Mishal’s Luck

Adam Shatz

  • Kill Khalid: The Failed Mossad Assassination of Khalid Mishal and the Rise of Hamas by Paul McGeough
    Quartet, 477 pp, £25.00, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 7043 7157 6

In early September 1997, Danny Yatom, the head of Mossad, arranged a special screening for Binyamin Netanyahu, who was then prime minister. The film, shot on the streets of Tel Aviv, presented the plan for the assassination of Khalid Mishal, the head of Hamas’s political bureau in Amman. Twenty-one Israelis had died in Hamas suicide attacks in the previous two months, and Netanyahu was eager for revenge. The peace process might be undermined, but that would be just as well: Netanyahu shared Hamas’s hostility to Oslo, and had compared trading land for peace to appeasement with Hitler. Mishal, Paul McGeough writes in Kill Khalid, his gripping account of the plot, was selected from a list of targets by Netanyahu not only because he was suspected of orchestrating the suicide bomb campaign, but because he made an articulate case for Hamas’s position, in a suit rather than clerical robes: ‘he was too credible as an emerging leader of Hamas, persuasive even. He had to be taken out.’

It was an extremely sensitive operation. Israel had signed a peace treaty with King Hussein in 1994, and the murder of a Palestinian leader in Amman would be sure to fuel speculation that Mossad had got the green light, and perhaps some helpful tips, from Jordan’s General Intelligence Department (GID). This was no way to treat a friend – at least not one you respected – and the Israelis knew it. Unlike the flamboyant assassinations of the PFLP spokesman Ghassan Kanafani (killed in 1972 in a car bomb in Beirut) and Arafat’s top aide Khalil al-Wazir (gunned down in 1988 in his home in Tunis by Israeli commandos), Mishal’s murder had to be discreet and, if possible, invisible.

The attack would take a matter of seconds – so quick he wouldn’t know it was happening. One agent would shake a can of Coke and pop it open to distract Mishal while another would spray levofentanyl, a chemically modified painkiller, in his ear. He would feel as if he’d been bitten by an insect; 48 hours later the drug would kill him, leaving no trace. Mossad agents rehearsed the assassination using water instead of poison on unsuspecting pedestrians in Tel Aviv. Netanyahu liked what he saw, and gave Yatom the go-ahead. He was not dissuaded by Hamas’s proposal for a 30-year hudna (truce), relayed by King Hussein on 22 September in a letter delivered by hand to the secret Mossad station at the Israeli embassy in Amman. Three days later, a pair of Mossad agents disguised as Canadian tourists – they were carrying passports borrowed from Canadian Jews living in Israel – waited for Mishal at 10 a.m. outside his office, where his driver was due to drop him off.

The plot unravelled almost as soon as it began. Mishal’s driver suspected that he’d been followed by a green Hyundai. When he saw a blond, bearded man in sunglasses approaching his boss as he stepped out of the car, with a ‘bizarre instrument’ in his hand, he pounced on him – though not before the poison had been squirted into Mishal’s ear from that instrument, a nebuliser. The attackers piled into the Hyundai, but they didn’t know their way around Amman, and were chased by Mishal’s bodyguard, who did. Eventually they jumped out of their car, but got stuck in a crowded marketplace, where Mishal’s bodyguard wrestled them into a taxi and took them to the nearest police station. Mishal seemed fine at first, but a few hours later he realised that something was wrong: his ear was ringing, he was shivering; he suddenly felt exhausted and nauseous. As his aides rushed him to hospital, he lost consciousness altogether.

Hamas’s claim that Mishal had been the target of an assassination attempt might have been squelched by the Jordanians, and Mishal might have died, had it not been for Randa Habib, a Lebanese journalist who broke the story to Agence-France Presse. General Samih Batikhi, head of the GID, insisted that nothing more than a fight between locals and tourists had taken place; another official suggested that Mishal’s driver had sparked the row by making unwelcome advances to the Canadians. The absence of a weapon wasn’t the only reason the Jordanians were sceptical. Why would Mossad place its special relationship with the GID at risk? Only a week earlier Danny Yatom had stopped by the headquarters in Amman – after a family holiday at the royal palace on the Red Sea – to chat with Batikhi. Now here was Hamas, accusing Israel of violating the peace treaty: a serious charge which, if true, would require a response.

