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Interview with Alistair Crook

By Barak Ravid, Maariv, 4.03.06

Alistair Crooke, a former British intelligence officer, is the door of Hamas to the west. Recently he met with them and returned very optimistic. "The organization will work to stop the violence". An interview.

Only a week ago he returned from a round of talks with the Hamas external leadership. "For obvious reasons I will not elaborate where, but it was in counties nearby Israel" he apologizes in our phone conversation. "I met with several people from the political leadership of Hamas. They are all well known people in the media. This meeting was following rounds of meetings I had with them in the last year."

Crooke, a veteran intelligence officer with over 30 years in the British Intelligence Forces (M-I-6) returned optimistic from these meetings. "They told me clearly that after the Israeli election they will be open to work in order to stop the violence" he says "but this time they would like an agreed  and bilateral cease-fire, unlike the 2003 Hudna. They do not offer 10 years Hudna, but a cease fire that will be negotiated and will end all bloodshed, which is something completely different. There are ways to do it even without direct contact with Israel. Not a peace agreement, but something that might become such a platform in the course of time. You said 10 years, others say 20 years.  Shaikh Ahmad Yasin even spoke on 50 years.

Crooke knows very well the people whom he met with. He was here at the peak of the Intifada, although not in the service of the British, but as a security advisor to Miguell Moratinos, EU special envoy to the peace process in the Mideast. He spent most of his time in the field, sensing the Israeli and Palestinians pulse. For example, in the mornings he used to meet with IDF Intelligence officers and GCC field operators and in evenings he sat with Fatah field operators and heads of Hamas in Gaza. While CIA representative were driving in armor vans troops, Crooke used to move alone in local cabs and without protection. His work is always on low profile, and his name is seldom mentioned in the media. (Once in an article of Ben Caspit in this newspaper, three and a half years ago).

In 2003, after the conclusion of his work in the region for the EU, he returned to Britain and established the "Conflict Forum"- an independent and non profit organization aimed to promote a dialogue between the western world and Islamic organizations.  As noted, Crooke and his colleagues work on low profile, without publication. They travel to Damascus, Beirut and Pakistan, meet with executives of Hamas, Hezbollah and other Islamic organizations. Crooke is probably the western person who holds the highest hours of discussions with Hamas. 

Crooke's Maneuver

Last week he came to congratulate them for their victory in the first democratic election in the PA, but mostly to hear what the Hamas future direction is, what their political plans are, and which kind of reforms we should expect. "They were not surprised by their victory and neither was I" he says." They planned a lot and managed a very organized and efficient campaign. Their victory is not a mistake."  They were surprised by the fact that the election actually took place and that it was handled peacefully and quietly".

The heads of Hamas, who already know him for a long time, see him as a significant channel to the west. Last March he even brought with him several US representatives for these meetings with Hamas. "The things which I am trying to say for several years already sound different when it is said with an American accent" he explains.

Crooke did hear the plans of the heads of Hamas. According to his statement, Hama's "Road Map" is already ready and their implementation of this action plan is due right after the formation of the government.

Do not be mistaken: Crooke is not naive. The story goes that while serving as an EU envoy, he visited a Palestinian prison in order to verify that two people who were imprisoned were actually behind bars as promised. He saw both of them chained in their detention cells, thank them and left. Nevertheless, after a few minutes he asked the taxi driver to make a u-turn and pass again near the prison. He was not surprised to see both detainees walking home happily and free as a bird. Now Crooke says that this story is not completely accurate. He did see the prisoners in jail, but reported to his supervisors that he had no idea what would really happen to them once he left the place.
In spite of that he is optimistic, and this is the reason for his consent (and it is unusual, as noted) to give an interview under his own name. "It is important for me to explain to people the change that Hamas has made and to try and show that these people are no monsters with horns" he says in the opening of the first phone conversation between us.

"Generally speaking, it can be said that they are about to do the opposite from everything that Arafat did" he explains. "Arafat always postponed the building of governmental institutions until the date he will declare its independence. They will first conduct reform and establish an efficient regime. They simply believe that it would be a solid base for the establishment of a state in the future.”


"Want Recognition in Their Rights"

When you observe the details of Hamas' plans, as mentioned by Crooke, you can expect a massive investment in internal reforms; buildup of a solid, efficient and equal justice system, elimination of corruption, and transformation of the Palestinian security system from a Fatah based force to national organizations that serve all the people and is served by all people, and an effort to control the ongoing chaos in security. "The goal is not to fire people but to reform the system" Crooke explains the logic of Hamas. "They know that the change is not easy for either side, and they want to get the public opinion on their side, to move together and to create a solid base of consensus over their policy. I have already heard this mantra (on the need for a wide government that represents all sectors of the Palestinian community) in my meetings in Cairo, 2002. They want to transform the authority from a Fatah body to a national body that belongs to everybody".
Since the election, it is clear that the reforms made by Hamas are just a matter of time, but what is much less clear is Hamas’ opinion on Israel. The conflicting messages of, on the one hand, frightening and radicalism and, on the other hand, calming and reconciliation raise many questions. In the morning it is Ismail Hannia who promises peace agreement in several stages, and in the evening it is Mashal who promises to continue to resist the Israeli occupation.

