by Gianni Perrelli
Exclusive: The leader of Hamas in exile speaks. He announces an imminent conflict. That is because he says Tel Aviv is not interested in listening to Palestinians. And from America, the opening with Damascus was nothing but words. Conversation with Khaled Meshaal From the Italian news magazine L’Espresso. Translated by Mary Rizzo.
“In the name of God, the clement, the merciful, I would like to ask the first question. Is it possible that after the war against Gaza and our heroic resistance, Israel still does not understand that the peace process cannot be done without Hamas…?”
Khaled Meshaal, leader of Hamas, in exile for more than 40 years, reels off this question with the attitude of a challenge. Despite the severe losses (more than 1,400 Palestinians killed) he claims victory for the withdrawal of the Israeli troops decided by Israel. But he does not demonstrate that he harbours any illusions in the short-term. With the new government guided by Benjamin Netanyahu about to take oath, he awaits only more hostilities from Israel. And neither does he hold out great expectations on the first steps taken by Barack Obama, as he announced the will to follow along the road of force, “the only language that Israel fears and which bring about results.”
This exclusive interview to L’Espresso, obtained following complicated negotiations between Beirut and the Syrian capital, is the first one that Meshaal has given to the print media in the aftermath of the war. We have met him in a highly secured place in the outskirts of Damascus, arriving in a car with smoked windows. Before the entrance, armed militants bear Kalashnikovs. Yet, these security measures are necessary following the high number (45) of leaders of the movement that have been eliminated by Israel. The leader, in a grey suit and without a tie, appears cordial and relaxed. His calm demeanour never wavers in a conversation that takes off from the assignment of the task of forming a government given to Netanyahu, the Prime Minister who in ’97 sent a squad from the Mossad to poison him. “Netanyahu was the instigator of the thwarted attempt to assassinate me, but he, like all the Israeli Prime Ministers, is especially responsible for the assassination attempts against the entire Palestinian population. There are only slight nuances, but no substantial differences between the positions of the Likud, Kadima or Labour. For 60 years there has not been a single Israeli government that has not committed crimes against us. And it is better to face off with a conservative leadership that clearly follows its stated goals rather than the hypocrisy of the Labourists who only pretend to be committed to a peace process and while under their governments the greatest parts of the settlements have been built.”
But with Netanyahu, if Hamas does not open itself to dialogue, aren’t you risking catapulting into another war?
“We are not worried about a new war. Our people will never be defeated and it will never surrender. The defiance we face reinforces us because they are afraid of death and we are not. Peace is possible only if an international voice rises up to push for the recognition of our rights. The objective remains the constitution of a Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital, the return of the Israelis to the pre-67 borders and the right of return of our refugees. We can accept nothing less than this. Has there ever been an Israeli government that has considered it right to address our aspirations? They say no to everything and they only act as if they are interested in a solution. Then what is left to negotiate upon?”
With the PA and Fatah the Jewish State is involved in dialogue. How can Hamas hope to gain their understanding if it continues to shoot rockets into Israel?
“That is a good question that gives me the opportunity to explain why the six month truce that expired in December was not extended. Israel made a commitment to put an end to the siege on Gaza and to open the checkpoints. None of this happened. They want to suffocate us, to cage us in a ‘Bantustan’. How can one talk about a truce when under siege? To guarantee its own security, Israel persists in the error of betting on the military defeat of our people. I have studied physics and I am convinced that in political relations Newton’s Law applies: every action corresponds to an equal and opposite reaction. When they will cease their aggression our resistance will come to its end as well. But if the gates remain sealed shut, the only outlet, I repeat, remains the struggle.”
They have put you in a sort of isolation.
“Sooner or later the world will open its eyes. The international community continues to see only our rockets but they ignore their F16s, the use of white phosphorus bombs. Israel takes advantage of its aprioristic support of the Americans, of the scarce credibility of the UN, weakened by the pressure from Washington and of the absolute vagueness of Europe which proves to be inert or withdrawn. How can so many European leaders remain unmoved when basic values are being trampled on? Things like freedom, human rights, democracy even? How can they not understand that they must come to an agreement with Hamas, which is a movement of the people?”
But things are changing with Obama, aren’t they?
“We all hope so. But a major change has to happen. Obama speaks a new language, but I don’t know if that is enough. We need new politics.”
If you could meet Obama, what would you say?
“Meet him? But if he has not even delisted me from the terrorist blacklist… But it is a fact that without Hamas, not even Obama will be able to make much headway. However I would invite him to consider the opportunity of a change. It’s not possible to make exceptions for Israel, ignoring the rights of other people. This change of approach would be in the interests not only of Palestine, but of the entire Middle East and the United States itself. America is involved and it will be the first to lose if the prospects of peace disappear. The first signals, however, are not very encouraging. Senator John Kerry, upon visiting Gaza was shaken by the destruction, but he nevertheless repeated that Israel has a right to defend itself.”
Well how can you deny that? For years Israel has been paying an extremely high price in innocent blood. First with the suicide bombers, now with the rockets even if in the last war there was enormous disproportion between your losses and theirs.
“We are not the bloodthirsty people they paint us as. We do not want innocent victims, from our side or theirs. But the Palestinian question has become a severe pathology. And whoever honestly tries to diagnose the cause can only individuate the occupation as the prime factor. Nothing is left to us but to resist.”
The international community would be more attentive to your issues if you recognised Israel.
“Do you think it’s the right moment after the barbarity of the recent war? Israel has already too much recognition. And it is the Palestinian people who need to be recognised.”
There are those who insist that after the war the people of Gaza are turning their backs on Hamas.
“I can assure you that our consensus in Gaza, in the West Bank and in the entire Arab world has grown exponentially. We do not feel isolated. And we are not closing ourselves off in a ghetto either. The United States wants to stick the label on us that we are a creature of Iran or Syria. We know these instruments of denigration. But we don’t think that America is an impartial judge. We open our doors to anyone who wishes to help us. And we ask whoever is against us to say with whom they intend to negotiate peace, seeing as how they do not want to give legitimacy to Hamas, which went to power by means of a democratic election.”
In the Territories there are some who admonish that you have lost contact with Palestine. That the leaders of Hamas have lived too many years in exile.
“Yes, there are some who insinuate that. But it is pure conjecture. We are all sons of Palestine. I cannot return due to the occupation. And like me, the same is true of all of the PLO leaders who lived for many years in exile, not because they wanted to, but because they were forced to.”
In Gaza uncertainty remains. Olmert subordinates the truce to the liberation of the soldier Shalit.
“The request already irritated the Egyptian mediators and it was duly rejected. Olmert is a hypocrite. Only today he remembers his soldier. We won’t be blackmailed. We are in favour of the liberation, but only through an exchange with the Palestinian prisoners, 12 thousand, among them children, old people and the sick.”
If Marwan Barghouti were liberated, would the road to reconciliation be easier?
“We hope he will be liberated. But no one can personify in himself an entire cause.”
Within the Palestinian political sphere there is need for détente. Is it possible to bring back a kind of reconciliation between Hamas and the more moderate Al Fatah?
“Differences can be overcome only if some rules are respected. It is necessary that the brothers in Al Fatah respect the outcome of the election. And then they need to consolidate the basis of democracy within the Palestinian Authority. The inalienable principle that all of us defend in the first place the interests of the Palestinians. It must be established that our law and order forces are at the service of the security of Palestine and not – under the direction of the American general Keith Dayton – at the service of Israel.”