Following up on the interview she conducted with Hamas Secretary-General Khaled Meshaal in Damascus in early November, Romanian researcher Manuela Paraipan conducted another one in Beirut recently with Hamas’s representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan. Her institution in Bucharest, MEPEI, has published this one in two parts (1, 2). Between them, they add more richness and granularity to the picture we already have of how the leaders of this interesting, durable, and popular Palestinian organization think about the challenges they face and how they plan to continue facing them.
On “durable and popular”, let us remember that ever since Hamas won the PA’s parliamentary elections of January 26, 2006 (my contemporaneous commentary on that is here), it has been subjected to a war of political extermination by both Israel and the U.S. Yes, the world’s biggest military power and its local sidekick defied all the norms of global “democracy” to try to crush Hamas– right after it had won a resounding victory in an election recognized by all local and international observers as “free and fair”… But, and this is the important thing to note, Hamas survived that lengthy and frequently bloody campaign and is probably stronger, politically, among the Palestinian people worldwide and inside the OPTs than it was five years ago.
So, back to Hamdan, and his conversation with Ms. Paraipan. Here are what I see as the highlights of it:
In Part 1:
She asked him what he meant by “resistance”. He replied:
- It is resistance in its fullest sense. Individuals, groups and communities resist in different ways. Political resistance, civil resistance, militant [resistance]—all and more can work together. Occupation is not accepted, and I am not talking here only about the military one but about principles and ideas.
If you accept occupation the nation will die although the individuals may live.
She asked him about Hamas’s policy on “targeting” civilians. He replied:
- In 2005, I challenged the Israelis to bring out the list with the people that were killed in Hamas operations and to identify the militants [I think he means “combatants”] and the civilians. I said at the time that you will discover that more than 70 percent of them are militants.
In fact, Hamas did not work to target civilians. It is so simple if you want to do that. However, Hamas does not target schools, cinemas, hospitals, which the Israelis have done all the time.
The main question was about the settlers: are they civilians or not? According to the Geneva Accord [I think he means the Geneva Conventions, which actually are very different, in the Palestinian-Israeli context, from the Geneva Accord] they are not. Even according to the Israelis they are not.
Personally, I think the situation is more complex than this. I’d love to follow up more on this discussion! Of course, the implanting of civilian residents inside occupied territories is quite illegal under international law, but whether that thereby renders settlers “fair game” to become valid targets needs more probing and discussion, I think…
Anyway, Hamdan goes on to say this:
- In 2003 we went to Cairo. The Egyptians asked whether Hamas is ready to stop the martyrdom operations or not. We gave the Egyptians a better offer. We were ready to have an agreement to stop targeting civilians [on] both sides. The army is supposed to fight, but civilians should be out of it. The Egyptians agreed and passed it on to the Israelis.
Ariel Sharon sent Efraim Halevi, who was the head of Shin Bet at the time. The Egyptians, who were the mediators, negotiated with Halevi. When we reached the definition of civilians, we accepted the definition put forward by the Geneva Accord. The Israelis were surprised as they did not expect that. We said that the settlers are not civilians and the answer was, yes, they are not. [Really?? Anyway, the next couple of paras are very interesting… ~HC]
Halevi went back to Israel, but Sharon rejected the proposal. He said that he is not giving us the chance to kill his soldiers while his hands are tied behind the back because he retaliated against civilians.During the war in Gaza (2008 – 2009), in two specific events our militants captured Israeli militants and they were killed in both occasions by the Israelis.
In one of those occasions, they negotiated for 30 hours with the Israelis. In the end the Israelis bombed the house and killed them all. An Israeli soldier told an Israeli newspaper that there were direct orders that should they be captured they will die with the Palestinians. They knew that on the field they may be killed by friends alongside those that captured them. That was the Israeli mentality then and now.
Paraipan asked him if Hamas is still ideologically “bound” to the Muslim brotherhood, the organization from which it was born. He replied:
- It is true that we came from the Brotherhood organization, but it is different now. We are a Palestinian national movement representing our national cause. There are no structural links to the Brotherhood, just ties like with any other movement or political party.
The Brotherhood network is bigger than Hamas’s, no doubt. We work among 10 million Palestinians, and they work among 1.3 billion Muslims.
In Part 2:
Ms. Paraipan asked whether he saw the end-result of an agreement between the PA and the Israelis as being a “quasi-independent state”. He replied:
- First of all, not as quasi-independent. We want an independent state full stop. Second, if it’s independent and sovereign, we choose with whom to have partnerships and treaties.
MP: But you will have to coordinate with the Israelis. Would they accept Hamas?
Ousama Hamdan: Why not coordinate with the Jordanians or with the Egyptians, or both?
MP: Could a swap of lands and a confederation in 20 or 25 years from now be part of a future agreement?
