Hamas leader to Obama: Policy, not rhetoric

DAMASCUS (IPS) - The head of Hamas’s political bureau, Khaled Meshal, gave a qualified welcome here Thursday to the big speech that US President Barack Obama addressed to the Muslim world in Cairo.

“The speech was cleverly written in the way it addressed the Muslim world … and in the way it showed respect to the Muslim heritage,” Meshal told IPS in an exclusive interview. “But I think it’s not enough. What’s needed are deeds, actions on the ground, and a change of policies.”

His remarks came just hours after the speech, in a wide-ranging interview in one of the Hamas leader’s offices here in the Syrian capital.

In the interview, Meshal was friendly, quietly self-confident and thoughtful. He was firm in describing his movement’s positions, including when he restated that he wants Hamas to be treated as “part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

He said he would be happy to meet Senator George Mitchell, who is expected to arrive in Damascus within the next two weeks for the first time in his capacity as US peace envoy.

“If Mitchell wants to meet me, we’ll welcome him with a cup of fine tea,” Meshal said with a smile.

This seems unlikely to happen in the near future. In the Cairo speech, Obama restated the three preconditions that former US President George W. Bush and his allies in the international “Quartet” defined in 2006 for Hamas, before any members of the Quartet — the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia — would agree to deal with it.

Meshal expressed his displeasure with that part of Obama’s speech, noting that in the speech Obama also said he was ready to start talks with Iran, “without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect.”

“Why is Obama ready to deal with Iran without preconditions, but not us?” Meshal asked. “Obama is using some new words in his rhetoric, somewhat different from what we heard from Bush, but under no circumstances will preconditions be acceptable to us.”

IPS asked Meshal if he thought some approach like the one Mitchell used to mediate an end to the conflict in Northern Ireland in the 1990s might work in the Palestinian-Israeli arena. In that effort, Mitchell defined a set of principles regarding issues like abstention from violence and commitment to democratic resolution of differences that he applied equally to all sides in the conflict.

Meshal replied, “Before we get into details, if Mitchell wants to resolve the conflict here, he should talk to everyone. The Northern Ireland principles were the result of dialogue, not of defining preconditions.”

That was when he extended the invitation to Mitchell to come and meet over a cup of tea.

IPS asked whether — and how — he judged that Hamas’s longstanding desire to be seen as part of the solution could be meshed with Mitchell’s mission.

“Yes, we want to be part of the solution, but on the basis of Palestinian rights,” he said. “We have already said we’ll work for the success of any project that ends the occupation of 1967, restores Palestinian rights, and grants to Palestinians our right of self-determination.”

“We need two things from Obama, Mitchell, the Quartet and the rest of the international community. Firstly, pressure on Israel to acknowledge and grant these rights. The obstacle to this is completely on the Israeli side. Secondly, we need the international actors to refrain from intervening in internal Palestinian affairs. You should leave it to the Palestinians to resolve our differences peacefully. You should respect Palestinian democracy and its results,” he said.

This latter was a reference to the hard-hitting campaign that Israel, the US and its allies have maintained against Hamas ever since its candidates won a strong victory in the Palestinian Authority’s parliamentary elections in January 2006.

That campaign has included sustained efforts to delegitimize the Hamas-led government that emerged from the elections, attempts by Israel to assassinate the government’s leaders, including during Israel’s recent assault on Gaza, and the mission that US Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton has led in the West Bank to arm and train an anti-Hamas fighting force loyal to the US-supported Palestinian leadership in Ramallah.

In his reaction to Obama’s speech, Meshal referred to the US’s role in this intervention, saying, “Rather than sweet words from President Obama on democratization, we’d rather see the United States start to respect the results of democratic elections that have already been held. And rather than talk about democratization and human rights in the Arab world, we’d rather see the removal of General Dayton, who’s building a police state there in the West Bank.”

On Thursday, the tensions between Hamas and forces loyal to the Ramallah-based Fatah party leadership boiled over into outright fighting in the West Bank town of Qalqiliya that left two Hamas fighters and one pro-Ramallah security officer dead.

The deep divisions between Hamas and Fatah have also been seen by many as a major obstacle to lifting Israel’s extremely damaging siege of Gaza, since Israel refuses to open the crossing points into Gaza unless pro-Fatah people control the Gaza side of the crossings.

Meshal told IPS, “We’re eager for the reconciliation with Fatah. It’s both a political and a humanitarian necessity. But success is unlikely because of outside intervention.”

Attempts to effect a reconciliation have been sporadically underway in Cairo since February, but so far with no success. IPS asked Meshal if he thought Egypt was unsuccessful as a mediator. “Egypt is not the problem,” he said. “The problem is not the mediator, but the outside intervention.”

He also said that the continuing differences between Hamas and Fatah should not be seen as posing an immoveable obstacle to lifting the Gaza siege. He argued that if the international community really wanted the Gaza siege lifted it could find ways to do this.

Gaza has its longest land border with Israel, which also controls its coastline. It also has a short land-border with Egypt.

IPS pressed Meshal on an issue of great concern to some Israelis: whether, when he talks about “an end to Israeli occupation” he is referring to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 or to the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948 in what had previously been the area of “Mandate Palestine.”

He replied, “I have said I accept a Palestinian state if Israel withdraws to the pre-1967 line. That doesn’t annul the historical fact of the Israeli occupation of 1948, but Hamas and the other factions have all accepted this solution of a Palestinian state at the 1967 line. But there’s still no Israeli acceptance of this, and no international recognition of this outcome.”

Asked whether the establishment of a Palestinian state in just the areas occupied in 1967 would secure the end of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, he responded, “That state is our demand today. When our people are free and have their own state they will decide on this position.”

In a discussion on the right of the numerous Palestinian refugees from 1948, and their descendants, to return to their ancestral homes and lands in what is now Israel, he defined this as meaning that these refugees still have the right to return to their “home villages or towns.”

Hamas is often portrayed in the west as politically inflexible, but on some key issues it has acted in a realistic way that demonstrates its leadership’s ability to adapt its positions to changing realities on the ground.

One of these shifts was its move toward accepting the concept of a Palestinian state in just the West Bank and Gaza. Another was the decision it took in 2005 to participate in the Palestinian Authority’s parliamentary elections, though a decade earlier it had opposed such participation.

Meshal explained this latter shift by saying, “In 1996, when we opposed the elections it was because they were seen as derived from the Oslo Agreement, which we opposed. But by 2006 Oslo was dead … Also, by 2005-2006 the PA had become a real burden on the Palestinian people, with all its corruption. The Palestinian people wanted Hamas to enter the PA’s institutions, to lift this burden from them, and we had to be responsive to that.”

In his reaction to Obama’s speech, Meshal welcomed the change from the rhetoric used by President Bush — though he indicated it was not as far-reaching a change as he would have wished. But he also stressed that rhetorical change is not, on its own, nearly enough.

“Obama talked about the Palestinian state, but not its borders,” he said. “He didn’t mention whether it should comprise all the Palestinian land that was occupied in 1967, or just part of it, as Israel demands …”

“Yes, he spoke of an end to Israel’s continuing settlement activity; but can he really get them to stop? Without addressing these issues, the speech remains rhetoric, not so very different from his predecessor’s.”

Meanwhile, any time George Mitchell comes to Damascus and he needs a cup of tea, he knows where he can find one.

Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at www.JustWorldNews.org.

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