Batikhi, who viewed Hamas as troublemakers, was inclined to dismiss the Agence-France Presse report until he received credible information that two men involved in the fight were seen running into the Israeli embassy (they would be joined by two other accomplices). When Netanyahu called King Hussein to say that Yatom was flying to Amman on urgent business that ‘could have bearing on the peace process’, Hussein assumed the visit was a response to Hamas’s offer of a hudna; but Batikhi knew better. He ordered the army to surround the Israeli embassy in Amman, and asked the Canadian ambassador to quiz the two men in Jordanian custody – ‘Shawn Kendall’ and ‘Barry Beads’ – on their ‘Canadian-ness’. It didn’t take long for them to be exposed as impostors.

‘We did it . . . We sprayed him with a chemical,’ Yatom confessed to Batikhi after landing in Jordan: ‘There’s nothing you can do about it . . . He’s been poisoned and all his bodily functions will deteriorate. There’ll be no apparent cause of death . . . We’d better deal with the consequences.’ But Hussein wasn’t prepared to deal with the consequences. He felt, he said, as if the Israelis had ‘spat on my face’. Despite – and partly because of – his friendship with Israel, Hussein had allowed Hamas to operate out of Amman. Hamas gave him leverage in negotiations with Israel and the US, and, as McGeough points out, they also ‘gave back something that Arafat and the PLO threatened – Hussein’s legitimacy’. The Jordanians had no love for Mishal: Batikhi regarded him as ‘shallow, brittle and unbending’, and Hussein had gone to great lengths to replace him, securing the release to Jordan four months earlier of the more pliable Mousa Abu Marzook, the former head of the Hamas political bureau, who had spent two years in an American prison awaiting extradition to Israel. But Marzook’s cosiness with Jordan’s security services, and his reputation for moderation (which had earned him the nickname Mr CIA), had cost him support inside Hamas; and he wasn’t helped now by rumours that the Jordanians had conspired with Israel to return him to his old job. Suddenly Hussein’s honour – if not his political survival – depended on saving Mishal.

The crisis offered Hussein a chance to settle scores with Netanyahu, who had treated him with undisguised contempt, and whom he suspected of seeking to ‘destroy all I have worked to build between our peoples’, as Hussein had written to Netanyahu in March. Netanyahu had approved a tunnel underneath the al-Aqsa Mosque, which led to rioting in which dozens of Palestinians and a number of Israelis died; he had also betrayed his promise to Hussein not to build new settlements in East Jerusalem, with his plan to encircle the neighbourhood of Jabal Abu Ghneim with Jewish apartment complexes. In Hussein’s view, the assassination was part of Netanyahu’s plan to sabotage Oslo and to destabilise his own regime, so that a Palestinian state could be established in Jordan – the old fantasy of the Israeli right. Refusing to speak to Netanyahu, he placed a call to Clinton. ‘If Mishal dies, peace dies with him,’ Hussein warned. The embassy would be stormed, the Israelis in Jordanian custody would hang, and relations would be broken off. Clinton agreed to pressure the Israelis to hand over the antidote to the poison used on Mishal, along with the formula. Forty-eight hours after Yatom landed in Amman, an Israeli doctor arrived at the same airport with the goods, just in time to save Mishal. Netanyahu even flew to Jordan to apologise to the king in person.

Hussein’s humiliation of Netanyahu did not end there. As the ‘father of the treaty’ with Hussein, Efraim Halevy, Israel’s envoy to the EU and Mossad’s former deputy director, recognised, the king needed a deal, not just the antidote; and if he didn’t get one, the Israelis now held in Jordan would never come home. The price, Halevy argued, should be the release of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the paraplegic cleric who had founded Hamas in Gaza, and was now serving his eighth year of a life sentence. This was ‘political dynamite’, in the words of an American official: Yassin’s return to Gaza was bound to raise the standing of Hamas among Palestinians, and to weaken Arafat, Israel’s ‘peace partner’. Arafat made an operatic display of joy over Yassin’s release, but privately he was furious: not only would King Hussein get the credit, but the sheikh would threaten his control of the national movement, and undermine his negotiations with Israel. ‘Why should I pay a price for this?’ he moaned to Clinton’s Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross.

