamic life. We promised we would go.