Khaled Mashaal’s aides praised the capture of an Israeli soldier as a daring operation but claimed Wednesday the Damascus-based Hamas leader played no role in it.
Israel sees him as the brains behind the abduction and threatened to try to assassinate him.
The accusations have placed Mashaal at the center of a debate over who runs Hamas, which has power centers in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Syrian capital — where its leadership is seen by some as the most hard-line.
Mashaal has not spoken in public since Sunday’s kidnapping of Cpl. Gilad Shalit and is believed to have gone underground for fear of an Israeli attempt to kill him.
But officials close to him deny he gave the green light for the capture — even as they laud the operation.
“The resistance fighters have displayed moral and operational superiority over the Israeli army,” aide Moussa Abu Marzouk told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday. “They carried out an act that, I believe, the Palestinian people greatly appreciate.”
Hamas has adopted the same line after each suicide bombing and attack carried out in its name over the past decade. Key political leaders have always insisted Hamas’ military wing is an independent body they know nothing about and do not give orders to.
The 19-year-old Shalit’s capture is no exception. Hamas’ military wing was one of three groups that claimed responsibility, but Hamas officials have insisted they were not aware the operation was being planned.
“The military people, the resistance fighters and the mujahedeen are the decision-makers in everything that’s related to the prisoner,” said Abu Marzouk.
“It would be stupid for anyone to assume that anyone from outside ... or inside the Gaza Strip can talk to the military people,” he added. “Their leadership is independent, their planning is independent, their decisions are independent.”
Still, the political wing of Hamas is believed to set the group’s general policies.
Hamas: Captors treating soldier well
For example, Abu Marzouk insisted Shalit is being treated well by his abductors.
“For sure, he’s in hands that will protect him and treat him well. Our morals and our religion dictate that we do this to every prisoner,” Abu Marzouk said.
Asked if his statement was based on information, Abu Marzouk laughed and said: “These are facts.”
Israel, however, has put the blame squarely on Mashaal.
“Khaled Mashaal, as someone who is overseeing, actually commanding the terror acts, is definitely a target,” Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon said Wednesday.
Mashaal, a former physics professor who lives in exile in Syria, heads Hamas’ political bureau and is believed to be its highest leader.
But Hamas claims it does not have such a hierarchy and that its political decisions are reached by “shura” — the Islamic principle of consultation — among its leaders.
That policy has left unclear the lines of command between Hamas’ Damascus-based leadership and its leaders in Gaza and the West Bank, who now run the Palestinian government. The “inside” leaders are seen by some as more moderate — though Hamas officials deride any talk of divisions.
“There are consultations between the inside and outside, and (decision-making) is not concentrated on one side,” Abu Marzouk said.
Israel tried to kill Mashaal in 1997, when agents sprayed him with poison on a street in Amman. Jordan’s late King Hussein, who had signed peace with Israel in 1994, forced Israel to send the antidote that saved his life and to release the group’s imprisoned founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin.
Mashaal was born in a village near Ramallah in the West Bank in 1956, 11 years before Jordan lost the area to Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. He moved with his family to Kuwait, where he led Islamist Palestinians at Kuwait University.
In 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and many Palestinians sympathized with the Iraqi dictator, Mashaal moved to Jordan, where he gave up teaching to work for Hamas.
Then Jordan’s relationship with Hamas deteriorated, and Mashaal was expelled to Qatar. In 1999, he moved to Damascus, where Syrian authorities have close ties with the Hamas leadership.
Mashaal has been keeping a low profile since he accused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah of being a traitor in April, worsening already tense relations with the Palestinian leader.
Israel has made similar assassination threats before. In September 2004, in the wake of a double suicide bombing that killed 16 Israelis in the southern city of Beersheba, Israeli officials said the attack was carried out on direct orders from Hamas leaders in Damascus and warned it intended to go after them.
Three weeks later, Israeli security officials claimed responsibility for a car bombing in Damascus that killed Hamas leader Izz Eldine Subhi Sheik Khalil and wounded three bystanders. In December 2004, another Hamas activist was targeted in Damascus, but he survived a bomb placed under his car.
Little reaction to threats
Abu Marzouk shrugged off the new threats, saying Israel has killed several Hamas leaders. “Has this led to anything?” he asked.
Photographs of two of those leaders — Sheik Yassin and Hamas’ Gaza chief Abdel Aziz Rantisi — hung on a wall facing a picture of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The Damascus-based leadership clearly sees the benefits of the soldier’s abduction. Abu Marzouk said it would help push for an end to the international boycott on the Hamas-led government and for the release of Palestinians held by Israel.
“If they want calm, they have to break the sanctions,” he said.
“We don’t object to a political solution. But it’s up to Israel to accept the Egyptian mediation to talk about conditions for a deal regarding the Israeli prisoner.”