Hebron, West Bank -- I first met Aziz Dweik in the winter of 1991-92. The man who is the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and who was released from an Israeli prison last Tuesday, was then teaching urban geography at an-Najah University in Nablus.
He was pointed out to me as the man who spoke for Hamas in his home town of Hebron, which is why I went looking for him.
Hamas, an Arabic acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement, was only four years old at the time, having been established at the start of the first intifada , or Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
The Muslim Brotherhood had long existed in the Palestinian territories, and Hamas was really just the Brotherhood with a new name. In those early years, it encouraged Palestinian youth, armed only with rocks, to stand up against Israeli forces in Gaza and the West Bank.
Hundreds of those youths were killed, but the world got the message: Palestinians were willing to lay down their lives in pursuit of freedom.
The impact was far greater than all the years of terrorism carried out by the many factions of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
(Ultimately, it forced the PLO to change its tactics, accept Israel and negotiate for its own state - the result was the 1993 Oslo Accords.) Hamas's early military raids were directed at Israeli occupation forces, not at civilians. (The group's first of many suicide attacks on Israeli civilians would take place in Afula in April, 1994.) But its ambushes of Israeli patrols had become effective, and deadly.
Hebron was always known as the most religious of Palestinian communities and I wanted to find out what made the organization tick.
I was surprised by what I found in Dr. Dweik (PhD from the University of Pennsylvania). An affable, humorous family man, he invited me to his home. As I recall, his wife was pregnant with their seventh (and last) child. With children running around, he outlined what Hamas was looking for: a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
While the Hamas charter specifically calls for a Palestinian state to be created in all the land of Palestine, including Israel, Dr. Dweik said he considered that nothing but a dream, and unrealistic.
Dr. Dweik was no fire-breathing religious leader and never actually said he was a member of Hamas, which had been banned by Israel. He spoke, he said, as one who was knowledgeable about the organization. (Even in the 2006 Palestinian elections he ran as a member of something called the Change and Reform List, the cover for all Hamas candidates.) He also carefully dissociated himself from the military actions that had been carried out in Hamas's name. (In fact, that year, 1992, a separate military wing called the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades was created, so all political members of Hamas could do the same.) I was never quite sure how influential this moderate man really was in the notorious Hamas - until the end of 1992.
That was when the recently elected Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, took action he hoped would stop Hamas's assaults on Israeli troops. He had 415 Palestinian men associated with Hamas or Islamic Jihad rounded up in one day and deported. Aziz Dweik was one of them. As Mr. Rabin acknowledged at the time, these were not the gun-toting militants, but the people that represented the "infrastructure" of Hamas.
The men were driven to the northern border with Lebanon, dropped in the zone between the two frontiers and told not to turn back. Lebanon, however, refused to allow them to enter, and the group was forced to remain - for a year - in the no-man's-land, until Mr. Rabin allowed them back.
When I caught up to the group a few days after their deportation, I found the men setting up tents and building showers as they prepared to camp out in the cold and snowy Bekaa Valley.
I also found an organized hierarchical system already in place with two men in charge: Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a doctor from Gaza was in charge of the deportees from Gaza (he would be assassinated by Israel in 2004); Aziz Dweik was in charge of the men from the West Bank.
I kept in touch with Dr. Dweik over the next two or three years, questioning him about various developments, including Hamas's adoption of suicide terrorism in 1994 (a tactic that would be used with frequency until 2005, following which the group swore off suicide bombings).
No one ever accused Dr. Dweik of any involvement in such acts of terror.
When I returned to this region last fall, Dr. Dweik was in prison, rounded up along with several other Hamas members of the legislature after the abduction of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Dr. Dweik had been elected Speaker just six months before his arrest.
He was released last Tuesday and agreed to see me after midday prayers on Friday.
His seven children have grown. One of his daughters is now a school principal and, remarkably, every other child is either a medical doctor, a pharmacist or studying to become one. Three of them are doing their medical residency or studying abroad. None of them is involved in politics. His wife runs a daycare centre out of the family's garden and first floor. She named it for the place in Lebanon where her husband spent the year in exile: Marj a-Zahour.
Aziz Dweik sat comfortably in his living room, wearing a navy blue suit, purple tie and new black shoes, as befits a speaker of parliament.
He talked easily of his time in prison, and enthusiastically about the task that lay ahead: reconciling the Hamas and Fatah factions that fought a brutal civil conflict while he was in prison and now control separate territories (Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank).
To that end, he said, he would summon a meeting of the legislature as soon as possible it will be its session in two years - and dedicate everyone to reconciliation.
There are some who think Dr. Dweik already is president of the Palestinian Authority. The body's founding documents call for the speaker to temporarily succeed the president when the office of president is vacant, until new elections can be called. Since Mahmoud Abbas's term officially expired in January, Dr. Dweik should now be the acting president, the reasoning goes.
Elections are now set for next January and Dr. Dweik is quite content to let Mr. Abbas remain in office until then. He had nothing but praise for the Fatah leader, a good start on his way to reconciling the warring factions.Report Typo/Error