ASHKELON, Israel – A 20-year-old Palestinian recruited from a mosque in Gaza by Hamas militants told The Associated Press in a jailhouse interview Tuesday that he received weeks of military training in a Hamas camp in Syria this year.
The allegations by Osama Mattar, now in Israeli custody, mark the first time a Palestinian has spoken publicly about being trained in Syria, and contradict repeated Syrian denials.
The training base outside Damascus was far from secret and was once even inspected by Syrian intelligence agents, Mattar said.
“They know very well about the presence of Hamas,” he said. “What they may not have known about was the presence of a guy from Gaza coming to train at the training camp in Syria.”
Israel has long accused Syria of allowing Palestinian militants to train there and offered up Mattar — arrested March 2 as he tried to cross back into Gaza — as proof.
Israeli officials also said the timeframe of Mattar’s five-week training, which ended in mid-February, proved Hamas was not serious about halting attacks on Israel. Mattar disagreed, saying his trip had been planned months before any talk of a cease-fire.
Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militant groups have acknowledged they train Palestinians in Lebanon.
Hamas officials declined public comment Tuesday, but said privately it made no sense to run training bases in Syria when it can use neighboring Lebanon, home to sprawling Palestinian refugee camps.
Syrian officials at the Foreign Ministry, who are usually slow to respond to such sensitive topics, were not available for comment Tuesday, despite repeated attempts by The Associated Press.
With Western pressure on Syria mounting to curtail military activity, militant groups have been careful not to embarrass their hosts in Damascus. While many militant leaders remain in Syria, they issue most of their statements from Lebanon.
Syria has repeatedly denied accusations it allows militants to train on its territory. The Syrian government says it once allowed militants to run media offices from Damascus, but those were closed after a visit by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in May 2003.
On Oct. 5, 2003, Israel bombed what it said was an Islamic Jihad training camp in Syria after the group carried out a suicide bombing at a Haifa cafe that killed 19 Israelis. Syria said at the time the base had been long abandoned.
With relations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership warming in recent months, Israel has stepped up its accusations against Syria. Israel blamed a Feb. 25 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed five people on Islamic Jihad militants following orders from their leaders in Damascus and said it held Syria responsible.
Israeli officials say Syria continues to be a hub for Palestinian militants.
“There is ongoing intelligence information that the terrorist groups working out of Syria are directly responsible for suicide bombings in Israel and continue to function and operate with the facilitation of the government in Syria,” said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. “We see today a growing understanding in the international community of the Syrian regime’s collaboration with terrorist groups.”
During a more than two-hour interview, Mattar gave a detailed description of what he said was his training in Syria. His account could not be verified independently.
Though he spoke in the presence of Israeli security officials at the Shikma prison in Ashkelon, Mattar appeared relaxed and seemed to be speaking freely. Occasionally, he glanced at a security official for permission to answer, which was often granted with a casual nod.
Security officials said Mattar has not been charged, and he has not been accused of carrying out attacks.
Asked why he agreed to the interview, Mattar, who spoke mostly in Arabic, said in English, “I have no choice.” When pressed, he said in Arabic he had not been forced to do the interview, but did not elaborate on his motive.
Mattar said he had been recruited by Hamas more than two years ago at his mosque in the Jebaliya refugee camp, a militant area in northern Gaza that has been the frequent target of Israeli raids over the past four years.
Last year, he was asked to go to Syria for training, with the intention of training other militants in Gaza.
Mattar left Gaza on Dec. 4, telling Israeli border guards he was going to study at Damascus University, which he had previously attended.
He re-enrolled in the university to maintain his cover and waited 25 days for Hamas to contact him, he said. He then received five days of training in personal safety.
He was taught what car to drive — not a Subaru, known as the militants’ preferred car. Where to live — not in an isolated house, which can easily be targeted by an Israeli missile. How to keep his cell phone secure — regularly change the phone, the phone number and even the battery, he said.
After that, he was given a rendezvous point and driven to the Hamas training base 40 minutes outside the capital.
Nearly every day, he was taken to the base for five hours of training by nine instructors in everything from electronics to weapons.
He gave only vague descriptions of the base, saying it was in a valley and appeared old and well-established. It contained a garage, several buildings, watchtowers and a tunnel, he said.
Mattar — who said he was the only militant being trained at the time — was taught to read maps and use a compass, to build an electric timer for a time bomb and how to use light weapons. He fired rocket-propelled grenades and threw hand grenades, he said.
One day, his trainers told him to hide, he said.
“Syrian intelligence came in, took a look around and left,” he said.
No one else hid, and he assumed the militants did not want the Syrian government to know they were training a Palestinian from Gaza.
In February, Mattar told his trainers he wanted to go home and they agreed.