Islamic Jihad: No Peace for Israelis
Thursday, October 11, 2007; 3:06 PM
KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip -- The militant known as Abu Hamza is constantly on the run from Israel, and his hideout today is a dank room at the back of a nondescript house filled with adults and frolicking children.
The room is barren except for a computer hooked up to the Internet, which the Islamic Jihad commander said is used to plan rocket attacks on southern Israel. He pledged to keep up the violence despite the growing likelihood of a major Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip.
"We must create a balance of terror with the enemy," he told The Associated Press in a rare interview.
Abu Hamza is a small, soft-spoken man with a wide smile, but the rockets that Islamic Jihad fires into Israel almost daily serve as constant reminders that renewed talk of Mideast peace remains a distant dream in the violence-torn Gaza Strip.
Israel's military says Gaza militants have fired some 980 rockets into Israel since June, when Hamas seized power in the coastal territory. That compares to 440 in the preceding four months. In all, thousands of crude rockets fired over the past seven years have killed 12 Israelis, wounded dozens and disrupted life for thousands.
Israeli troops and settlers withdrew from Gaza more than two years ago _ and Israel has begun a fledgling peace process with the moderate Palestinian forces now in control of the West Bank. So why is Islamic Jihad still raining missiles on Israeli towns, provoking fierce retaliation and a new Israeli threat to cut off Gaza's electricity?
This is the Palestinians' way of offsetting Israel's sophisticated military machine, Abu Hamza said. Israel's decision to seal Gaza's borders after Hamas militants took control is another reason the rockets are justified, he said.
"Our rockets go over those borders," he said.
Islamic Jihad, a virulently anti-Israel group backed by Iran and Syria, has killed dozens of Israelis in suicide bombings and is believed to have about 2,000 militants armed with M-16 and AK-47 automatic rifles, grenades and anti-tank weapons.
It operates independently of the much larger Hamas, whose tolerance and sometimes encouragement of rocket attacks have increased Gaza's isolation. Hamas' blind eye to Islamic Jihad rockets _ along with mortar fire by its own militants _ has helped burnish its credentials among Gazans as a "government of resistance." But it is also endangering Hamas' rule in Gaza by contributing to the economic decline.
Contacts known by AP journalists to be Islamic Jihad members arranged the meeting with Abu Hamza, his nom de guerre that is well known in Gaza even if his face is not. He spoke to AP reporters without donning the black ski mask usually worn by senior militants in press interviews, but he refused to allow himself to be filmed, photographed or recorded.
During the session, he wore a loose-fitting shirt instead of the military fatigues associated with Islamic Jihad. Though he carried no weapon, some of the men around him did _ sitting nearby on ragged floor mats in the paint-chipped room. No food or drink was served in observance of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.