Ousama Hamdan: Why are the Palestinians supposed to either have a biased agreement in Israel’s favor or a confederation with Jordan? Why not a Palestinian sovereign state? Israel wants to find a new type of occupation which may not cost the occupier too much and has someone to do the dirty work for them. We’d look independent when in fact there would be anything but independence.
The Israeli plan is to keep us surrounded by walls, quite literally; to give money to spend; and to secure themselves with a Palestinian force that would control the actions of the Palestinians. That’s the independent state they’d like us to have. This is not what we have envisioned. Truth is that without real independence they keep complicating the situation.
Paraipan asked pointedly, “What if Damascus signs a peace agreement with Israel? What impact would it have on Hamas?” Hamdan kind of avoided answering that one…
There is quite a lot of material in this part of the interview about the (very stormy) history of Hamas-Fateh relations since the 2006 elections– though sadly, it seems to have been conducted before the recent split in Fateh between Abu Mazen and the U.S.-favored Mohammed Dahlan became public knowledge, so there were no questions about that. Ms. Paraipan did ask, however, about the status of the (perennially unconsummated) “reconciliation talks” between Hamas and Fateh, which Egypt’s U.S.-backed security chief Omar Suleiman has been convening, very intermittently, ever since 2007.
The Palestinian political situation will, of course, face another watershed later this month when the five-year anniversary of the 2006 elections arrives and therefore the mandate of the Hamas-led PA “government” that was elected at that point– and which still administers Gaza to this day, while the West Bank has come under the sway of the quite extra-legally installed, but very generously western-funded, “government” of Salam Fayyad– should theoretically come to an end.
Plus, of course, the peace-free “process” that Abu Mazen has been engaged in forever has come to a dead end; and both he and Fayyad are moving as if toward some tentatively unilateral Palestinian diplomacy on declaring a Palestinian “state”, etc etc. Clearly something is afoot in Fateh these days, though it is hard to say how much of it is real, and how much merely smoke and mirrors. Nonetheless, the creaky old machinery of the “P.A.”, that child of the entire, tragically mishandled “Oslo” process, has just about broken down. So it is not surprising to see that Osama Hamdan seems in no hurry to make any big concessions today towards Fateh…
Ms. Paraipan asks how he sees American policy towards Hamas and the Palestinian issue in general.
- The Americans are not spending enough effort to understand the region. And they do not understand Hamas as they should. It is in their interest to get facts right and act accordingly, and [it is] also in the interest of the people of the region.
In the US they can elect whoever they want to, but in the region they put restrictions [in place] every time.
I will go back to the Palestinian elections; [they were] transparent, fair so to promote democracy and political openness, and then Hamas got elected. What happened next? They said they don’t want to deal with Hamas, thus they did not respect the Palestinian choice. It looks to me that all they wanted was to legitimize Abbas and his team, not to have a real Palestinian democracy.
MP: Maybe it was due to the image you had and, some would say, still have.
Ousama Hamdan: If what you say is true, then why did everyone, not only our people but international and regional players, US included, encourage us to go through elections? Abu Mazen told us that the Americans supported our participation. He was not lying as we received similar messages from various sides inside and outside the region. They did not have to lie to convince us as we decided long before to go through elections. If they were indeed worried about Hamas, why not discuss these issues before? Or say that they will watch Hamas and see how we act. That we could have understood, but not the reaction we got. They thought they could weaken Hamas in few weeks. Disappointingly for them, and luckily for us, that plan did not succeed.
She asks him “For how long can you keep going?”
- I don’t know. Everyone expected Hamas to fall down in few weeks and we are still doing our job—our work—for five years. The present situation in Gaza is better than it was in 2006. People felt they were not defeated by all the pressures put on them, and mind you there weren’t few, and I am talking here about everyone, whether they are with Hamas or not.
MP: Aren’t you too idealistic when talking about the people in Gaza? They are the ones suffering. Neither you, nor Khaled Meshal, live there.
Ousama Hamdan: Ismail Hanyyeh is a major leader in Hamas, and he is in Gaza. The ministers and the majority of our leaders are living in the same circumstances as the rest of the people.
Everyone suffers and [it] is not because of Hamas. We did not put sanctions on Gaza.
The people are watching Hamas, and if they suffer, Hamas suffers, and if they are having a good time, then Hamas is having it too. There is no separation in Gaza or West Bank between leadership and the people.
She asks whether he sees the currently possible campaign by Abu Mazen to push the UN to recognize a Palestinian state as a worthwhile strategy:
- Ousama Hamdan: There are already hundreds of UN resolutions. They have to implement them.
Arafat had a famous speech back in 1974 when he said in front of the General Assembly that he came there with the gun in one hand and the olive branch in the other. Don’t let the olive branch fall from my hand, he said. It was an important political message, but it was not well received.
Going to [the] UN may be a good idea, but to this day our experience with UN resolutions is not particularly impressive. So we need to see some evidence that it may be worthy.
… With all the dynamism and crises inside Fate these days, stay tuned!