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IN THE GAZA MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS

by Flora Nicoletta

15gaza33.jpg

Dr. Ahmed Yousef


November 15, 2010

He is a cultured man, an intellectual with elegant manners. He speaks about books and writings. He is warm and gentle. In case you have to defend your rights and you encounter difficulties, people advise you to speak with Ahmad Youssef because only him can resolve the problem. Even people who oppose the Hamas government. will give you the same advice.

He runs a think-tank institute, The House of Wisdom, for the study of conflict resolution and governance. His private office is there, in a handsome tower, on the seashore of Gaza City. The guests are received with royal protocol. The rooms are tasteful and filled with modern and ancient Islamic and traditional Palestinian handicrafts. A large piece of smart Israeli missile brought from Rafah is displayed at the entrance.

With him you can freely express your opinion about the government policy. Dr Ahmad Youssef is a good listener. He was the senior political advisor to the Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and is presently the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in the government of Gaza. Here, he tells us about his life.

"I prepare a book which will contain what I have published before the war [Operation Cast Lead] and letters sent before and after the war to the world leaders, my interviews in English, some of the documents which have never been published... for example, official letters sent by me and sent by the PM Ismail Haniyeh to the world leaders. I will title the book: 'Breaking the Propaganda Bubble, the Truth about Hamas'.

"What I see here... many who come here... they don't know the truth. They have been loaded by the Israeli propaganda, they have been deceived by the Israeli propaganda... not only normal people, but also parliamentarians, journalists, who listen to the Israeli propaganda. It's good to speak with people for one reason: we have to give them another view on Hamas. It's a way to defend Hamas and to challenge Israel which stigmatizes the Palestinians as extremists and terrorists.

"Many journalists before coming here have been brain-washed by the Israelis. What I have heard! We are not only under their aerial bombardments, but also bombarded by their propaganda information... Journalists and politicians come here with all sorts of lies and allegations. All of them are raising the same questions, like if they have read the same text... all the time. It's the text of the propaganda machine. They come with the same questions, all of them... They are not genuine questions, they are fabricated questions to obtain information and answers. All of them ask the same questions concerning Gilad Shalit [the captive French-Israeli soldier], concerning the home-made rockets... why Hamas doesn't recognize Israel?... They want to demonize Hamas and dehumanize the Palestinians.

"Unfortunately, many journalists rely on media and information centers in Israel which spoiled their intellect. The most important thing we have to do is to encourage these journalists to come more and more and to visit Gaza. They have to see the situation on the ground and to listen to the people here. Here, it is not like the Israeli propaganda tries to depict Gaza. Here, it is not a safe heaven for El-Qaida and terrorism and Gaza is not the realm of the Taliban. If people want to come to Gaza, they will see there are no Taliban here, we are closer to Erdogan [the Turkish PM]. We are Erdogan, we are not Taliban.

"For this reason we wish that more journalists will come to visit Gaza. They will see how Gaza is safe, secure and green. We hope this people will come. It's the only way to combat the Israeli propaganda. Gaza is totally different from the way Israel explains to the world. Secondly, Gaza is clean, Gaza is not a safe heaven for terrorists, as they pretend.

"We started to rebuild Gaza after the war, to give a new roof to the homeless. In addition, over the years the Israeli occupation has uprooted all the fruit trees and now we replant the trees... They left the colonies in 2005 and now we plant in the former colonies fruit trees. So in two years we will not have anymore to import fruits from Israel. We will have our local production.

"The Israeli occupation tries to kill our future by banning the entry of cement and iron into Gaza. They want to say: Look! They want us to be primitive! They prevent the entry of raw construction material into Gaza, so Gaza will be an underdeveloped territory... but we are so ingenious that we recycle all the rubble, we recycle all the debris left by the Israeli destruction machine in order to survive... and, in addition, we smuggle cement from Egypt and all the necessities for our people... As you can see, the Gazans are always creative and ingenious... we find alternatives despite all the difficulties we are facing.

"Another point also very important to mention is that Israel prevents our fishermen to fish. Israel restricts the fishing zone in a way that there is nothing to fish. So, now, we grow fish in large basins near the sea, with sea water. Now, we have all the fish needed in Gaza. They are called industrial fish farms. When Israel prevents us to do something, be sure we always find an alternative. We have these industrial fish farms in the Sudaniyah area [on the fringe of Gaza City] and in Deir El-Balah.

