Hebrew-speaking Hamas member new media darling

JERUSALEM (AP) – Who says Israel and Hamas aren’t talking?

Officials may be shunning all contact, but Ribhi Rantisi is rocking the Israeli airwaves, spreading the Hamas word in fluent slang-peppered Hebrew.

The Gaza shampoo salesman and nephew of the late Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi has become a media star, connecting to Israeli audiences through his pragmatic views and familiarity with the Jewish state: he’s worked there for years, is a fan of the Maccabi Petah Tikvah soccer club and keeps up-to-date by watching Israeli TV.

Rantisi, 44, a father of seven, had kept quiet for years after being arrested by Palestinian security services.

But since Hamas’ stunning election victory last month, Rantisi has been all over the place, appearing on Israeli TV and radio to share folksy tales of his experiences in Israel. For an active member of a radical Islamic movement, he has managed to woo his interviewers with an unexpected openness to Israel and the West.

“I need these interviews to pass the word of Hamas to the world,” he said. “I want what I say to reach every Israeli ear. Instead of them hearing through a translation, they can get it straight from me.”

Rantisi knows Israel well, for better and for worse. He worked odd jobs around Tel Aviv for 15 years, making friends and earning an appreciation for Israeli sports, music and food. But he also sat for several months in Israeli prisons without being charged. He said he passed the time there singing Middle Eastern songs with his jailers.

“I saw both sides of the coin – the occupation and also the good Israeli,” he said.

He hasn’t been to Israel since 1994, when his work permit was revoked, but stays up on Israeli culture through TV shows such as Eretz Nehederet, Hebrew for Wonderful Country, a satiric news show that often pokes fun at Hamas. In one recent skit, an actor dressed up as Hamas official Mohammed Abu Teir, complete with his trademark bright orange beard dyed with henna in line with Islamic tradition. Rantisi said Abu Teir was not amused, but he himself found it funny.

Rantisi has been no stranger to the TV screen himself, becoming a sought after interviewee for several prime-time Israeli news shows, where he is interviewed from Gaza. With his full, bushy beard, he looks the Hamas part – until be breaks out in near perfect Hebrew.

Unlike his famous uncle, who was assassinated by an Israeli air strike in April 2004, Rantisi said he had an open approach to Israel and supported negotiations.

They also differed on their approaches to all things Israeli. Whereas the younger Rantisi said he generally shops for Israeli products, his uncle would boycott them so as not to assist the economy of the “Zionist enemy.”

“I told him, ‘That won’t affect anything. I get what is healtfor my kids. If I buy Gaza yogurt, my kid will get sick,’ ” he said.

Though definitely outside the Hamas consensus – the group calls for Israel’s destruction – Rantisi said his opinions were generally respected. But, he said, his uncle “didn’t take me that seriously.”

Neither does Mushir al-Masri, the official Hamas spokesman in Gaza, who said Rantisi’s media appearances were freelance work and not sanctioned by Hamas. “He is doing this voluntarily, and the movement did not assign him for this propaganda,” he said.

Generally speaking, Rantisi said he has a favourable opinion of Israel and Israelis. For example, he said, unlike Denmark, Israel had respect for Islam and its traditions. “Even in prison they respected our religion.” he said.

And while he wouldn’t flat-out condemn the dozens of suicide bombing carried out by Hamas, calling them a “reaction to Israeli actions,” he said “I was never in favour of killing innocent people.”

Tamar Hermann, a Tel Aviv University researcher specializing in Israeli public opinion, said she was doubtful Rantisi’s media exposure would do much to change Hamas’ image in Israel.

“His Hebrew is very rich, personally he is a very intelligent guy, but even his last name creates some sort of a barrier between the ear of the Israeli listener and the words that are coming out of his mouth,” Hermann said. “I know listening to a Hamas guy speaking fluent Hebrew is impressive, but . . . it takes more than that to change the overall climate of opinion.”

Rantisi said he was a proud member of Hamas and hoped to change the world’s opinion of his political home, but he was finding it difficult.

“You try to prove that Hamas is not a terror organization, but people don’t want to believe you,” he said.

Regardless, he said there was no conflict between his membership in the radical group and his personal affinity toward Israelis.

“Day to day you have to get along. It doesn’t mean that I forget the terrible things,” he said, before adding. “I have a lot of good Israeli friends. They used to get me free tickets to soccer games. I’m a fan of Maccabi Petah Tikvah. Back in the 80’s they used to be good.”