Nothing he could say would ever justify it. But he could not even explain it. On October 10th Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior member of the Hamas politburo, sat down for an hour-long interview with The Economist at a nondescript building in Doha, the Qatari capital. He spoke three days after the Palestinian Islamist group carried out the worst attack in Israel’s history, massacring more than 1,200 people.
Israel’s retaliatory air strikes have killed more than 900 Palestinians. Its army is preparing for a probable ground invasion of Gaza. The coming weeks will bring more bloodshed on both sides—and, perhaps, the end of Hamas rule in Gaza. At such a pivotal moment for his people, though, Mr Abu Marzouk had little to say that Hamas leaders have not said many times before.
Still, three things stood out. First is a near-total unwillingness to admit that Hamas killed innocent civilians. The group, he says, “obeys all international and moral laws” and its main target was “military posts”. The stories that emerged from places like Be’eri, a kibbutz in southern Israel where militants went door-to-door and slaughtered more than 100 Israelis in their homes, 10% of its population, show otherwise.
As for the 260 partygoers gunned down at a music festival, he says that was a “coincidence”; that they might have looked to their attackers like soldiers “resting”. The claim is so risible it does more to flaunt the crime than cover up the truth.
Regardless of their politics, most people around the world were horrified by the scenes of carnage in Israel. Muslims have pointed to a hadith, a saying of the prophet Muhammad, which decrees that fighters should not kill women and children or even cut down trees. Hamas, an Islamist group that touts and imposes piety, seems to lack such compunctions: Mr Abu Marzouk acknowledges that some civilians were killed but argues that it is Israel’s “responsibility” and says that “we were victims before them.”
Second is a sense that even much of the Hamas leadership was kept in the dark about plans for the assault. Asked whether he knew about it in advance, Mr Abu Marzouk suggests he was not informed: “No, we didn’t know the time.” This would not be surprising. Because it is so difficult to enter and exit Gaza, Hamas prefers to keep some of its political leaders abroad. There has always been tension between the inside and outside groups. Those in Gaza tend to look down on coddled compatriots who enjoy five-star hotels in Doha.
That tension has only grown since 2017, when Yahya Sinwar was elected as the group’s leader inside Gaza. Along with Muhammad Deif, the Hamas military chief, and a handful of fellow hardliners, most of whom are also in Gaza, he has consolidated power within the group and marginalised its expatriate wing.
Mr Abu Marzouk also denies press reports that Iran either masterminded or helped to plan the attack: “Iran has no relation to this situation,” he says. That claim can rightly be treated with scepticism. Iran provides financial and military support to Hamas; it certainly had some relation to the rampage. Still, both Hamas officials and the Israeli army spokesman are on the record as denying that Iran ordered or organised the assault.
Third, and most telling, is the lack of any vision. In response to a question about what Hamas hoped to achieve, Mr Abu Marzouk rattles off a list of Israeli misdeeds: confiscating land, building illegal settlements. “They closed all the doors, they caused the two-state solution to fail,” he says. He is not wrong about the daily abuses and indignities of occupation, nor Israel’s role in scuttling the peace process. But he has no explanation for how murdering hundreds of civilians might improve the plight of Palestinians.
He is categorical about some specifics: Hamas will not, he asserts, execute any hostages, nor will it release any Israeli civilians. It is too early to talk about prisoner swaps.
But as the conversation goes on, he ventures into conspiracy and fantasy. Israelis should just leave and go back to their homelands: “All of them have dual citizenship,” he says (in fact most Israelis are native-born and hold no other passport). He praises the October 8th attack in Alexandria, in which an Egyptian policeman shot dead two Israeli tourists, and urges all Arabs and Muslims to help “liberate Jerusalem and Palestine”. He calls Israel a “Western project” that would one day vanish.
The actions of Hamas on October 7th changed the region. Yet the rhetoric of Hamas seems frozen in time: your correspondent has heard almost identical language from countless officials over the past 15 years. Victory is always imminent, and until then the 2m Palestinians in Gaza will endure their lot. Many will tell you in private that they have no faith in Hamas. But they live in an authoritarian one-party state that affords no chance to change their leaders.
Israel erred for years in thinking that Hamas had lost interest in large-scale conflict. But Hamas seems to have made its own error. At one point Mr Abu Marzouk seemed to dismiss the possibility of a serious Israeli offensive in Gaza. “We know that they are cowards,” he says. “We know that they can’t fight on the ground.” That miscalculation may now threaten its grip on power.■
You can hear the key parts of this interview on the October 11th episode of The Intelligence podcast here.