This is the month for Palestinians to remember their Nakba, or "catastrophe," in which more than 700,000 women, men and children were pushed off their land and rendered homeless refugees by the Israeli attacks before, during and after war in1948.
The full text of the interview with Khalid Mashal: Our priority is to be free
After escaping an assassination attempt in 1997 and being banned from Jordan in 1999, Khaled Mashal, Hamas leader, made his home in Damascus, where Manuela Paraipan interviewed him last week on Hamas’ approach to the current peace negotiations, his view of Hamas’ strengths, its ongoing commitment to resistance, and the importance of principle in politics.
The full text of the interview here:
Q: Why is a top ranking Hamas leader living in Damascus? And who is Khaled Mashal in his own words?
A: On your first question - you should ask the Israelis. But I can answer your second.
I am a Palestinian, an Arab, a Muslim and a human being. I am looking for freedom and self-determination. I have two purposes in life: to serve Almighty God and my people.
In the time I devote to serving my people, I take as my guiding light humane and religious values.
I am one of the founders of the Hamas movement and the model for me as for the other brothers who founded this movement is to work for our people and accomplish our national goals.
In this struggle I am ready to pay any price in order to accomplish the aims of my people and the Ummah.
I combine two personas; one, the soul of humanity, who loves people, who wishes them well, respects all of them and believes steadfastly in values of justice and equality. I do not discriminate based on race, or affiliation to any country or religion. The second persona will not surrender to any aggressor, and will never surrender to the occupiers. I am not afraid of any threats or other forms of intimidation. I have ‘a long breath’ and I am quite confident that together with my people, we will win through against our enemies.
We will not relinquish our destiny to Israeli military might. We can endure and we have the patience to endure the stages of the resistance to come. This is Khaled Mashal.
Q: If you were to step down from the powerful position you currently occupy as chair of the Hamas Political Bureau, how would you seek to serve your people then?
A: My strength does not come from my post. Those who need to derive their strength from their status are not true leaders. I will remain strong irrespective of the position I have. And the post in itself is not an end goal. It is a temporary state of affairs. The will of my brothers in the movement brought me where I am today.
How would I serve my people? What is most natural for any leader is to be on his own land. I was never given the choice of being inside Palestine and choosing to leave my homeland. Since I was 11 years old I have joined those hundreds of thousands of my fellow-countrymen who were expelled from the land in 1967. My presence outside Palestine, in its diaspora, is one of the symptoms of the Palestinian refugee problem. It is temporary and compulsory.
The stages of Hamas
Q: You were with Hamas from the very beginning. What stages would you say the party went through from its inception?
A: The initial phase, the foundation, was underground: in a span of ten years between 1977 to 1987. I was one of those who worked to establish the national project.
In 1987, the Intifada movement stepped onto the stage of history. From then on commenced the second stage, the launching of the movement. One of the most important features of this time was the impact achieved by Hamas on turning the resistance into a remarkable movement.
This was a time of increasing popularity in which we were able to serve the people through our many different institutions.
It marked the beginning of a rapprochement with other Palestinian factions and the establishing of relations with Arab nations. During this time we cut a dignified figure before both these nations and the Ummah.
The next phase was from 1994 till 2000, when the first signs of failure of the Oslo agreement ultimately merged into the second Intifada. During that period Hamas experienced heavy pressure on its security both in the West Bank and Gaza.
Q: Pressure from whom?
A: The Israeli and also the Palestinian side. Some of our cadres were arrested. Other leaders were assassinated. There was a sort of understanding among some regional and international parties that Hamas was to be weakened but not broken. It was claimed that we are an impediment to the peace process. We are not against peace. We are against giving up the rights of the Palestinians and, as a movement, we were against an elusive settlement that will not lead to the protection of Palestinian rights.
It was a very difficult time. We had a lot of setbacks, but we remained steadfast and the plans to counter us, failed.
From 2000 till 2006 there was another phase. This was a crucial stage but it was also one in which we lost the most senior members of our leadership to martyrdom: Sheikh Yassin, Dr. Abd al Rantissi and others. This was a huge loss but at the same time we also gained ground - especially once it became clear that Oslo and the peace process project had in practise, failed.
