In June 2007 Hamas took full control of the Gaza Strip, ousting American-trained militias loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Since then, the territory, just twice the size of Washington, DC, has been under a punishing Israeli blockade forcing the vast majority of its 1.5 million residents to depend on UN food handouts. Hamas, elected to govern the West Bank and Gaza Strip with a landslide majority in January 2006, has been boycotted by Western powers and declared a “terrorist organization” by the United States. While Haniya’s government is confined to the Gaza Strip, the US recognizes only the unelected Ramallah-based government appointed by Abbas in the West Bank. Since June, Hamas and Israel have observed an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire that ended months of violence in which hundreds of Palestinian civilians and several Israelis were killed.
Western overtures towards Hamas
RAMI ALMEGHARI: A Gulf-based newspaper reported recently that the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made contact with Hamas via third party. Can you confirm or deny that?
AHMED YOUSEF: Actually it was more of a verbal statement passed through some of the Arab leaders in the Gulf to Hamas because the Americans feel that they are satisfied with the ceasefire and that is a credit to Hamas and for the first time they acknowledge that Hamas can control the border and make sure there is no one violating the ceasefire. So it was like a compliment from high-ranking American officials.
RA: Recently there have been reports of an opening between Hamas and some European countries like France. Can you confirm that and the extent of such contacts?
AY: To be honest with you, before the Hamas takeover in Gaza we had good ties with many countries. But unfortunately after the takeover the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah put pressure on Western delegations not to meet with Hamas. We have traveled and we have met with many European leaders and diplomats and we are still doing that behind the scenes. France sent a delegation here, and many others have.
RA: Wasn’t that a parliamentary delegation?
AY: It depends. Sometimes they claim they are coming without the support of their government, but we know for sure they cannot come without permission from their governments. Even an American delegation came and met with the Hamas leaders. They said they were independent but we know from some information we had that they were really sent by the Bush administration. It was not independent. It was like a fact-finding mission. They wanted to know Hamas and what is its political vision. They came to discuss with us our vision and see if we have a plan for peacefully settling the conflict.
RA: What is the status of Palestinian reconciliation talks underway in Cairo aimed at ending the division between Hamas and Fatah? Reports have said that Hamas had reservations about a proposed memorandum of understanding submitted by Egypt.
AY: The Cairo document is a good starting point. We have some reservations, but we think we will be able to solve them when we meet with the Egyptians and the rest of the Palestinian parties in Cairo on 9 November. We believe that as long as Hamas and Islamic Jihad are not part of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], and the reform and restructuring of the PLO is unfulfilled, then the PLO does not have the right to sign any agreements with Israel or with the international community. Before we as Palestinians all agree that the PLO will be the sole representative of all the Palestinians then the PLO won’t have that kind of authority.
RA: If division between Hamas and Fatah continues would this overshadow the Palestinian people’s aspirations for statehood?
AY: I believe that in the next couple of months, we will be able to end this division and unify our people under a new government. It is shameful to have such divisions and I believe that every patriotic Palestinian wants to see an end to this saga.
RA: Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly called for early presidential and legislative elections. Would Hamas accept that?
AY: The Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are not reunited yet and so I don’t know how we could have elections while Hamas controls Gaza and Abbas and his security forces control the West Bank. When we restore unity it will be easier to address early elections.
Also, there would not be much time for early elections. The legislative council has only one year and three months left in its term. The moment we have reconciliation and a transitional government, it might take another six months to address the issues in the Egyptian-produced reconciliation document, and then we would still need at least six months to prepare for elections. So I think we are heading towards a timetable where we would have elections in January 2010.
Hamas and the situation in Gaza
RA: Some people have claimed that Hamas is trying to establish an Islamic emirate and is about to impose Sharia law in the territories under its control. Is this true?
AY: It’s totally false, and from the time of the Hamas takeover of Gaza I don’t think any Palestinian observed any change in daily life. This claim is used just for propaganda to satisfy Israel and maybe some of the American agenda. We live the same life here, and we are facing the same problems with sanctions, occupation and isolation. Nothing has changed. It is the same life. People can wear a head scarf or not wear it and nobody will force anyone to abide by Islamic law. Life here is very democratic and we hope to stay like this.
I am sure that the people who started talking about these things needed to satisfy some of the stereotypes in the minds of some western governments to discredit Hamas and keep up the pressure and sanctions in order to squeeze us into a corner. I don’t think this propaganda succeeded because one thing is different from the past — everyone who came here saw that Hamas was able to enhance the security and safety of the people of Gaza.
RA: How would you describe the experience of the Islamists in government here, particularly under continued Israeli occupation and the rejection of the Islamist movement by nearby countries?
AY: People were stunned by the majority won by the Islamists in the elections. No one was expecting that. Even in Israeli elections no party can win such a percentage. Hamas did it because people were saying this is a movement that is doing good things to help the Palestinian national cause and people trust them and think they are not corrupt. It’s something amazing that we could have very free, fair and transparent elections and many people said the election held in Palestine was the best among all Arab countries.
RA: How have the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the international boycott of Hamas impacted Hamas’ rule?
