Jerusalem , Asharq Al-Awsat- Last Monday, the Israeli ‘Haaretz’ newspaper published an editorial by Dr. Ahmed Yousef, the political advisor to deposed Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. The article was met by an unprecedented flood of online comments making it one of the most remarked upon articles by the newspaper’s readers on the Internet.
However, this should not come as a surprise since Yousef has become a star in Israeli media and a familiar face on national Israeli television channels on which he makes regular appearances to issue statements, in addition to being frequently hosted in interviews. His appearances have been known to stir up controversy and there are many opponents among Hamas, the movement Yousef is affiliated to, who try to exploit these appearances to discredit the movement. However, this does not affect the stature of Yousef who could be considered a Hamas supporter and an insider, however in a manner that is uniquely his own. Many among the cadres of the movement and the young men from the military wing sometimes find it difficult to digest Yousef’s statements that often seem contradictory to the fundamentals of the radical movement.
However, since his appearance in the Palestinian political arena as Haniyeh’s political advisor, following the latter’s formation of the first government when Hamas emerged victorious in the Palestinian legislative elections [in January 2006], Yousef was quick to draw attention to himself by disagreeing with the rest of the movement’s spokesmen. The Israeli newspaper, ‘Yediot Aharonot’ was one of the first to notice him, referring to him as, “the American whispering in Haniyeh’s ear.”
But who is this Americanized Hamas member? There is not much information available about Yousef despite his great openness towards the media; still, he remains a mysterious figure who made a sudden appearance in the political action arena, and before that as Haniyeh’s advisor. The majority of Palestinians did not know of Yousef and only a few among them would know him as someone who appears on satellite television channels every once in a while to discuss Washington, as a political advisor.
Ahmed Yousef was born in 1950 to a Palestinian refugee family from the village of Haliqat in south Palestine. He left the Gaza Strip for Cairo in 1973, and there he obtained a degree in mechanical engineering from Al Azhar University. Like many Palestinians of his generation, he traveled to the Gulf; however he did not work in his chosen field of study but rather in the media field. He returned to Gaza in 1979 with the intention of getting married and then returned to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with his wife who was from Gaza.
His next move was to the US after he was awarded a scholarship. There he obtained his masters degree from Colorado State University and the University of Missouri, followed by a doctorate degree from Columbia State University.
Following the media path, Yousef was to become the director of the United Association for Studies and Research (UASR), which specializes in analyzing the phenomenon of Islam, political Islam, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Islam’s relationship with the West for 15 years. He was also the Editor-in-Chief of the ‘Middle East Affairs Journal’, which is issued in Washington in the English language. Additionally, he authored 14 books in both English and Arabic tackling Middle Eastern issues and Islamic movements, among other related subjects.
This man, who used to reside in the US and who suddenly arrived in Gaza to become Ismail Haniyeh’s political advisor, was appointed under enigmatic circumstances. Perhaps exploring these circumstances can shed more light on the decision-making process of the movement.
Who brought him back from America? And who appointed him to this position whilst overlooking all the cadres of Hamas? Sources within the movement say that his selection depended on his extensive experience in Western media and his academic credentials and that he was the best choice to take on the position of Haniyeh’s political advisor, who had just assumed the post of prime minister. Haniyeh’s expertise was primarily in local political activity in Gaza and according to these sources, Yousef’s experience was crucial to Haniyeh’s work and also in helping present the leader to the international community.
But there are those who affirm that Yousef’s role with regards to Haniyeh far surpasses that of a political advisor. These same sources uphold that Yousef is credited with the institutionalization of work within the Palestinian cabinet as well as putting an action plan in place for Haniyeh, which starts with meetings in the morning that are attended by Yousef and a number of his aides.
It would be accurate to say that Yousef contributes largely to the drafting of statements for the critical issues to reflect Haniyeh and his government’s position, in addition to undertaking the coordination required for foreign delegation visits and submitting studies and analyses on certain issues. Yousef’s influence over Haniyeh is apparent, whether through the speeches that the latter delivers or in the increasingly realistic rhetoric of his statements, which were part of a plan to separate between the Palestinian government’s work and that of the Hamas movement.
