GAZA (Reuters) - Abu Mohammed picked up his rifle, said farewell to his wife and six children and went out to face the Israeli tanks, helicopter gunships and missile-firing airborne drones.
“Being unable to defeat Israel is no reason to surrender,” the Hamas fighter said with a smile as he headed to the Gaza Strip’s front line last Saturday, ignoring pleas from his family to stay.
“My children and wife are very dear to me,” he said. “But reward in Heaven and the homeland are dearer.”
The 38-year-old furniture salesman says he is not afraid to die for the cause of destroying Israel and forging a Palestinian state on all Israel’s territory, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
To Israel and its allies, Abu Mohammed and his comrades are Jew-hating terrorists. But Abu Mohammed sees himself on a mission from God to rescue his people from 60 years of misery as refugees since the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948.
Though that conviction may, in some, mingle with bravado and self-interest, it does make Hamas an enemy to be reckoned with, for all that Israel’s hi-tech army easily outguns their rifles, home-made rockets and, if they choose, their suicide bomb belts.
After five days of air strikes and ground assaults that it said aimed to halt Hamas rocket fire, Israel pulled out its troops on Monday after appeals from the United States that followed at international outcry at the dozens of civilians among over 100 dead.
Abu Mohammed survived, though he broke a bone in his hand diving for cover. The rocket fire resumed and Hamas and its fellow Islamist allies vowed to battle on, despite losing close to 60 fighters. Estimates vary but there may be 20,000 or more Abu Mohammeds left to continue the war in Gaza alone.
Islam forbids suicide, but rewards “martyrdom” with glory in this world and paradise in the next. For the 1.5 million Palestinians in the slums and refugee camps of the Gaza Strip, the question of why one of their compatriots would sacrifice his or her life to kill Israelis needs little soul-searching.
“An Islamist fighter has two motives: a religious motive -- God’s reward; and a social motive -- appreciation from the people he is defending,” explained Fadel Abu Heen, a prominent Gaza psychiatrist.
And religion was the stronger motivation for Islamist fighters. “That is what makes them braver and more aggressive fighters than others,” he said.
Older than most of his fellow combatants, Abu Mohammed said his family had fled to Gaza from a village nearby in 1948.
“We have the right to all of Palestine,” he said in his three-room, one-storey house in Gaza City.
“If we are dead before we can liberate our land, then we did not give up. We have to set an example to our children that weakness is not an excuse for not putting up a fight.”
Hamas leaders have offered a long-term truce with Israel in return for a Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem -- terms Israel is unwilling to accept, preferring to negotiate with Hamas’s secular enemies in the Fatah faction, which dominates the larger West Bank.
And the Islamist group, which routed Fatah forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas, continues to say it will not formally recognise Israel. Its 1988 founding charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.
Abu Mohammed -- his familiar rather than formal name -- went to fight on Saturday with an AK-47 assault rifle, two spare clips, and three Hamas-made hand grenades bearing the words “Qassam Brigades”, the name of Hamas’s armed wing.
Before leaving, he turned off his mobile phone, which Israel could use to track his movements, and switched on a two-way radio that connects him to other gunmen.
“Just like an army,” he said.
On the verge of tears, his wife, who did not want to be named, sat in silence. “I know Jihad is a religious duty, but we need you. I need you and the children do, too,” she said.
Abu Mohammed only smiled.
“Smile, smile, that’s all I get whenever I ask,” she said.
Nearly hit by Israeli missiles twice last week, Abu Mohammed said the fighting was ”very tough“ but added: ”I am optimistic.
“In the end, Israel will have to agree to our terms. There is no alternative to returning all of our Palestine.”
Editing by Adam Entous and Kevin Liffey