"There is something that the West doesn't understand: Palestine is the Sacred Land for all the Arabs and Muslims. Palestine is the land of many prophets: Christian, Jewish and Muslim prophets. The West doesn't know that this land is so sacred that if one day there will be peace and the roads will be open all the Arabs and Muslims will come here and all the sand of this land will be taken away!... because the Arabs and the Muslims know that the people of the Holy Land are ready to sacrifice their lives for Palestine... and also those who come to visit us and break the siege are willing to sacrifice their life for Palestine. Hence they take sand with them to bring home. It is all what they ask from us when they come: some sand to bring home... they want to keep the Gaza sand in their homes or to put it in the grave of a loved one... to put it in his grave because they consider the sand of Gaza Holy Sand!

"You remind me of something!... because I asked a carpenter to make a wooden book to give as a gift to all our guests,... but he asked me 30 shekels per book... Now, you give me an idea... I'm thinking to do something else... I can do it with bottles... We can put in a bottle a twig of olive tree, shells from our beaches and our sand!... as a souvenir of the Gaza Strip! Tomorrow I will go to a factory to see if they can do it.

"In 1948, my family escaped to Gaza from a village called Hulayqat. Our village was located in the Gaza district... today it is called Helles in Israel. It was a small village... 450 people before 1948.... There were only two clans living there. They fled because they were scared by the aerial bombardments. Oil had been find there. Unfortunately, when they fled the British had just started to dig. My father was working with the British in the oil field.

"I was born two years later, in 1950, in Rafah. What my father told us: our family was very rich, they had many properties. My grandfather was a trader. I was born when they were still moving from a place to another one. They were still living in tent at the time, in Rafah. I was born under a tent, in the Shaboura refugee camp... and it was the season of heavy rains because it was December.

"I recall two episodes. During the war in 1956... you remember when the French and the British invaded Egypt with Israel? I was small at the time... when I saw the people running through the city of Rafah in fear... I was 6-year old... I ran with the people without paying attention that I didn't wear my trousers... and my aunt was running after me to catch me and return me home... but because I was so scared I continued to run with the people! Before my family could find me... it took a few weeks... I spent three weeks with another family... in an area of Rafah called El-Mawasi... we took shelter under trees... My father was looking for me everywhere. I was the only child he had!

"There is something worth mentioning... before, on 12 November 1956, a massacre took place in Rafah. The Israeli army asked to all the males from 16 to 60 to gather in El-Ameriyeh school. Then the soldiers told them they had three minutes to evacuate the entire yard and they started to fire at them with automatic rifles. They started to fire after three minutes. The people ran towards the school wall and the wall collapsed on them because thousands of people rushed towards the wall at the same time. They were crashed or killed by Israeli bullets. It's something well known in Palestinian history. Yesterday, I saw it in a TV programme... more than 120 were killed. For that the people of Rafah was so scared and I ran after them without my trousers!

"The other episode took place in 1967. I was around 17. When the war broke out we went to take weapons to protect ourselves and to defend Gaza... because we heard there was a call to the youth from the Governor. We went to the police station of Rafah. We find that there was nobody there! The governor was Egyptian. His office was near the police station. We were told he had already left, he was not anymore in Gaza and there was nobody in the police station... and then we heard the noises of the Israeli tanks and armored vehicles which started to fire.

"I ran towards the sea and took the direction I took in 1956, the direction of El-Mawasi, where the people could easily find a hiding place and go to El-Arish in Egypt. However, we heard that the Israelis had already occupied El-Arish. With a group of youth we took a desert road, but we lost our way for three days in the Egyptian desert... We didn't know where to go... without food and water... till some Bedouin came to our rescue and indicated to us stars in the sky... we followed the stars and we returned to Rafah.

"Eight days after being lost in the Sinai desert I was back in Rafah. I saw my family very sad because they thought to have lost me and when I returned it was like a miracle, like if I was born again. They gave me to eat a traditional dish made of lentils and bread. I ate like a camel that day and the following days!!!... because I spent eight days without food!... except some fruits in El-Mawasi and some sweet potatoes.

