Reporter's Notebook: Dead Man Talking

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Fox News' Mike Tobin filed this story shortly after the March 22 death of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — It had been nearly two years since last I interviewed Abdel Aziz Rantisi (search). His lifestyle has changed dramatically. His standing in the political landscape has changed somewhat. The things he has to say have not changed at all.

On Tuesday, the day after Sheikh Yassin (search) was killed, my assignment was to find Rantisi and/or Mahmoud Al Zahar (search), another prominent leader in Hamas. This is easier assigned than done, and my superiors were aware of that. Zahar and Rantisi have both been the targets assassination attempts. On June 10th last year, Rantisi was in a car that was struck by a missile fired from an Israeli gunship. His bodyguard was killed. Rantisi crawled out the window of the vehicle and escaped with minor injuries.

Two years ago I wanted to interview Rantisi, so I went to his house in Gaza City. Now he lives on the move, in secret, and doesn’t answer a phone for fear the Israeli Air force can use the telephone signal to track him and kill him. My best bet was to bump into him.

He still appears in public, but only where there is a thick crowd. Nearly every air strike produces unintended victims, and Israel does not want to be held accountable for firing into a crowd. So, by standing in a sea of Palestinians, the people Rantisi claims to represent become his human shields. He likely would be appearing at the mourning tent erected in the Al Yarmouk soccer stadium in Gaza City for the three days of mourning declared by the Palestinian Authority. After the mourning period, Rantisi would go deep underground. We would get him at the mourning tent, or miss him all together.

Andrew Psarianos, my cameraman, and I were working with Nael Ghabnoun, a local Gazan, when we arrived at the stadium. At first glance we found a sea of mourners being received by relatives of Sheikh Yassin. There were plenty of Hamas militants, but it appeared I was out of luck in terms of finding the evolving leadership of Hamas. Suddenly, Nael piped up, "He is here." Rantisi travels on foot these days because, as he knows better than most, cars make good targets for missile strikes. That’s how he arrived and apparently approached the mourning tent through a back alley.

It would be nice to have the freedom to submit interview requests in a calm, professional manner all the time, but this crowded and disorganized environment mandated an ambush interview. Andrew and I hustled to connect the microphone cables to the camera and came up on Rantisi with tape rolling. He would either talk or we would have a shot of him telling us to stick it. He did something in the middle. He talked, but didn’t say anything; certainly not anything very new.

As far as his security he said, "It is Ariel Sharon who should fear for his security." The dialogue was the same old defiance I had heard from Rantisi before. He would not commit to any designs or desire to fill the void at the head of Hamas created by Yassin’s assassination. The only statement that made my ears perk up was when he tried to capitalize on any anti-Semitism, which may have been created by Mel Gibson’s movie "The Passion of the Christ" saying "They killed Jesus."

What struck me, however, was the way the rest of Hamas seemed to accept him as having already ascended to the leadership position. Rantisi had long been Hamas’ number two in Gaza. Sheikh Yassin was number one, but only in a motivational sense. Yassin was the founder of Hamas and called "the spiritual leader," but it has been the impression of many that Rantisi did the heavy lifting in terms of running the extremist organization. Here at the tent Rantisi walked in a mobile platoon of faithful who seemed to hang on his every word. The men gathered to face Mecca and pray. Rantisi was put out in front of their ranks. When he stood, the men stood. When he bowed, the men bowed. When Rantisi said "Allah Akbar" (God is great) the men said "Allah Akbar."

I was able to find Mahmoud Zahar and ask him if he would support Rantisi at the helm of Hamas. Zahar said he would. That wasn’t a political endorsement, but there was no doubt Hamas was lining up behind Rantisi.

There was a brief moment of tension at the mourning tent when a couple of fixed wing aircraft were spotted flying overhead. The only aircraft that fly over the Gaza strip are Israeli. My best guess was that they were drone aircraft keeping an eye on the Hamas leadership. Israel was not backing off the promise to assassinate the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Military sources have been quoted in a number of publications saying things like "We’ll hit them at every opportunity." I believe those drones were watching to see if one of them would walk out into the open and create such an opportunity.

Later that evening Hamas would make the announcement official. Rantisi is the leader in the Gaza strip. The chief of the organization responsible for the deaths of 377 Israeli civilians, calling for an "open war" on Jews, he had just moved to the top of Israel’s hit list.

Late at night I was back at the Gaza media center deep in the throes of wrestling Rantisi’s interview into a series of live reports. Aside from Rantisi’s reluctance to give a straight answer to a question, his English is terrible. Granted, it’s better than my Arabic and when you’re interviewing him in the long form, you understand what he is talking about, but between his metaphors and bad sentences, salvaging a sound bite from this guy was proving to be quite a challenge. When you do ambush interviews like that you get one crack at them and then you’re done, most of the time anyway.

Abed el Salaam Abu Askar runs the Gaza Media Center. He is one of those guys who has the Gaza Strip wired up, and he’s an tremendous resource. Abed was able to get a call through to one of Rantisi’s bodyguards and was told:

"Expect us in the coming hours."

"When will you be here" he asked.

"When we arrive, we will let you know."

Rantisi and his security detail walked up 14 floors to the office. For some reason, he doesn’t like elevators. We had a couple of chairs set up for an interview in one of the rooms from which I had been doing my live reports. Rantisi’s security detail immediately vetoed that location because it was next to a window. He was afraid Israeli aircraft could target him through a window. In fact, at one point he made Abed close a door, two rooms away, because he spotted a window. It seems like paranoid behavior, but it doesn’t count as paranoia when they really are out to get you.

Sitting down for the interview I was racking my brain for ways to get Rantisi to say something new. In my experience, he has two techniques: 1) He blames everything from bloodshed to Palestinian corruption on Israel. 2) When you pin him down on a question he says he doesn’t understand you.

Here are just a few snippets from the interview:

Tobin: Where will you take the Palestinian People?

Rantisi: No one can decide for the movement, but all of us for the movement in Gaza.

Tobin: But you’re their leader. The People will look to you to take them in a direction.

Rantisi: I take them to the end of their suffering, the end of their tragedy.

Tobin: How can you stop the bloodshed?

Rantisi: I think the international community can do that, if the international community says to the Israelis "stop the aggression."

Tobin: What can YOU do to stop the bloodshed?

Rantisi: No one in the world say to Sharon stop your terror action.

Tobin: How will you prevent anarchy after an Israeli pullout from the Gaza strip?

Rantisi: I don’t understand.

Tobin: Do you anticipate that you will be killed while you hold this job?

Rantisi: It doesn’t make any difference to die for the sake of my goals.

Tobin: Yes or no?

Rantisi: Never mind.

I was thinking this guy risked his life to come here and talk to me and he won’t say anything. If I had a hammer, I would bang myself in the head with it. At least that way we’d have Rantisi on tape saying "What the hell are you doing?" and that would be new. Through a series of follow up questions, bordering on rudeness, I was able to get him to say his first step as the leader of Hamas would be to get all the Islamic groups in the Gaza Strip to unify and to respect Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party, but not when it came to ending the violence. Abed noticed something new about Rantisi. "This is the first time I have seen him speak softly. In all the years I have seen him, he yells and screams." Maybe Rantisi is now trying to play the role of a leader. Maybe he’s just tired. But we had an interview with the most prominent target marked for death by Israel.

The next night, Rantisi was back in a crowd of militants. Normally contentious, Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, Islamic Jihad and Hamas were all unified under the same tent. The different militant groups offered their support to Rantisi. Armed Hamas fighters pledged their loyalty to their new leader, but if the Israeli military makes good on its promise, that pledge is not a long-term commitment.