The Day Mohamed Laid Down His Rocket Launcher7 June 2011
A young militant in Gaza reconsidered his ways and now sits accused as a spy. Will the Arab Spring save him?
- WALL STREET JOURNAL JUNE 25, 2011
- LIFE & CULTURE
- JUNE 25, 2011
In November 2007, in the Gaza Strip town of Khan Younis, I watched and filmed as a group of black-clad fighters concluded their afternoon prayers, their Kalashnikov semi-automatic rifles piled alongside. “Our prayer helps us to face fears and to face death and to give meaning and to be the idol that other people look for,” said a young man called Mohamed Abu Muailek.
“Rocket Man Under Fire” a film by Paul Martin, tells the story of Mohammed, a dissident in Gaza who abandoned his militant group, refusing to fire rockets into Israel. He’s now under arrest, accused of collaborating with Israel.
He went inside a room to search Google Earth for a target to strike across the Israeli border. “Our rockets will be aimed there,” he said in excellent English, jabbing his finger at the computer screen. His unit belonged to Fatah, not to Hamas, the Islamist militant movement that had seized control of Gaza in four bloody days of fighting in mid-2007. It turned out that Mohamed, until now the unit’s technical backroom whiz kid, was about to go on his first rocket-firing mission.
I returned to this tiny strip of Mediterranean coast after the war between Israel and Hamas ended in January 2009. As I sipped coffee in a Gaza City café, Mohamed the rocket-firer recognized me. “How was your war?” I asked him. “I didn’t fight,” he told me. He had changed his mind about the use of rockets. It was counterproductive and wrong, he said.
Mohamed is now 26 and in his third year of imprisonment, charged by the Hamas authorities with spying for Israel. In my documentary film “Rocket Man Under Fire,” he is shown in early 2009 standing on a hilltop from which his group used to fire rockets into Israel and predicting (accurately): “They will say that I am a collaborator, and I don’t care much…because these are the basics of a real Muslim: to tell the truth and be a peaceful man—whether it kills him or gives him more life.”
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Mohamed Abu Muailek in Gaza Strip in March 2009, above. He was arrested a month later.
In my 30 years of war reporting, I had never met a young militant who threw away the gun, decided to follow the path of peace, and was willing to risk his life to speak about it. “I want to go public,” he told me, “because someone has to speak out against this self-destructive madness.”
Even in those countries now experiencing the so-called Arab Spring, the concept of a right of dissent is far from guaranteed. Hamas’s security services remain an instrument of repression against their own citizens, in keeping with the longstanding (and only recently challenged) norms of the region.
But Mohamed went further than merely expressing dissent: In the eyes of the omnipresent security services, he did something that would make him a potential or actual traitor. He had developed an online friendship with a young computer enthusiast from Tel Aviv. Mohamed the Palestinian had never met an Israeli, face-to-face. Dan the Israeli had never met a Palestinian. This contact with the “enemy” was deeply suspicious to paranoid Islamists committed to Israel’s destruction.
Mohamed had felt increasingly uncomfortable about firing rockets into Israeli civilian areas while also having Internet chats with his Israeli friend. “It was such a contradiction. I had to choose, and I chose friendship, not violence,” Mohamed told me as he hunched over his computer.
Sensing that the security services were closing in on him, Mohamed eventually decided to leave Gaza. But his attempts to escape by tunnel to Egypt and by land to either Egypt or Israel failed. He was trapped in the Strip’s narrow confines. I returned to England to find a phone message telling me that he was “going to hide.” Later I received this SMS message: “I expect to be caught and executed. Thanks for everything and good-bye. Mo.”
Sure enough, in April 2009 he was arrested and disappeared for two months, during which time, he says, in a letter smuggled from prison, he was “brutally tortured.” Amnesty International has written directly to the Hamas authorities in Gaza urging that the perpetrators be held to account.
After the alleged torture, Mohamed was brought to trial in a military court. His supposed spymaster: Dan, the young man I had filmed chatting with Mohamed by Internet. (Hamas has said it has a signed confession, a statement that Mohamed says he was forced to sign without reading.)
That Israel has high-level agents and collaborators in the West Bank and Gaza is absolutely certain. But an agent’s value would lie in staying within militant groups, or perhaps even infiltrating the top echelons of Hamas. No spy would leave the militants and publicly condemn their activities.
When I went back to Gaza in February 2010 to give evidence in Mohamed’s behind-closed-doors military trial, a black-shirted “prosecutor” yelled at me: “You are not a witness, you are an accused.” I found myself handcuffed and shoved into a cell. International pressure or divine providence, or both, secured my release after 26 days.
Mohamed’s military trial has dragged on inconclusively, overseen by three black-clad Hamas judges. The next session, scheduled for early July, is supposed to bring it to an end.
Opinion polls say that Hamas, which garnered a large parliamentary majority in a 2006 election, would get around one-quarter of the vote today in a genuine ballot in Gaza and the West Bank. When one recent poll asked “Which political or religious faction do you most trust?” only 16.6% answered Hamas. Inside Gaza, corruption is rampant, as is nepotism, and there are increasing divisions within Hamas.
Despite its public shows of defiance, Hamas is keen to gain a degree of international acceptance and recognition. Mohamed is still alive, and the regime seems to understand that if he were executed, he would become an international cause célèbre.
Though Hamas gets its financial and military backing from hard-liners in Iran and Saudi Arabia, it wants to reduce tensions with the U.S. and Europe and to erase its official label as a “terrorist” group. In Gaza, where it rules, Hamas has every interest in avoiding the appearance of repressing its own citizens, especially at a moment when the values of democracy and freedom are being openly demanded in the Arab world.
Fatah is now attempting to create a “unity government” with Hamas, its bitter rival, partly in the hope of winning UN recognition of a Palestinian state. As a dissident disliked by both Fatah and Hamas, Mohamed is not likely to be one of the prisoners swapped under a reconciliation agreement.
But Hamas may itself decide to release him, if only so as to appear less repressive. The Arab Spring has not reached Gaza, let alone transformed its rulers, but it may yet bring freedom to one brave young man.
—Mr. Martin, a contributor to BBC programs, has covered the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe for more than three decades. Other films can be viewed at www.dissidentunderfire.com.