AY: Nobody expected that Hamas could withstand this kind of siege, sanctions and isolation. Maybe some people tried to sell the idea that in three months Hamas would fail, would collapse. Just keep putting pressure on them and they will buckle. Fortunately Hamas proved their steadfastness to the people of the world. This is because the who people who supported Hamas still give their backing to this government because people believe Hamas is not corrupt and is trying to serve the highest Palestinian national interest. This is why this government did not collapse despite the siege and the continuous Israeli incursions and aggression against us here and in the West Bank. We have proved we can stand and challenge and no one can twist our arms in a way that does not serve our national interest.
RA: Do you believe that measures taken against members of Hamas in the West Bank by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah are intended to maintain order and security or are they aimed at undermining Hamas?
AY: Everybody knows that the crackdown against Hamas in the West Bank is aimed at undermining the movement there and breaking the will of its members. It is aimed at telling them, “You can’t enjoy the same freedom you have in Gaza, and you can’t challenge the government and security people in Ramallah.”
RA: Do you see any relation between the Ramallah authority’s vow not to allow Hamas to hold arms and the Israeli defense minister’s recent approval of the deployment of five hundred Palestinian security personnel in the West Bank city of Hebron?
AY: Unfortunately the security apparatus in Ramallah is cooperating fully with the Israelis. They became like agents, like Saad Haddad [Editor: Haddad headed the South Lebanon Army, an Israeli-backed collaborator militia that operated in southern Lebanon during the period of Israeli occupation from 1982-2000]. This gives me the impression that in order to survive, those corrupt people in Ramallah are trying to do whatever they can to satisfy the Israelis. Their aim is not just to strengthen security in the West Bank — because the West Bank is still under occupation and the Palestinian people have the right to defend themselves and have the right to resist. That’s legitimate under international law. I believe that the way the people in Ramallah are handling the resistance in the West Bank will undermine their own credibility and authority.
RA: Reports by independent human rights groups point out some violations by Hamas-controlled forces. How do you respond to those reports?
AY: When you see people conspiring against you and collaborating with the occupation, you have to be harsh with it. Remember what happened in America after 11 September 2001? They launched two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because they claimed that people from those countries were linked with those attacks. And in Britain after the 7 July 2005 bombings when they suspected some Arabs and Muslims were behind the explosions they cracked down on all Arabs and Muslims.
We are trying to enhance the state of law and prevent people taking the law into their own hands and we want people to respect our local laws. I can say we are concerned about enforcing our own local laws and we don’t want to see any body violating these laws.
Hamas’ views on the future
RA: Hamas has long called for a long-term truce with Israel, an offer that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel have rejected already. Is there a possibility that Hamas would consider other options?
AY: We still stick to our political vision which is based on the truce or long-term ceasefire of five, ten or twenty years if Israel accepts to withdraw to the pre-1967 border. This remains our vision of the basis for a peaceful settlement of the conflict.
RA: Abbas argues that a long-term truce will give Israel a chance to reoccupy the Palestinian territories. How do you view this?
AY: I don’t think that Abbas understands fully what we mean by a truce. The truce means that the Israelis will withdraw in a specified period, maybe six months, from all the occupied Palestinian territories, and they can get a guarantee for security for these ten or twenty years. We think this might set the stage for confidence building. After twenty years maybe the new generation of Palestinians will have different views for how to settle the conflict.
When you do not have bloodshed maybe that would be a good time to talk about peace, but now while the cycle of death continues and we have daily funerals; I do not think this is a good time to talk about a full peaceful settlement. So we need to have time to heal from the injuries and from the bad memories of bloodshed between Muslims and Jews, between Palestinians and Jews. And after that this new generation will have its own political vision about how to settle the conflict maybe through a binational state or a one-state solution. I am sure they are going to come up with different proposals. But today this is what we can offer. A hudna — twenty years of peace with the Palestinians having their own independent and free state on the pre-1967 borders.
RA: There is a lot of talk about the death of the two-state solution and increased activism calling for a one-state solution as in South Africa. How does Hamas relate to these discussions and what are the current trends in thinking about a long-term solution?
AY: It sounds good to talk about a one-state solution but this will be considered when the two-state solution fails. However, so far we are sticking to our position about a long-term truce. South Africa is a good model for coexistence, reconciliation and atonement. Until now we are still not addressing this issue. But in the future if the world’s expectation of a viable independent Palestinian state fails because of expansionist Israeli policies — already Israel has confiscated and annexed 50 percent of the land in the West Bank — people will come to this issue and we will address it.
RA: Who does Hamas look to as a political model from other struggles in history?
AY: Of course there is Nelson Mandela, and we do look to non-Muslim and non-Arab countries as models. For example, Michael Collins in Ireland [Editor: Collins was one of the key leaders in Ireland’s independence struggle]. I do believe that Hamas also looks at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey as a good model as well. We are not Taliban, we are Erdogan.
Rami Almeghari is contributor to The Electronic Intifada, IMEMC.org and Free Speech Radio News. Rami is also a former senior English translator at and editor-in-chief of the international press center of the Gaza-based Palestinian Information Service. He can be contacted at rami_almeghari A T hotmail D O T com.