Shortly after Mishal’s life was saved, a group of Jordanian officials discussed the affair with Clinton. ‘Though he was not present, the meeting was an extraordinary moment in the life of Khalid Mishal,’ McGeough writes: ‘Mishal and his movement had been acknowledged as key players.’ It was also an extraordinary reversal of fortune. Hamas, in the words of a senior American official, had been having ‘its worst year’ until ‘Mossad’s balls-up in Amman’. Marzook and Yassin had been behind bars, and hundreds of Hamas leaders had been jailed by Arafat’s Preventive Security Service, headed in Gaza by Mohammed Dahlan, whose methods had made some Hamas prisoners nostalgic for their Israeli jailers. Now Marzook was back in Amman, and Yassin was back in Gaza, a symbol of Palestinian defiance whose authority even Arafat found difficult to challenge.

The greatest beneficiary of the failed assassination, however, was its intended victim, whom Mossad had turned into a star of the Islamic resistance. Marzook campaigned to get his old job back but didn’t stand a chance against the ‘martyr who would not die’. Mishal’s insistence that only armed resistance would end the occupation, and that Arafat had nothing to show for his renunciation of violence (‘Where did it get him? Where’s his independent state?’), prevailed in Hamas’s shura, or decision-making council. ‘The day they tried to kill him was the day Mishal the leader was born,’ a Jordanian journalist told McGeough. ‘The man who died that day was Abu Marzook. Nobody wanted to talk to Abu Marzook after that – it was Mishal, Mishal, Mishal.’

McGeough tells the story of the Amman plot in the gritty, unsentimental style of a hard-boiled thriller. Kill Khalid is a reporter’s book, drawing plentifully on interviews with the important players, including Mishal. The Mishal affair may not be as much of a turning point in the conflict as McGeough claims, but its wider resonances are striking. More than a decade later, Mishal is Hamas’s political chief in Damascus, and Netanyahu, the man who ordered his assassination, is back in power in Jerusalem. The Islamic resistance movement, Harakat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyah (hamas means ‘zeal’ in Arabic), now controls the Gaza Strip, having survived the prisons of the IDF and the Palestinian Authority, a pitiless blockade, international isolation, the ‘targeted’ assassinations of many of its leaders, an American-backed putsch and an Israeli invasion. And though neither the US nor the EU will speak to Mishal, on the grounds that Hamas is a ‘terrorist’ organisation, he has won the respect of a growing number of politicians in the West, including Jimmy Carter.

Mishal was born in 1956, into a peasant family in the Jordanian-ruled West Bank village of Silwad, 16 miles north of Jerusalem. His father, Abd al-Qadir, was a sheikh who had fought in the 1936 Arab Revolt and in the 1948 war with Israel; he had also been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the militant Islamist group founded in Egypt in 1928. Mishal, during his childhood in Silwad, saw little of his father: in 1957, Abd al-Qadir had taken a second wife and moved with her to Kuwait, where he established a new family. Ten years later, however, the Israeli army occupied Silwad, and Fatima Mishal and her children fled to Amman, then to Kuwait, where they were reunited with Abd al-Qadir.

The emirate was not without its difficulties for Palestinian refugees, who couldn’t buy property without a Kuwaiti partner, and were collectively viewed as a potential fifth column. But since in most of the Arab world Palestinians had a choice between the heroism of guerrilla warfare and the misery of the refugee camps, Kuwait offered the hope of a more or less normal life. Palestinians staffed Kuwait’s schools and civil service, and took great pride in their contribution to the country’s economy. Mishal’s father befriended a senior member of the royal family who admired his sermons, and rose to the position of mullah, no small achievement for a country preacher. Kuwait’s comparatively liberal ambience had also made it a centre of Palestinian politics. It was in Kuwait that Arafat and his comrades had founded Fatah; it was there, too, that young Palestinians in the national movement’s various factions – secular-nationalist, Marxist, Islamist – would fight over its future.

