The following article ran as part of a thirteen-part series by Jon Sawyer, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch January 23-February 15, 2003.
Usamah Hamdan is a soft-spoken man who pads around his office in socks and a pullover sweater, more like a university professor than the Lebanese representative of what the United States calls a major terrorist organization.
The rifle-toting guard in the parking lot of Hamdan's building, in a working-class neighborhood of south Beirut, is one sign that Hamdan is no academic. So are the upstairs guards who meticulously examine the bags and identification of visiting journalists before ushering them into Hamdan's office. This is Hamas, a group that to U.S. officials has been synonymous with Palestinian terrorism for 15 years. Hamdan says the characterization is unfair, that Hamas is a legitimate resistance movement that has thus far targeted no one beyond Israelis.
That could change, he warns, if the United States persists with a Middle East policy that to Hamas is recklessly pro-Israel. He cites as particularly dangerous the suggestions by some senior U.S. officials that "regime change" in Iraq might begin a process that ends with governments in the region more favorable to Israel.
"The Americans make a major mistake if they think they can make a connection between Iraq and the Palestinian situation," Hamdan said. "Every Arab will conclude at that moment that this is a war against Muslims and not against particular regimes."
Hamas, like Islamic Jihad, rejects the very idea of an Israeli state. Both groups opposed the Oslo peace process that began in 1994; both envision a state of Palestine that encompasses the entire current territory of Israel and where Jews could remain only as citizens in a Palestinian state.
"The United States has to understand that there is a difference between resistance to occupation and terrorism," Hamdan said. "If Americans don't recognize it now they'll understand once they try to occupy Iraq that there is resistance whenever there is occupation."
Hamdan said that over the years Hamas had limited its operations to targets within Israel itself. He said that so far, at least, "we haven't attacked embassies in other places; we haven't attacked Americans. We are just fighting the occupation."
But that could change, he warned. "The Americans risk getting to the point where Palestinians conclude that it's Americans who are killing Palestinians and that we must respond, all over the world," he said. "I can't imagine what that will mean, for Americans."