Crooke is trying to clear the fog. The subject of recognition of Israel, he said, does not stand in the center of discussion. In his opinion, the reason that Hamas does not want, theoretically, to recognize our right to exist is not due to its wish to wipe out Israel, but its wish to receive international recognition for the Palestinian narrative. "Like many other people in the world that recognized the Zionist Narrative, they want to establish a parallel understanding regarding their narrative, as far as 1948, and the injustice that they are having. They do not want to rewrite history, only to get recognition over their right for an independent state.  Like the fact that traditional Jews will never agree to waive the notion that God promised the land for the Jews, Muslims will never waive their rights for the holy places of Islam. Nevertheless, they did say they are able to accept the reality.  

Arafat Tricks

Where do they see the solution?

"In the lines of 1967. The end of the conflict can be in a withdrawal from the Palestinian land that was occupied.  They say that it should be the starting point for the negotiation. The withdrawal to the 1967 lines would be, from their side, the end for the violence and for the conflict. I do not have a more clear way to say it. This concept did not come only as a result of the recent election. It was Shaikh Ahmad Yasin who told me that idea a long time ago. He clearly stated that this withdrawal would be the end for the conflict. In any case, it is important to understand: Hamas did not enter politics and nor did it run for the election in order to destroy the chances for peace.

And what would be the future of Hamas military arm?
The military arm of Hamas did not evolve like they wanted during the Intifada. It developed too fast and became too wide. They see it as a mistake. What happened was that several people who were not part of Hamas’ hard supporters managed to get in. These people did not necessarily hold the principles of the movement.  In any case, their offer to stop the violence would be on the table and the response of the Israelis would effect the operation of Hamas military arm. Eventually, there would be a demilitarization process, but it would be part of the political process. 

In explaining his views on current issues, Crooke talks a lot about the past: meeting with Hamas executives, knowing Barghouti, Arafat's tricks, Karin A and his contacts with the Israeli institutions. He notably recalls one of the key turning points in the process – a change that the Hamas organization made. It was in July 2003. Haled Mashal, the head of Hamas political body sat in his Damascus office along with several other senior officials. His deputy, Musa Abu Marzuk and Imad el Alami, the head of Hamas operation unit, started to loose their patience. They waited for an answer regarding the offer of Hudna from Arafat and from the Fatah central committee. Nevertheless, this answer did not come. Whereas the messages that Marwan Barghouti delivered from his prison cell were optimistic, it was clear that without Arafat’s blessing the cease-fire would not last more then 24 hours. "Even if we give them an additional 24 hours or 24 days, Abu Amir will never agree with us" said Mashal in anger. "I will not wait anymore.  We are going for Hudna." It took only minutes after the decision was made for the public announcement to be made and later broadcasted. Hamas agreed unilaterally to stop terrorist attacks for half a year.        

When Crooke remembers these days, it seems hard for him to hide his excitement. Since 1997, he has dealt closely with the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, particularly since the outbreak of the Intifada. Today, when he sits in his house, a small town near London, and looks back, he sees in this point of time a critical decision that Hamas made, which brought them, eventually, to hold the wheel of government in the PA. " Haled Mashal took an enormous risk" he explains. "He knew that Arafat would not give a lot of chance for the cease-fire but at the same time he understood that if the Hamas initiates the Hudna, the organization would get huge support from the public, which actually happened. Since then, their popularity has just grown.”

 Lawrence of Arabia for the poor

While he does not admit it, it seems like he does miss the excitement of the field operations. He does not wish to discuss the circumstances that led him to conclude his role here. One of the reasons was the dissatisfaction of the Israeli security institution over his close connections with the Palestinians.

His close associates say that he was deeply insulted when he got notice about the conclusion of his work. Others attribute the termination of his role to Israeli pressure on the EU. On this subject, Crooke maintains diplomatic wording: "I have always thought that the Israelis are very professional. They have treated me with great courtesy and I have no complains" he says.

Crooke’s words are in part right. There are more than few executives in the Israeli security administration that have true appreciation for his work, some of them even admired him due to the great knowledge he gained during decades of work as a field operative (he was working, among other things, among the mujahidin in Afghanistan during the soviet occupation) as well as due to his deep understanding, his diligence and his discretion. Nevertheless, others, among them several high ranking officers in the Israeli intelligence forces, show their dissatisfaction any time his name was mentioned. "What does Lawrence of Arabia want now?" one of them used to ask. The Israeli journalist Uri Dan even called him in one of his articles "Lawrence of Arabia of the poor".

In another case, probably the most famous one, the IDF tried to use classified material found in the Palestinian security headquarters during the Intifada to embarrass Crooke. Israel's "smoking gun" was a protocol of Crooke's meeting with Shaikh Ahmad Yasin which claimed to prove, theoretically, that he justified terrorist attacks. Crooke denies it." There were people who presented this meeting imprecisely" he said after two and a half years. "The protocol was written by the Palestinian security forces and it certainly does not match my documents." 

Crooke and Shaikh Ahmad Yasin had a lot of talks before the Hamas leader was killed by Israel on March 2004." He was a strong man with character and strength" said Crooke. "He had clear and bright thought. He presented his opinions in a very decisive way, but also with humor, and knew how to combine jokes in his statements. He was a person with a strong political sense, yet at the same time he recognized the irony and paradoxes of life."

Shaikh Yasin's place was taken by leaders with different style; some of them feel more natural and free to appear in TV interviews. But have the real intentions behind the words changed? Crooke thinks the answer is positive. Others would say that the calming messages he heard in his meetings are, at the most, part of Hamas’ sweet talk attacks, aimed for the ears of those who sign the checks in Brussels and Washington.