Khalid Mishal joined the Muslim Brotherhood at the age of 15. As McGeough emphasises, this was not a fashionable choice in the early 1970s, when the armed resistance to Israel was led by secular nationalists, and Islamists faced accusations of complacency, if not cowardice, for standing on the sidelines. But Mishal, like a growing number of pious Muslims in the diaspora, was convinced that the Palestinian struggle had to be grounded on Islamic principles; it was, they believed, the Arabs’ deviation from those principles that had led them to defeat in 1948 and 1967. They thought that Arafat was repeating the same error when, in the mid-1970s, he began to express support for a ‘transitional’ Palestinian state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem – and hinted, implicitly, at an eventual rapprochement with the Jewish state.

For Mishal and his comrades, who called for the creation of an Islamic state in all of historical Palestine, this was treason; at a stroke Arafat was lending legitimacy to the state that had caused the Palestinian ordeal, and selling out the refugees. At Kuwait University, where he studied physics, Mishal founded the Islamic Association of Palestinian Students, a rival to the Arafat-controlled General Union of Palestinian Students, and became its president. When he graduated, he asked his mother to say ‘amen’ to his wish to become ‘a martyr for Palestine’. ‘My son, I can’t say “amen” to that,’ she replied. ‘It’s too difficult.’

She needn’t have worried: Khalid, a contemplative, bookish young man, a reader of Camus and Dostoevsky, was not in a hurry to become a martyr. Not only had he joined an organisation that had until this point kept its distance from the armed struggle; unlike many of his classmates, who were slipping out of Kuwait to join the fedayeen in southern Lebanon, he had decided that he could better serve the national cause by remaining a student. In McGeough’s words, he ‘was opting to live to fight another day’.

Mishal soon acquired the trappings of a quiet, middle-class life: a stable job as a high-school physics teacher, a wife and children. But in his spare time he was meeting behind closed doors with a group of Palestinian Muslim Brothers to develop what he called his ‘project’, the creation of an Islamic alternative to Fatah. The time had come, they believed, for Islamists to take part in the armed struggle, and to wrest control of the movement. They belonged to a new generation of Islamists who drew inspiration from the Iranian Revolution and the Afghan holy war; they pointed to the failure of secular Arab nationalists to govern effectively (or to confront Israel), and wanted to fuse the energies of nationalism and Islam. For them ‘there was no contradiction between fighting for Palestine and conducting a religious life.’ Mishal drew selectively on Palestinian history – including his father’s story – to argue that the Muslim Brotherhood, not Fatah, had launched the national resistance: ‘We’re the root; Fatah is a mere branch.’

To most observers, Mishal’s early efforts couldn’t have looked promising. Supporters of Fatah and the left far outnumbered Palestine’s Islamists, and Arafat controlled the purse strings of the PLO. But Arafat had little to show for his leadership of the PLO, apart from its survival. He had held it together thanks to his charisma and his flair for cutting deals, but he had involved the Palestinian movement, to disastrous effect, in Arab politics, above all in the Lebanese civil war. Though spartan in his own habits he had allowed corruption in the PLO to fester, since compromised allies were more easily controlled. And he governed in the style of the region, making decisions capriciously and without consulting anyone, as if his nickname, Mr Palestine, entitled him not to. Islamic opposition movements combining piety with political militancy were excoriating nationalist leaders throughout the region; what grounds were there for seeing the Palestinian movement as an exception? The main surprise, perhaps, is that it took so long.