Like other resistance factions at that time, we were able to offer an alternative.
Q: What kind of alternative?
A: As I was saying, given the failure on the ground of the Oslo agreement, we offered an alternative.
Q: An alternative, meaning armed resistance?
A: This is what I was about to say: we offered a practical alternative for our people, which is of course the resistance; a resistance that is able to defend its people and able to accomplish their goals. What was not accomplished by Oslo has been achieved through our resistance. It compelled Sharon to withdraw from Gaza and to dismantle the settlements.
We looked then for a new framework of the Palestinian national political project, for a redefinition of authority and the role of leadership, at the level of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the PLO. Should we see our role as providing security for the Israelis, or should we seek a national outcome in favour of the Palestinian people? Through posing this question, we wanted to unite all factions and be part of the new programme going forward. Within the PLO our initiative succeeded in intensifying the call for real reform.
The last stage, which has lasted from 2006 till now, started with the participation of Hamas in the election process and the sweeping victory which was such a surprise to everyone around the world.
Q: Even to you?
A: The winning as such was not so surprising to us but the size of the vote maybe was. In the immediate aftermath of elections the results were rejected by the Americans, some Palestinians and regional parties.
The Palestinian people was now collectively punished for this result by besieging it and cutting off its aid. This is the first time in history that a people has been so punished for exercising its democratic choice. This led to an internal Palestinian conflict on one hand, because the outcome of the elections had been ignored, and on the other hand because of foreign intervention in favour of a certain Palestinian party. The support for the latter was both financial and military and led to the 2007 division.
We are still locked in this stage. We pay the heavy price for division and we are prevented from reuniting by this foreign intervention.
The war in Gaza has so far been one of the cruellest attempts to isolate and to depose Hamas.
A feature of this period is the manipulation of Palestinian division using weaknesses on the Arab and Palestinian side to impose an unjust political settlement. What we say is that, given the position of the American administration, all the weaker elements are being pressurised to expunge the Palestinian issue from the agenda.
This is a general introduction to the various stages that Hamas has undergone since its earliest days.
The vision of Hamas
Q: The very fact that Hamas entered the political arena and stood for elections surely confirmed the limits of armed resistance? Can you continue with the resistance?
A: We do believe in political work in all its aspects. However, we select the most appropriate type of activity for every stage in the campaign. When there is occupation and people suffering under occupation, the strategic response must be resistance - a steady and unwavering line of resistance until the occupation is brought to an end. No occupier was ever removed without resistance. When we discuss politics and whether to participate or not in the existing political framework, these are options in parallel to this line of resistance, not a replacement.
In 2006 we decided to take part in elections but we did not do this as an alternative to resistance. To participate in the political system is a Palestinian – Palestinian process, while resistance is a Palestinian process against the Israeli occupier. There is no contradiction here.
Q: When will resistance end?
A: When the occupation ends.
Q: What do you understand by occupation?
A: Hamas has a clear vision which was enunciated clearly from the beginning. The Palestinian people have lived in Palestine as of right: and we are not talking about history, or back in the middle ages. We are talking about 60 years ago. There is a land called Palestine which belongs to Palestinians. That it was a land for Christians, Muslims and some Jews also does not detract from this. They were living in peace under a Palestinian and Arab regime. A Jewish issue erupted outside the region. Europe wanted to get rid of this problem and it exported it to our region. It thereby ‘killed two birds with one stone’. There was no more ‘Jewish problem’ and, moreover, they were able to exploit a Zionist project designed to expropriate the region's resources. It is clear to us that Israel was established as part of an offensive against our people. Israel deported them from their own land. To conclude: it is an illegal occupation and we consider its existence illegal in the region.
Q: That is your final position?
A: However, because Hamas is realistic we have come to an agreement among the Palestinian factions and Arab countries to accept the established state of Palestine on the basis of the borders of 1967, with Jerusalem as the capital, and the right of refugees to return.
Q: Maybe you are also calling for compensation for the refugees?
Q: If you were able to participate directly in the negotiations, you would have to compromise on that position. In that eventuality, you would not only be representing Hamas as a group, but also those who support you as a political party.
