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A scribe and scholar enter Hamas' world

A New York Times correspondent teams up with a Belfast professor to write the story of Islamism among the Palestinians.

Hamas militants take part in a news conference in Gaza City on March 26, 2010. (Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

JERUSALEM — Stephen Farrell was sipping coffee in the office of his money changer on Salah ud-Din Street, East Jerusalem’s main commercial strip, four years ago, when Beverley Milton-Edwards entered. From his rucksack, Farrell produced a copy of a book about Islamic militants written by the Queens University Belfast professor.

“Your book saved my life when I was kidnapped in Iraq,” he said, referring to a brief period of captivity by militants in Baghdad in 2004 when working for The Times of London. The well-thumbed volume had given London-born Farrell, now a New York Times foreign correspondent, the background he needed to convince his kidnappers that he had studied and understood their political and religious concerns.

“That’s quite an endorsement,” Milton-Edwards responded. “Would you write that for the cover of my next book.”

Instead, he wrote an entire book with her. “Hamas: The Islamic Resistance Movement” (Polity Press) is the product of a decade in the Middle East for Farrell — who was kidnapped again, by the Taliban in Afghanistan, last September and freed by British commandos.

Surprisingly, given the amount of ink spilled over Hamas, it’s the first book broadly profiling the Islamic group that’s not written by an Arab or Israeli author. (GlobalPost correspondent Thanassis Cambanis may do the same for another militant group oddly neglected by Western book authors with his "A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel," to be published September by Free Press.)

It’s certainly an opportune time for a history and analysis of Hamas. The group, which originated in Gaza during the first Palestinian intifada, transformed in recent years, initially killing more Israelis during the second intifada than previously would’ve been imaginable, then reversing its refusal to run in elections. Hamas won the parliamentary elections of 2006 and, in 2007, ran its rival Fatah out of the Gaza Strip, setting up the present quagmire of Palestinian politics.

I’ve known Farrell since he arrived in the Middle East for the London Times, having previously done a spell in Kosovo. He soon acquired a reputation for extreme thoroughness. On one visit to the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah during the intifada, I ran into Farrell. He wasn’t there to cover a particular story. He said he hadn’t been busy, so he’d gone out to see what he might find. Given the volume of stories required of Jerusalem-based correspondents and the risks involved in getting to Rafah, extra-credit work such as this was rather unheard of.

“It’s very difficult to know something second-hand,” said Farrell, over coffee in a theater cafe in Jerusalem. “When you’re at the scene, things are so much more complex. That’s why you need to examine it in a book.”