"When I got the Tawjihi [matriculation exam] towards the age of 18, I went to Turkey to study there, but it was extremely difficult for us to study there... extremely difficult for us to study medicine or engineering because we hadn't a Palestinian passport... we had an Israeli travel document, a laissez-passer. It was in 1969, in 1970, and in Turkey we were told: 'You cannot study medicine or engineering. You can study history, literature, geography.'

"I had taken the dowry, my sister's dowry, 1.000 dollars,.... My sister sacrificed her dowry in order for me to pursue my study... With the money I bought the airplane ticket for Turkey to study there and once there I was told I couldn't study medicine or engineering. There were restrictions for the Palestinians to study in Turkey... I lived with 35 dollars a month... I was eating Turkish yogurt because it was very cheap. I was living in a student guesthouse, we were four in every room. I was very careful in spending the money because it was the only money I had. Six months later I decided to return to my country and to try to get the Tawjihi with higher marks and I succeeded and I went to Egypt to study engineering.

"After I got my Bachelor degree in Egypt, I worked for a while in Gaza, in a car workshop to fix German cars. For nearly one year I worked there, then I left for the UAE where I worked in an Islamic institution. After two years I got a scholarship to study in USA engineering for the Master and the PhD. I left for USA I think in February, in 1982. I studied English and I studied Engineering. I got the Master of Industrial Technology in one year and one semester.

"I obtained another scholarship from Saudi Arabia to study journalism in USA and I got a master's degree in journalism.. It was what I always dreamed... hoped... to be a journalist. When I finished, I obtained a third scholarship, this time from Kuwait, and I registered to study Political Sciences. However, after a short time, Iraq invaded Kuwait. It was in August 1990 and I lost my scholarship.

"I was a brilliant student and I had many friends around the word. I established good relations with many people who helped me to obtain the scholarships. I was well-known around the world as a journalist of the Arab media.

"Because I couldn't study for my PhD in Political Sciences when Kuwait collapsed, I returned to Gaza. I returned to Gaza because I was asked to open the Department of Journalism at the Islamic University. It was at the beginning of in 1988. However, when I arrived, I found the university closed because of the Intifada. So I decided to return to the US but the Israelis took my passport: 'You cannot leave!', they said. I went to Court and won... and after one year they gave me back my passport.

"I went to USA because after the invasion of Kuwait I decided to work on history. I went to Washington D.C. where I opened a think-tank institute and I registered for the PhD in Political Sciences. I completed my studies in 1994 and continued with the think-tank institute. I focused on publishing about Middle East politics, political Islam and Islam in the West, the Islamist movements. I wrote five books on Hamas at the time.

"When September 11 took place, it was very difficult for us to continue to live in America. We were visited by the FBI. They started to arrest Muslim leaders and to close Muslim centers. I decided to write a book on what was happening to the Muslim community in America. I titled the 750-page book 'The American Muslims: a Community under Siege'. Once I finished the book, it was time for me to leave America, in 2004, because it became very difficult for us to raise funds for our work in USA... and also because the lawyers were telling me to leave, but I wanted to finish my book before.

"In 2004 I went to Algeria which is a country that I love since I was a child... because when I was a child, at the primary school, we used to go to demonstrate against the French in Algeria. Actually, I went to Algeria for the first time in 2001 for two days, a quick visit. At the time I was involved with the Libyan government to end the troubles with the Islamist groups in the country. I was a mediator between the Libyan government and the local Islamist groups.

"One of my brothers was living in Algeria after his escape from Es-Saraya prison in Gaza City, in May 1987, with another five, all belonging to Islamic Jihad. In October that year, at an Israeli block road in Gaza, all the group was killed, but my brother and another one. I met him in Algeria after 16 years, in 2001. At the time I left Gaza to study abroad he was a baby and when I returned to Gaza he was in prison. When I went to Algeria only for a couple of days in 2001, it was for meeting my brother Khaled Saleh. Our family name is Saleh. Ahmad Youssef is my pen-name.

"So, in 2004, I left USA for Algeria and I started to study the Algerian experience in revolution and also the Islamists and what they call there the bloody ten years... more than 75,000 killed in ten years. I wrote three books on the Algerian experience, the Islamists-government relations and the events which took place during these ten years. And when Israel withdrew from Gaza, I decided to return to my country. I returned in February 2006.