Sources in Hamas have disclosed to Asharq Al Awsat that, “What most people do not know is when the decision is made within the movement to appoint a person in a governmental post; he no longer retains his position within the leadership of the movement. This is intended to separate between the government’s work, which represents the Palestinian people, and the movement. As such, it is only natural for Haniyeh to appear as a statesman, not just a representative of Hamas. Likewise, Dr. Yousef is both a tactful speaker and a diplomat.”
Indeed, Yousef has emerged as an eloquent orator on satellite channels, speaking in a calm and composed manner, even at times when the crisis between Fatah and Hamas had reached its peak. When the fires were raging high between the two movements, Yousef took on the role of an extinguisher and mediator, portending an optimistic outcome and the fulfillment of some form of agreement.
At a time when the crippling economic blockade was imposed on the Hamas government, Yousef traveled to various European countries to ‘market’ this government. During those times, Yousef appeared among Hamas and its supporters as a brilliant debater and was thus targeted by the Fatah movement, whose supporters believed he was handing free concessions to Israel and was meeting with Israeli figures abroad.
A media campaign was launched against Yousef after the Israeli ‘Maariv’ newspaper published a document that came to be known as the ‘Ahmed Yousef document’ whereby the newspaper upheld that Yousef had contributed to drafting, with some European parties, an agreement over temporary borders for the State of Palestine and a five-year ceasefire between Israel and Palestine, among other points. This was considered to be a retreat by Hamas from what it had initially been proposing.
But Yousef’s response to this campaign was that this document had been sent to him by European parties for consideration and that the Hamas movement had not studied it within its framework. He also stated that Hamas believed that negotiations were tied to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and as such, it was erroneous to ascribe any involvement to Hamas in the matter. He added that Hamas rejected it and that he personally adopted the same attitude.
The issue soon became a ‘Trojan horse’ in which Fatah and some factions from the PLO began to stab at what they dubbed ‘Hamas’ credibility’. And thus it transpired that resistance factions came to appear as the representative of the radical approach demanding the legislative rights of the Palestinian people, leaving Hamas to appear as though it were the one desperate to present concessions so as to gain acceptance internationally and to appease Israel.
At a certain point in time, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) raised a slogan of rejection to denounce, “The state with temporary borders” in an allusion to the ‘Ahmed Yousef document’. Many among Fatah adopted the same attitude, and likewise would not let the so-called ‘Ahmed Yousef error’ pass, while those among the Hamas leadership strove to dissociate themselves from it, declaring that Yousef had nothing to do with it.
However, if the aforementioned campaign was the harshest Yousef had been subjected to in the realm of media, the matter did not end there. Yousef was with Haniyah when he returned [to Gaza] after his first foreign tour. No sooner had they exited the Rafah crossing when gunshots rattled through the air, killing one of the former PM’s guards and wounding Yousef in the arm. There were two sides to the story; Yousef propagated it was an assassination attempt on Haniyeh’s life, while Hamas maintained that the incident had taken place at the hands of armed Fatah militants who had targeted him after Israel refused him and his aides entry [back into Gaza].
But Yousef did not stay long in hospital; he recovered quickly and returned to resume his whispering in Haniyeh’s ear and recommence his work as a pacifier. He continued to fulfill these roles during the time of the Palestinian National Unity Government and additionally contributed the forging of the Mecca Agreement.
As the spokesman of Hamas, Ahmed Yousef delivers calm speeches, urging reconciliation, not only when addressing political opponents in the local arena but even when dealing with Israel. He tirelessly continues to confirm Hamas’s commitment to placate the situation, stressing its readiness to embark on a long-term truce, in accordance with certain conditions.
Yousef pioneered in adopting a new approach in Palestinian political action when he started to publish newspaper articles, mainly seeking to explain the demands of Hamas, or representing the movement’s position over issues that are deemed central to the debate and discussion in the political arena. Examples include Hamas’s stipulations for the formation of a National Unity Government, and one article in ‘Haaretz’ justifies the movement’s resort to violence as a means of wielding control over Gaza. And thus, Yousef continued his communication with the Israeli media, which continues to send correspondents to Gaza, even after Hamas seized control of the strip. It may be presently said that Israeli reports are in fact more objective in relaying the truth unfolding on the ground than the Palestinian media, which is biased either in favor of Fatah or Hamas.