A: The biggest compromise has already been made by the Palestinian factions and the Arab states. It was to accept the 1967 borders, leaving us 20% of the whole piece of territory in dispute.
It is no longer admissible for some powers to continue to put pressure on the Palestinian side asking it for further compromises, because it perceives it as the weaker player.
What we offered then was the maximum. The pressure should now be redirected towards Israel. It is immoral to keep pressuring the Palestinians simply because the Americans and the international community are failing in the face of Netanyahu.
Negotiating parties currently making up further compromises have no constituency and their action is without value, because a solution that does not cover the nation as a whole is no solution. The refugees still cannot return, yet they (Israel) pass a decree for every Jew who has never seen the land to come to Palestine.
Q: Why should the United States or anyone else engage with Hamas directly? You say that you have national support earned through the elections. But is there anything else you can throw into the equation?
A: This is another mistake when dealing with the region's affairs. It is symptomatic of a misguided mentality which we find especially in the west, in the United States. They feel that they must do a deal with the weaker party, and that the way they can do this is to compel it to give even more. In short this may be a very attractive overture, but it won't lead to a solution.
The answer is to satisfy the interests of the people and, if accepted by the majority then any settlement can succeed. Hamas is a movement quite capable of successfully ensuring that an agreement is implemented, provided there is comprehensive acceptance of it.
Q: This would be then the value of engaging Hamas in negotiations?
A: And they know it. But they say, let us keep this option for the future when there is no other way, hoping that they can achieve something with the existing status quo. I want to tell them that they are wasting their time. They won't succeed.
Q: Should an agreement be reached what will Hamas do? Are you going to respect the signed memorandum of understanding?
A: We use a particular expression to describe these agreements – we say that they are stillborn. They are not just and cannot be justified. We cannot impose such an agreement on our constituency. We respect the will of the majority, the real majority and not the fictitious one.
Q: How can you establish which is the real majority?
A: Through referendums and elections. We believe in democracy and are committed to it. Moreover we respect the majority's opinion even if it differs from ours.
Q: Hamas protects the Palestinian cause. But so do other Palestinian factions alongside the Arab and Muslim nations. What exactly is the Palestinian cause today and why does it need to be protected especially by Hamas?
A: It is very easy to make a claim: everybody can claim everything. But there is a claim that is supported by strong cards and a claim that is a check without balance. This is the difference between Hamas and the others.
Solidarity with Hamas
Q: You consider yourself to be in a position of strength vis-à-vis Fatah and other Palestinian groups even in the midst of a siege?
A: All of us have suffered hardships. Hamas is suffering too in Gaza and the West Bank and we are plainly admitting it. We are not a super power. Nonetheless, we are strong willed, our organization is strong and coherent and we respect our people.
We are not going to be intimidated at the expense of our people’s rights. The role given to us is not that of making an appeal. Had we sought a big role in these negotiations we could have acknowledged the conditions set down by the international Quartet. But we refused. Our ties to our community, to the Arab world and the international community at large is our strength. We are keen to have wider support and that wider support has been clear in the efforts to lift the Gaza siege. It is also to be seen in the international solidarity with the people of Gaza.
In such circumstances, when everyone suffers, we are in the best position we can be in.
Q: You spoke of broader solidarity. What about the solidarity of the Arab states? The Rafah crossing with Egypt is still closed. Why?
A: The solidarity is not absolute, but it is extensive. When we talk about Arab and Muslim peoples it is a complete solidarity. When we speak of governments, it is a question of rational calculation. Some support us. There are also some who do not like us and some who are stabbing us in the back.
Q: And all of these come from the Arab side?
A: Yes, I am talking about the Arabs.
This is our realistic reading of the situation on the ground. Even in these circumstances, and with America using its power against us and with Israel against us, we are supported financially, politically and spiritually and this is evidence of Hamas’ regional importance.
If the American administration were only privy to what we are being told by many leaders of the region, behind closed doors, they would be surprised.
Q: It is because of Hamas that the people of Gaza are being punished, meanwhile. Do you think that’s fair? Maybe your Islamic principles might prompt you in these circumstances to say, OK, we will take a step back and let others do whatever is best for our people?