In 1983, Mishal and his Kuwaiti allies presented their ‘project’ to a meeting of the Muslim Brotherhood in Amman. Arafat and his soldiers had recently been expelled from Lebanon, and the PLO, exiled to Tunis, had never seemed so far from achieving independence, or so directionless. Mishal, McGeough writes, gave a daring speech that amounted to a ‘full-frontal assault on the supremacy of Yasir Arafat’. His recommendations were adopted, and Mishal was made head of the Kuwait-based Jihaz Filastin – the Palestine Apparatus that would pay for military operations in the Occupied Territories. (McGeough, drawing uncritically on Mishal’s account, makes rather too much of this conference, claiming that it marks the founding of Hamas; in fact, Hamas was established four years later, at the Gaza home of Sheikh Yassin on 9 December 1987, the day the intifada broke out.) Mishal’s first assignment, as head of the Palestine Apparatus, was to raise money in the Gulf so that Yassin’s followers could undergo weapons training in Jordan. Tipped off by an informer, Israel jailed Yassin for plotting to destroy the Jewish state.

Yassin’s involvement in weapons training came as a shock to many Israelis; even today there are figures in Israeli intelligence who insist that his guns were pointed at Fatah. Ever since they occupied Gaza, the Israelis had been cultivating Yassin – a Muslim Brother who’d been jailed by Egypt – in their struggle against Palestinian nationalism, much as the Americans had supported the Afghan mujahedin. (McGeough suggests that some of the money raised by Muslims abroad in support of the mujahedin may have found its way to Palestine.) Yassin made no secret of his hatred of Israel, but, as a Muslim Brother, he believed that before taking up arms to recover their land, Palestinians would first have to undergo ‘ideological, spiritual and psychological re-education’. While secular nationalists mobilised against the occupation, in strikes and guerrilla attacks, Yassin promoted social works and religious instruction. Overlooking his belief that ‘re-education’ was only preparation for the impending jihad, the Israelis regarded him as a tactical ally against the PLO. In the early 1970s, while Israel repressed any stirrings of nationalist resistance, Yassin was permitted to open up the Islamic Centre, an umbrella organisation that included a mosque, a clinic, a kindergarten, a festival hall and a headquarters for an alms committee; with the occupier’s approval he was soon receiving considerable funds from the Gulf.

In the mid-1980s, the military governor of Gaza gave a succinct summary of Israel’s relationship to Yassin: ‘The Israeli government gives me a budget and the military government gives it to the mosques.’ After a trip to Gaza in 1985, Daniel Kurtzer, an official at the US embassy in Tel Aviv, barged into a meeting of Shimon Peres’s advisers and asked them: ‘Have you guys lost your minds? Do you ever learn from history? Do you know what you’re doing in Gaza as we speak? . . . You really think you can tame these guys?’ When Gazan Islamists wanted to cross over to the West Bank in support of their comrades in clashes with Fatah, the Israelis let them through. As one official explained to McGeough, ‘they’ll only be beating each other up.’

In fact, Yassin and other Islamists inside the Occupied Territories were drawing the same lessons from the revolutionary Islamic struggles in Iran, Afghanistan and Lebanon as Mishal and his comrades were in the diaspora: that the gradualist philosophy of the Brothers should give way to the rifle. In its 1988 charter, Hamas proclaimed its desire to ‘raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine’ and depicted the Zionist project as the latest chapter of a Jewish conspiracy for world domination that had begun with the French Revolution, and continued with the Russian Revolution and two world wars. Yet the Israelis continued to indulge Hamas during the first few years of the intifada, focusing their repression on the secular National Unified Leadership of the Uprising, and allowing the Islamists to receive substantial funds from abroad. With this money – raised by Hamas-affiliated charities in Europe, the US and the Gulf – Hamas expanded its influence, building a vast network of schools, daycare centres, hospitals and athletic clubs.

