One of the founders of Hamas has acknowledged that “mistakes” were made during the Oct. 7 invasion of Israel, and says he believes the militant group would be willing to release the women, children and foreigners it is holding hostage in Gaza if Israel were to agree to a 24-hour ceasefire.
Sheik Hassan Yousef, the political leader of Hamas in the West Bank, told The Globe and Mail in an exclusive interview that he, like much of the world, had been taken off guard by the surprise attack carried by the armed wing of Hamas, which is known as the al-Qassam Brigades.
The attack killed more than 1,400 Israelis and saw about 200 others taken hostage back to Gaza. Israel responded by declaring a siege of Gaza, accompanied by 12 days of intense aerial bombardment that has killed almost 3,500 Palestinians. (Fatality numbers are according to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian Ministry of Health, respectively.)
Sheik Yousef said Hamas has no interest in keeping women and children hostage, and would likely be willing to release them if Israel agreed to a 24-hour break in hostilities to allow for humanitarian aid to enter Gaza.
“We have hostages who are our guests, and we don’t have an issue with these hostages,” he said in response to a question about how Hamas could justify holding hostages such as 74-year-old peace activist Vivian Silver, who has roots in Winnipeg and has been classified as missing since the attack. “When the circumstances allow, we will release them.”
He called on the international community to negotiate a pause so that some of the hostages could be safely released. “We are ready. Let it be. But the attack has to stop,” he said, sitting in the reception room of his family home in Ramallah, in front of a giant photograph of Jerusalem’s Old City. “Let humanitarian aid come in, let electricity and water be resumed.”
Sheik Yousef was speaking as U.S. President Joe Biden was visiting Mr. Netanyahu in Tel Aviv. Shortly after that meeting, Mr. Netanyahu’s office said in a statement that aid would not be allowed into Gaza from Israel, “as long as our captives are not returned.”
However, the statement also said Israel had agreed not to prevent the shipment of supplies from neighbouring Egypt, “as long as it is only food, water and medicine for the civilian population located in the southern Gaza Strip or which is evacuating to there, and as long as these supplies do not reach Hamas.”
It was not clear whether those terms would satisfy Hamas’s conditions for a release of some of the hostages. Sheik Yousef said the majority of those held by the group were Israeli soldiers, who would only be released in exchange for the 6,000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.
Spokespeople for Israel’s foreign and defence ministries did not immediately reply to requests for comment on Sheik Yousef’s remarks. Palestinian and Israeli media reported that Sheikh Yousef was arrested in an overnight Israeli raid into the West Bank, hours after he spoke to The Globe and Mail.
It’s unclear to what extent the 68-year-old politician and religious scholar speaks for the armed wing in Gaza. His views would be respected throughout the movement – as he is one of the organization’s founders, and spent nearly a quarter-century in Israeli prisons – but he said he has not spoken to anyone from the al-Qassam Brigades since the invasion. That was because of security concerns, he said, as well as poor cellular and WiFi connections in Gaza.
One day after an explosion reportedly killed hundreds of people at the Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza, Sheik Yousef lashed out at Mr. Biden’s statement that the blast appeared to have been caused not by an Israeli air strike – as most Palestinians believe – but by a misfired Palestinian rocket.
“Based on what I’ve seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you,” the President said at the start of his meeting with Mr. Netanyahu. U.S. intelligence service analysis of satellite and other data concluded that the explosive device launched did not come from Israeli military positions, U.S. officials said.
In response, Sheik Yousef said: “He can say what he likes. Everybody knows the truth. Everybody knows it was done by the Israelis with American weapons.”
Despite the suffering inflicted on Gaza since the Hamas attack, Sheik Yousef said Palestinians did not blame his group. “If a people want freedom, they have to suffer to get it.”
He argued that the Oct. 7 attack in southern Israel was justified by Israel’s decades-long occupation of Palestinian lands, and particularly its 16-year blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza.
But he also acknowledged some fighters may have gone too far during the rampage, during which Hamas and its allies killed families in their homes and roughly 260 partygoers at an open-air music festival. “We are human beings and human beings make mistakes. There could be some mistakes,” he said, without specifying what those transgressions were.
The al-Qassam Brigades’ plans seem to have gone awry as more and more fighters entered Israel from Gaza, he said. In addition to Hamas’s armed wing, militants from Islamic Jihad – a separate organization that, like Hamas, is supported by Iran – also invaded Israel after the border fence was breached.
“The elite people went in. They were the ones who went in first and then there were others that piled in. It seems that the ones that piled in disrupted the work of the lead group.”
Hamas documents recovered by the Israeli military after the attack cast doubt on Sheik Yousef’s version. One document, reported by The New York Times, features specific plans and maps for storming a kibbutz, and instructs militants to “take soldiers and civilians as prisoners and hostages to negotiate with.” Another reported by NBC News carries the instruction to “kill as many people as possible.”
Sheik Yousef said he had no foreknowledge of the Oct. 7 assault, though he was elated when he awoke that day to see the first pictures of Hamas fighters inside the cities and kibbutzim of southern Israel.
“Here I am suddenly seeing our young men driving into 1948 lands,” he said, referring to Israeli territory, which had been part of the British mandate Palestine before a 1948 war that established Israel and drove hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank and the neighbouring Arab states. “It was a feeling of ecstasy – it was a feeling that maybe the liberation is coming.”
Sheik Yousef lives openly in the West Bank, which is under Israeli military occupation and the political control of the Palestinian Authority, headed by president Mahmoud Abbas. He spoke to The Globe on Wednesday after taking part in a protest in central Ramallah – sparked by the Gaza hospital deaths – that featured chants calling for the fall of Mr. Abbas’s “regime.”
Hamas is widely popular among the West Bank’s 2.7 million residents, and Sheik Yousef said Mr. Abbas had not held an election since 2006 because Western governments had warned him that Hamas was likely to win.
Despite another day of violence in the West Bank, during which Israeli fire killed two Palestinians – bringing the death toll there to 64 since Oct. 7, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society – Sheik Yousef said Hamas’s local arm did not have the weapons to join its Gaza brethren in confronting Israeli militarily.