A Dialogue with Hamas - Part 2

Manuela Paraipan, January 13, 2011

A Hamas rally in 2009.

In this second part of a two-part interview with Hamas' Ousama Hamdan, Manuela Paraipan questions him about the organization's relationship with other regional powers, efforts for reconciliation with Fatah, and Hamas' potential involvement in the peace process.

Manuela Paraipan: How are Hamas' ties with Egypt and Saudi Arabia?

Ousama Hamdan: There is much more potential regarding both. The Egyptians know that the resistance in Palestine is securing their own interests too and is part of their power. I cannot dictate what they have to do, but some important steps should be taken. No one could have blamed them if they accepted the results of elections; if they opened [the] Rafah checkpoint, who'd have blamed them—the Israelis?

I hope they will open Rafah, but they did not thus far.
MP: Maybe Hamas is perceived as a threat to the Egyptian regime.
OH: How is Hamas a threat to the security of Egypt? Maybe the 100,000 tanks in Gaza will occupy Egypt? Or maybe our fleet will invade Egypt from all shores of the Mediterranean? Is Hamas or Gaza as a superpower of 360 square kilometers a threat to [the] one and a half million square kilometers of Egypt? And [how are] 1.5 million Palestinians a danger to the 75 million Egyptians?
The Palestinians went through Rafah at the end of 2007, and, according to Egyptian numbers, 700,000 crossed the border. No one stayed in Egypt. They bought what they needed and headed back home.
MP: And the Saudis?
OH: Saudis have a special way of networking politically. The relation is not quite up to the level which we'd like to see, but we work to improve it. The status quo has two main aspects: their own style and the pressure of the Americans on all countries when it comes to Hamas. The Saudis have several challenges surrounding them; they support the Palestinians, but they also have to look at the regional and international picture, and that's a complicated balance to keep.
MP: Is Turkey as involved as the Arab states?
OH: No, not yet. It is up to them to play a role or not, but it seems they are interested. We encourage them to do so. We cannot, and are not willing to, force anyone to do anything they are not willing or ready to do. It would be a failure for all concerned parties.

Economic situation in West Bank and Gaza

MP: How is the economic and financial situation in Gaza and West Bank?
OH: Due to the siege and the blockade, 90 percent of Gaza's economy was shut down.
What about the 70 percent of the factories closed in West Bank? There is no siege there according to Salam Fayyad. There is a simple answer. There is no viable economic plan of Salam Fayyad. There is no development. There is plenty of money without production. What will you do when the money stops coming and you don't have the ability to produce and sustain yourself? In the long run it's a disaster.
MP: If you were to be allowed to properly govern in Gaza, do you have a sound developmental plan?
OH: You have to read our program which was built on creating an independent economic and financial structure unlike Fayyad's plan which heavily relies on the Israelis.
The Palestinians used to export directly to Europe and Jordan, and we had our own quality standards. Fayyad signed an agreement with the Israelis that forced the Palestinians to adopt the Israeli standards. As a result, they could not export anymore.
In a documentary on BBC, they said that even the keffieh (traditional Palestinian head cover) is imported from China. The new generation of business men created by Fayyad imports everything from China.
MP: If the PA and the Israelis reach an agreement in terms of security, the end result may be a quasi-independent state. How do you see it?
OH: 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?
OH: 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?
OH: 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.
MP: Would Abu Mazen sign such an agreement?
OH: Abu Mazen transferred his grandson to a Jordanian school because kids teased him by saying that his grandfather is a collaborator, and that happened before an agreement. Do you think that if he signs the situation improves?
Arafat said that he gave his clothes one by one till he was left with a cherry leaf. And then, he said, they [the Israelis] wanted to take that away too.
Why have a swap of lands? There is an occupied land so what is the point of accepting everything that Israel is perpetrating?
It's not like we'll lose the international support. We don't have it to start with. If they say they support us, define support. If it goes along the lines of having something instead of having nothing, what's the meaning of something? What have we gained in 17 years? Ask any Palestinian.
MP: What if Damascus signs a peace agreement with Israel? What impact would it have on Hamas?
OH: This is a good point. Let me ask you a question, why is there a problem in the region? Because Israel is occupying Palestinian lands. Well, Israel can be satisfied with its relations with Europe, Africa, East and West, so why are they insisting to have the recognition of the Palestinians, especially from Hamas? [Because] they know that all of the above cannot turn them into a normal state if the Palestinians deny them that. We cannot accept anything less than to have our rights respected. What's the need to have good relations with Israel? The Saudis lived 60 years without it. Egypt has relations with Israel for 30 years. What was the benefit?
MP: Imagine that Arabs are convinced they have to choose between Israel or Iran.
OH: This can't be a serious thought … to say that I want to face Iran and I ally with Israel?
If the Iranians have ambitious projects in the region, why should not the Arabs try to match them? Arabs have power, land, wealth, water and people. What's to stop them? And they have an advantage [over Iran]: good standing with the West.
If you want to be a regional power, the wrong door is the Israeli one. Some tried it and it did not work because of the Israeli mentality that looks down on them instead of treating them as allies and partners.
MP: Another possible scenario would be for Iran and Israel to put differences aside and look for common interests. The Arabs might end up outside the main two centers of power, with Iran the preeminent player in the Gulf and Israel in the Levant.
OH: Why would either Iran or Israel change positions?
Israel is not able to control the Palestinians. Would they be able to widen their capability of influencing others? I am not sure it's doable. Many carry another citizenship; they have come here from different countries. They are not ready to sacrifice for the future—maybe the old generation, but not this one. If the Iranians presumably have such a role and are interested to share power, why not with Turkey? Turkey is more important to them. It has the gas, the relationship with Iraq, the Syrian ties, the support for the Palestinian cause, and it's a door to Europe.
Whoever acquires a higher status could directly link itself to the U.S. As a matter of fact, I think that the Israelis are under a significant threat—they can be[come] useless to the U.S. [as a result of] the rising of Iran and Turkey.
That's why they are shouting night and day to bomb Iran. A war between Iran and the US will not remove Iran from the region and will not destroy it forever. However, it may give a pause of a few decades [for] the Israelis to do what they want. Hopefully, the American administration will handle this file wisely. The Iranians, the Turks and maybe some Arabs will rise up and become the third important power in the region. These players have more in common than anyone expects and certainly more than can be seen from the surface. In this equation Israel may keep on losing.
The issue here is that the Arabs should be able to raise the stakes and reach a more powerful status.