Mishal relocated to Amman in 1990, when he and his family were forced to flee Kuwait after Arafat gave his blessings to Saddam Hussein’s invasion, thereby jeopardising the security of the 400,000 Palestinians who’d made a decent life for themselves in the emirate – not to mention his ties to the Gulf Arabs who bankrolled the PLO. Arafat’s mistake was Hamas’s good fortune: Gulf rulers who had paid for the PLO’s operating budget now wrote their cheques to Hamas, which had denounced Saddam’s attack. Drained of funds and desperate to come in from the cold, Arafat scurried to Madrid and then to Oslo; ignoring the warnings of Palestinian leaders from the Occupied Territories, he signed a deal in September 1993 that made him Israel’s policeman, while providing no guarantee of a freeze on Israeli settlements, or the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state. In no small part thanks to disappointment with Oslo – and frustration with Arafat and the ‘Tunisians’ who returned to govern the PA – Hamas became the main opposition party in Palestine, attracting support not primarily for its Islamic piety, but for its lack of corruption, and its willingness to stand up to Israel. It also developed a substantial military wing, the Qassam Brigades, which would launch a ferocious campaign of suicide attacks inside Israel in 1994, following Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of 29 Palestinian worshippers at the Cave of the Patriarchs mosque in Hebron. There could be no balance of power with Israel, but perhaps, Mishal and his men reasoned, there could be a balance of fear. Arafat won praise from the US and Israel as a ‘partner in peace’ for his brutal crackdown on Hamas. But he soon discovered that he could repress Hamas only at prohibitive cost to his own legitimacy.

Working under Mousa Abu Marzook in Hamas’s political bureau, Mishal kept a low profile during the first intifada: ‘A little obscurity is good. My comrades and God know what I have been doing.’ But according to regional intelligence agencies, he had established an increasingly influential position inside Hamas, overseeing ‘funds, weapons and military infrastructure’; some Israeli officials referred to him as Hamas’s prime minister. Agents observed that he avoided public highways in Lebanon, preferring roads used by the Syrian army, and that he travelled frequently to Singapore, Pakistan and other Muslim countries. Though he did not make an official appearance as a leader of Hamas until 1995, he was now, as head of the Palestine Apparatus and a member of the three-man military committee which directed the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s single most powerful figure.

Mishal had a stroke of luck when, brushing aside the warnings of his colleagues, Marzook travelled to the US only six months after the Clinton administration declared Hamas a ‘terrorist’ organisation – and only a day after a suicide attack near Tel Aviv. He was arrested by the FBI at JFK airport and spent the next two years in prison, leaving Mishal to take over the political bureau. Marzook continued to think of himself as Hamas’s natural leader, but his visit to the US had infuriated his colleagues, and Mishal proved himself an adroit operator in the shura council. The rivalry between Mishal, a Kuwaiti Palestinian who’d never lived a day under occupation, and Marzook, a protégé of Yassin from a poor family in Gaza, was partly a reflection of the old tensions between Palestinians from the ‘inside’ and those from the diaspora. But matters of style and personality were just as important. Marzook was a gregarious, impulsive man who enjoyed an audience; Mishal was a careful, patient listener who won over his colleagues with his seriousness and with his rigorous adherence to the principles of shura. And so when Marzook returned to Jordan in 1997, he found himself out of a job.

The failed assassination gave Mishal a renewed sense of purpose: ‘I’ve been given a new life for a new role,’ he said. Two years later, he was deported by Hussein’s heir, King Abdullah, but soon found a home in Damascus, where, like Hizbullah, Hamas has given the Syrians a card to play in their efforts to recover the Golan Heights. In return, Syria has provided him with protection from Israel, which has assassinated dozens of Hamas militants since the second intifada, including Sheikh Yassin, killed by a helicopter gunship in March 2004. After Yassin’s death Mishal became Hamas’s undisputed leader. And in November of that year, another obstacle to Mishal – and to Hamas’s eclipse of Fatah – vanished when Arafat died. Without Arafat, and under Abbas’s impotent, feckless leadership, Fatah was rudderless. Hamas now dominated Palestinian politics.

Mishal is often portrayed as the ‘hardliner in Damascus’, in implicit (and unfavourable) contrast with Hamas ‘moderates’ in the Occupied Territories. But McGeough, who spent many hours talking to Mishal, situates him at Hamas’s ‘pragmatic centre’. He is a militant, but not a fanatic; a nationalist, not a proponent of transnational jihad. (An American analyst told McGeough: ‘I’ve met him three times now and I still have not heard him say the word “Islam”.’) It’s true that Mishal led the opposition inside the shura to participating in the 1996 parliamentary elections, arguing that to do so would be to admit the legitimacy of the Oslo Accords. But he also argued in favour of taking part in the 2006 elections, inspired by the example of Hizbullah in Lebanon, and led Hamas to a decisive victory. As McGeough points out, Hamas ran on a platform of reform, promising clean governance and transparency; it made no mention of an Islamic state in its electoral manifesto, and hardly spoke of violence, leaving Fatah to boast of its contribution to the armed struggle. During the campaign Mishal spoke to rallies from Damascus, through a mobile phone held to the microphone of a loudspeaker. Hamas’s victory was greeted with a diplomatic boycott by the powers that had urged democracy on the Palestinian people, along with efforts to ‘bolster’ Abbas and, ultimately, to foment civil war between Hamas and Fatah.