Still, Yousef continued to issue ‘moderate’ statements in comparison to his colleagues in Hamas. On May 24, Yousef, who was in hiding in Gaza like most of Hamas’s leadership for fear that Israel would fulfill its threats to launch locally produced missiles, received a reporter from the Israeli Channel 2. He spoke with his customary composure and calm somehow managing to diminish the aggravation caused by the missiles launched by some Palestinian resistance groups in Gaza.
He said that Israel possessed the technological capabilities to target any Palestinian it sought. He included an oblique criticism of some of the resistance groups, including the armed wing of Hamas. “We exaggerate our capabilities. There is no comparison between a sword and a stick,” he said.
Of the Qassam rockets, he said, “They are fireworks that send a message to the world. They resulted in the death of one Israeli woman, while the occupation killed 65 Palestinians and wounded over a hundred others.”
However, soon after, this statement erupted in controversy and raised criticism, especially from the opponents of Hamas. Yousef tried to minimize the impact of his statements. He stressed that the use of the word ‘fireworks’ was used out of context by the Israeli Channel 2.
Opponents of Hamas upheld that the movement was applying double standards, such as when it declared Yasser Abdul Rabu, the secretary-general of the PLO’s executive committee a ‘fool’ and launched a campaign against him, whereas when it came to Yousef, Hamas remained tight-lipped.
Despite the fact that Yousef accused the Israeli Channel 2 of using comments outside of their context, he continued to correspond with the channel and granted them exclusive coverage of Gilad Shalit’s audio message, which was recorded on the first anniversary of his capture [last June 26]. Yousef appeared on the screen in Gaza and was engaged in a televised telephone interview with Noam Shalit, the aforementioned prisoner’s father who was in his home. Yousef asked the father if he would accept the broadcast of his son’s message. Noam agreed to it and upon hearing his son’s voice, the father expressed his hope that this tape could be the first step towards his son’s release.
At the end of the conversation, Yousef told Shalit, “You have my number. I hope that you will not hesitate to contact me if you need anything.” It seemed as though the two were old friends as they spoke in front of millions of Israeli viewers.
Yousef chose Channel 2 to air the tape and said that the recording was made at the request of Jewish American figures who had asked him to provide information on the prisoner a year after he had been captured. Yousef relayed the request to the Hamas leadership who responded by making the audio recording.
After Hama’s seizure of Gaza, Yousef announced that the movement had no interest in escalating the situation with Israel, stressing the movement’s commitment to pacify the situation and reiterated his call for a long-term truce lasting from five to 10 years in return for Israel’s withdrawal from the land occupied in 1967, and the release of the prisoners giving them the right to return.
Through these statements it was revealed to the opponents of Hamas that the movement’s real goal was to reach the seat of power and grant Israel a truce that could last up to 50 years on condition that Israel accept the new reality in Gaza.
Palestinian Information Minister and the spokesman of the emergency government, Riyad al Maliki attacked Hamas’s criticism of Mahmoud Abbas’s government and said, “The ongoing use of the occupation as a stick to scare with the Palestinian people and the allegations that President Abbas’s Palestinian Authority shows a willingness to compromise with the Israeli occupation [must stop]. What would you call the document in which Dr. Ahmed Yousef was groveling after the Israeli mirage of dialogue, and the proposals that were propagated at the cheapest of prices! Negotiation is a form of resistance and it is common knowledge that one of the main reasons that led to the failure of negotiations in the past, in addition to the Israeli position, is Hamas’s deliberate targeting, along with others, to derail the negotiation process with the intention of foiling what could have been a breakthrough in negotiations for the Palestinians.”
A journalist who met with Yousef twice in Gaza said, “It was assumed that Dr. Yousef would have been in the shadows, standing in the background and contributing to policy-making but he has found himself, owing to certain conditions, such as the disclosure of the document that bore his name and his mission to defend Hamas and present a face to the movement that could be accepted by the world, as one of the most controversial figures in the movement. On the one hand, some people regard him as the representative of the moderate face of the movement capable of interacting with the world, while others believe his proposals are different to those held by the rest of the movement’s leadership. He is distinguished by the manner in which he delivers [his thoughts] to the public opinion domain.”
He added, “In any case, we are confronted by a talented man who bears the ideology of Hamas and deals with the media in an ‘American’ manner. It is my belief that his appointment to the post can be considered a milestone for Hamas.”