"I met Ismail Haniyeh in February 2006, in Cairo, in a hotel where he was staying with Islamist Palestinian leaders. He asked me to work with them after people recommended me to him saying I was a good guy, he could entrust me. I came to Gaza and I became his political advisor, his senior political advisor, in the Hamas government. People thought I could perform well in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however Ismail Haniyeh preferred to have me with him.

"I'm an Islamist since the time of the high school. The first Islamists in Gaza recruited among the youth were me and the late Dr Fathi Shiqaqi. We were both from Rafah and both refugees. The third one was Dr Musa Abu Marzuq, also a refugee. You cannot find a leader of our people who has not suffered for living in a refugee camp. We were recruited in 1968, the three together. There were also around sixty youth recruited in other schools of Gaza by Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. He was our mentor.

"I was before a nationalist. The failure of Nasser... after 1967... the failure of the Arabs affected us. I decided to change my mind regarding with whom I had to work. I was fond of Nasser and of the nationalism, but when they lamentably collapsed, I understood that they were not authentic.

"I was attracted by the Muslim Brotherhood because my neighbour, when I was a child, was one of them and I always used to see the Egyptian mukhabarat [General Intelligence] at his door. This neighbour was very generous with my family... we were poor and he was helping us. I hated the mukhabarat... and then they were defeated in 1967!!... For that I changed all my life and became an Islamist. I joined Hamas when I returned to Gaza in 2006. Abroad, we only were Islamists.

"In the past I had the chance to travel. The people here suffer from the siege mentality which narrows their vision. I have been to many Arab countries like Egypt, Syria, Algeria, I have been to Pakistan, Afghanistan, USA. When you have such experience, this enriches your vision. Some people here are mentally poor, close-minded and short-sighted as a consequence of the Israeli occupation.

"I have seen in Afghanistan good friends starting to kill each other. I have seen in Ireland the same. These events opened my spirit. Wisdom comes with experience and age. If you have experience, you become more and more wise.

"The difference between me and some others... You can see it here, on my way of living. Here, we are on the 13th floor. From my windows I see the beach, the Mediterranean Sea. On the sea I can see Israeli gunboats. I see the danger coming. Someone living on the 13th floor like me can see from his windows Israeli gunboats. I can foresee what will happen. If you live on the first floor, you can see children playing on the beach, but you don't see the danger coming. It's like to be on the top of a mountain and at the bottom of a valley. In the valley, you can see small things which bother you, but from the top of the mountain you see the lion coming. This is the situation... When you are on the top you have the full view, you can assess the real risks and deal with them.

"I visited many zones of conflicts. I have seen how people handled these situations. This is the reason why I give advise for national reconciliation and for doing concessions and compromises.

"I was born on 27 December 1950... that day is the day of the war on Gaza in 2008. That day, although if it was a Saturday and therefore a day off, I wanted to go to work in my office in Gaza. My wife told me: 'Why to go to your office, it's your birthday. Think to your children... some cakes... Why not to remain with us till after the lunch and then you will go?' 'OK, I will remain till noon,' I replied to my wife. At 11:20, 11:30, Israel launched the war. Because of my birthday I remained in Rafah... otherwise I could have been killed on the way! And that day I had an appointment with the Chief Police [General] Tawfiq Jaber. I spoke with him the night before at 11 and he was killed that morning, the first morning of the war.

"When I was at home during the war... two of my married daughters who live near the tunnels left their homes because of the danger and came to live with me. The day we heard of the assassination of Nizar Rayan [a Hamas leader killed with his four wives and eleven children], we had a family meeting... after we heard the news... We discussed how to divide the family instead to remain all together in one place. I was convinced we had to do this. However, my daughters said: 'We want to die with you. If you decide to live the house, we preferred to return to our homes near the tunnels and to face our fate.'

"I meditated on it: these are the feelings of my daughters, but what about the feelings of my neighbours? If my neighbours see me leaving the house, they will think I have received a tip before Israeli warplanes bombard us. Hence, every day I was going to the roof of our family building and I was making noise and shouting with my kids in order for everybody to know I was at home... I was doing this for my neighbours... and to show to everybody we are not afraid to face our destiny."

- Flora Nicoletta is an independent French journalist living in Gaza. She is currently working on her fourth book on the Palestinian question.





:: Article nr. 71865 sent on 17-nov-2010 17:22 ECT

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