The West responded this way to the elected government of Hamas because it refuses to renounce violence, abide by previous agreements between Israel and the PA, and recognise the state of Israel. Mishal’s view is that if Hamas were to satisfy the Quartet’s three demands, there would be little to distinguish Hamas from Fatah, which renounced violence, repudiated its claim to 78 per cent of historical Palestine and accepted Israel’s legitimacy – and got very little in return except an interminable ‘peace process’. Israel, in Mishal’s view, would never have removed the settlers from Gaza had it not been for the Qassam rockets fired at Sderot. Hamas, he insists, will continue the armed struggle until the occupation ends. Yet his movement does not use force indiscriminately, and, as many Israeli officials acknowledge, he has honoured ceasefires more faithfully than Arafat did.

Mishal does not accept Israel’s ‘right to exist’ – this would be tantamount, in Hamas’s eyes, to legitimising their own dispossession – but de facto recognition is another matter, and he has on several occasions advocated a hudna of 20 to 30 years. At a summit in Mecca on 7 February 2007 he expressed Hamas’s support for continued negotiations based on a two-state deal along the 1967 border, a position that, McGeough suggests, brings him closer to Washington’s official position than Netanyahu, who advocates only a vague ‘economic peace’. Until a Palestinian state is established, and there is some parallel recognition by Israel of Palestinian rights to national self-determination – and some resolution of the refugees’ plight – Mishal is not going to recognise the Jewish state. And in Mecca he agreed only to ‘respect’ – not ‘abide by’ – earlier agreements with Israel. But he has also indicated that Hamas’s stated positions are far less important than its actions: ‘Watch what we do, not what we say.’

What this means is that Hamas is likely to continue calling for the liberation of Palestine from the river to the sea, while at the same time seeking an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Mishal and his associates don’t view the two-state arrangement as anything like a long-term solution to the conflict, but they are realists, and they are willing to live with it – provided it doesn’t result in the cantonisation of Palestinian land, and provided it’s not a way of shutting them out, as Abbas and the West intend it. Hamas wants to be a part of the deal, and, as it demonstrated during the Oslo years, is in an ideal position to play the role of spoiler if it’s not.

As for the 1988 charter, with its luxuriant borrowings from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Hamas isn’t likely to repudiate it, particularly if it comes under pressure to do so: it was precisely Western calls for repudiation that led Hamas to suspend its efforts to revise it, and to eliminate the offending passages. But Mishal and other Hamas officials have indicated on several occasions that the charter is a historical document that long ago ceased to reflect their thinking. Mishal is reported to consider it an embarrassment, and has insisted that the conflict with Israel ‘is a political issue between us; it is not theological.’ Although he has authorised – and indeed praised – the use of suicide attacks against Israeli civilians, he has also emphasised that ‘we do not fight you because you belong to a certain faith or culture . . . We have no problem with Jews who have not attacked us.’ Unlike most of the secular nationalist factions, including Fatah, Hamas has never struck at targets outside the zone of conflict.

Mishal is not a charismatic leader in the mould of Arafat, or even of Yassin. He’s a good speaker, yet he has arrived at his position not by giving speeches, but rather, McGeough suggests, by patiently fielding the views of his colleagues inside Hamas’s shura. By promoting discussion and consensus, he’s been able to steer Hamas towards an implicit acceptance of coexistence with Israel. Despite his commitment to the armed struggle, he is not a hothead, and he is far less interested in martyrdom than in lifting the blockade, securing the release of Palestinian prisoners, and achieving recognition for Hamas on the international stage. Unlike some of Hamas’s leaders, particularly those who have spent their lives under occupation, Mishal has travelled widely, and he understands the way things work in the outside world. The world, in turn, has begun to take notice of him. He may be a ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorist’ in the eyes of the US Treasury, but he has been receiving an increasing number of visitors from the West, as well as a handful of Jewish leaders.