A: Good question. Do you think our people in the West Bank are not being punished? They are punished by Israeli and the Palestinian security apparatus. Before Hamas they were punished; with Hamas they are punished; and after Hamas they will be punished. The punishment does not come from Hamas but from the Israeli occupier, from the party who is biased towards Israel and from the ones who keep silent faced by the many crimes against our people.
Was it a sin on the part of Hamas to win the elections? Yet any result that comes through free and fair elections but does not suit the designs of America and Israel is derailed. If you surrender to such a logic the message that you send is the wrong one.
Q: What then are your priorities?
A: Our priority is not to eat, drink and live in luxury: but to be free. After that is accomplished we have to start building and developing and becoming prosperous.
Q: You have spoken at some length about the US. But let me ask why is it better for Hamas to side with Syria and Iran? Do you side with Syria and Iran?
A: We have talked about America because they carry much of the responsibility of what is happening.
Q: Unlike others - Arabs or non–Arabs?
A: You have to discriminate here. On one hand you have a party that is so powerful and whose bias is towards the offender. On the other hand, you have some Arab parties who do not have that much power and who are not on the best of terms with us. That is a different case. They are not doing their duty but this is not a crime. The real crime is from the one who occupies the land and the one who supports that occupation.
But to answer your previous question: to confine the alliances of Hamas only to Iran and Syria would be a mistaken approach.
Q: So there is a broader alliance.
A: Some countries are allies, some are friends, some publicly support me…
Q: And others?
A: Some governments support us privately. We thank all who help us from Syria, to Iran, to Turkey who supports Gaza, the West Bank and our right to self determination.
I take complete responsibility for what I am saying now. And I challenge anyone to prove that the support we are given is conditional support. This is not the case. No one dictates any policy or decisions to Hamas.
Q: You have common interests with both Damascus and Teheran. What if tomorrow these interests are no longer there? What will happen then?
A: As you say – these are common interests – not a replica. These interests are interlinked and, moreover, not everything that binds us is an interest. We are also bound by many principles.
Q: Do you think states can afford principles?
A: Without doubt a large percentage of decision-making is about interest: but principle matters. That is natural. The wrong thing is to have pure interest without any values or even at the expense of morality. This turns into nothing more than greed.
Q: Isn’t that the definition of politics?
A: I will come back to that.
Apart from interest, we are left with a percentage of what motivates us that can be narrowing or increasing at any given time: but principles do exist. It is wrong to strip politics of values. One of the mistakes that has been made when dealing with this region is to ignore this aspect. International relations are pragmatic but there is more to it than this.
To respond directly to your question, I will take the US as an example. Listen to Americans themselves. What was the image of the United States forty years ago? Their values were respected by many, and that in spite of their mistaken policies. Today that reputation has considerably declined. These are not my words: Americans themselves are saying as much.
Q: Is there a role for Romania in the region in general - apart from the Palestinian file?
A: Of course. Romania alongside other European states can play a role independent from the failed positions of the US. We welcome any contacts with Romania and any broadening of our international relations. Romania can be a channel to reach other European countries. The existing vacuum in terms of policies directed at the region can be filled by European states and others. Europe has the historical relationship and they know the region better than any other parties. While America sees us through its power, its muscle, the Europeans see the region politically, using their minds.
Q: Many say that you are an influential individual and that you can start a conflict single-handed. Are you indeed that influential?
A: It is not the stereotype celebrity image that creates conflict or war.
An influential personality has to do his best to work for peace, emphasizing the principles involved, protecting liberties and establishing a balanced relationship with the world. It is not fair to perceive anyone who so uses his influence to defend the liberties of his people as the person best placed to create mayhem. We are not war-mongerers: we have not gone out of our way to seek war. It was imposed on us. When we resist, what we are doing is participating in order to establish peace.
I don’t care much about what is said about me. It is not important to me to be praised by some who do not wish the Palestinians well. What matters to me is the fulfilment of my people. As the saying goes, we make peace with those who make peace with us and we resist those who offend us.
Q. Thank you.
A. You are welcome.
This article is published by Manuela Paraipan, and openDemocracy.net