As the director of Hamas’s foreign policy, Mishal has forged a close alliance with Syria and Iran, the so-called resistance bloc; he has been a frequent guest in Tehran, which is reported to smuggle weapons to Gaza through Sudan and Cyprus. But he has been careful to preserve his movement’s independence, and has developed cordial relations with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and, increasingly, Turkey. ‘Hamas is not an Iranian tool,’ a former senior Israeli official told McGeough. ‘Hamas needs Tehran and Damascus, but it’s a balance that Mishal manages well.’ As Mishal points out, he wouldn’t have gone to Mecca in February 2007 or supported the Saudi peace plan – or backed the Sunni insurgents in Iraq – if he were simply a client of Tehran.

Will the Obama administration talk to Hamas? In a recent interview with La Repubblica, Mishal said that it was just ‘a matter of time’. In American think tanks close to the administration (and, one imagines, in the State Department), it’s understood that Hamas will have to be engaged sooner or later: Abbas simply does not command enough support among Palestinians to reach a deal on his own, and if Hamas is destroyed, it’s likely to be replaced not by Fatah, but by jihadi extremists. In March, a bipartisan group of senior American officials – including Paul Volcker, an economic adviser to Obama, the former Republican senators Chuck Hagel and Nancy Kassebaum, the former World Bank president James Wolfensohn and the former UN ambassador Thomas Pickering – urged Obama to talk to Hamas. But the power of the Israel lobby makes any direct overture risky. Legal restrictions, too, would have to be overcome: three years ago, the US Congress passed a law banning the use of funds for diplomatic contact with Hamas, and ended assistance to any Palestinian ministry connected to Hamas. Although Hamas has never attacked American interests, Obama may find it hard to authorise talks with the ‘specially designated global terrorists’ in its leadership. And while the administration is pursuing a thaw with Damascus, George Mitchell isn’t likely to stop by Mishal’s bunker. Just how Mitchell expects to reach a deal without talking to Hamas isn’t clear. As Mishal remarked to McGeough in a recent interview, ‘Would he have succeeded in Belfast if he was ordered to ignore the IRA?’

Isolating Hamas, however, remains the order of the day, and it was the unspoken subtext of the recent ‘donors conference’ at Sharm el-Sheikh, where leaders from the West and the Arab world came to pledge £3.2 billion in aid to the Palestinians. Hamas was not invited, since the purpose was to bolster Abbas and the PA. And though it was Gaza, not the West Bank, that was devastated during Israel’s offensive, most of the funds will go to the PA in Ramallah. (Of the $900 million the US has pledged, $600 million has been earmarked for the PA to ‘reorganise itself’.)

In an implicit concession to Hamas, Hillary Clinton recently said that Washington would not oppose the formation of a unity government between Fatah and Hamas, but she added that the US ‘will not deal with nor in any way fund’ a Palestinian government that fails to meet the Quartet’s three conditions: a demand it hasn’t imposed on the coalition government in Lebanon, in which Hizbullah has veto power; or indeed on such pro-Western Arab governments as Saudi Arabia that have yet to make peace with Israel. Meanwhile, Israel has prevented construction materials from entering Gaza, partly because of their alleged ‘dual use’ in arms production – but also as a means of pressuring Hamas to release Corporal Gilad Shalit – and even pasta and lentils have been turned away at the crossing.

None of this is going to turn Palestinians against Hamas, any more than America’s arming of Fatah or Israel’s attack on Gaza did. Hamas is part of the fabric of Palestinian politics, and neither force nor diplomatic isolation will make it go away. Its history is one of tenacity in the face of enormous odds: it has been nourished by the efforts to destroy it. No one is in a better position to appreciate this than Israel’s new prime minister who, once again, finds himself facing the martyr who would not die.