The Egyptian Reconciliation Paper

MP: Is the Egyptian mediation and the paper they presented still suitable? Where is it all going?
OH: The political system in Palestine was not created for a real democracy.
When Fatah created the PA, it was just for Fatah. They agreed to have elections because after the death of Abu Ammar (Yasser Arafat), they felt that Abu Mazen and the PLC (Palestinian Legislative Council) had no legitimacy without elections.
By participating Hamas would further legitimize the process. Everyone saw Hamas as major opposition group but did not consider the possibility that we could win the elections. Afterwards they realized that the system does not work, so we went through one year of instability and then we went to Mecca. Fatah understood, and maybe regional powers also understood, that there is no solution except reconciling Fatah and Hamas.
In Mecca we consented on general principles. Nonetheless, problems started again. For example, part of the agreement was to have the prime minister from Hamas, the deputy from Fatah and seven ministers nominated by Hamas and five by Fatah. And Hamas or the prime minister will assign the minister of interior (in charge of the security forces) who was not supposed to be from either Hamas or Fatah. There were several candidates we recommended and Abu Mazen kept refusing. Seeing [that] there [would be] no end to it, we asked Abu Mazen to suggest several names, and we [would] choose one of them. They accepted and put forward three names. We were in favor of one individual known for being a professional. He was one of the assistants of the last minister. The Palestinian forces refused to accept orders from him. They took orders from someone in Fatah.
It was clear that Fatah decided to go against the Palestinian national unity government, and they went to elections to undermine security. It wasn't any longer about sharing power; we decided that by signing the Mecca agreement. It did not work out because Fatah saw it as an intermediary step, so we arrived at a point of division.
It may have been the Americans that encouraged them on that track, and they saw it as an opportunity to start the peace process without Hamas. Annapolis came and nothing happened. After Mecca (2007) and Gaza (2008), they were in a critical situation. They were criticized by the Palestinians. So, they accepted the invitation to dialogue. And from there started a long period of on and off talks. We realized that addressing the political issues would take a long time, so the Egyptians advised us to move to the Palestinian national unity government and talk about political reforms after elections take place, and the elected leadership would then suggest a new political framework.
Whatever Fatah wanted to talk about we were ready [to talk about]. We have gone through issues such as national unity, elections, security, relations between the two parties, reforms etc. There were committees from all parties to discuss the ideas. And here appeared a problem: The Egyptian's Omar Suleyman called on the Palestinians to work out their issues, and then the Egyptians consulted the Americans and the Americans said no. After 14 days of brainstorming, papers written and countless discussions about principles—and some were accepted by all—when the Americans said no, there was no chance to move forward.
We were asked to leave and informed that we would be invited back. That happened back in March 2009. The Egyptians invited us [for] a second time in May and a third time in June. And then it stopped till August. The result was that Omar Suleyman said they will prepare a paper and send it to both Fatah and Hamas.
We received the paper and studied it; then Cairo followed. They rejected some of our points and accepted others. Khaled Meshal, in a press conference in Cairo, said that reconciliation is close. As Palestinians we faced at that time another issue: the Goldstone Report and the Human Rights Council, and harsh arguments were traded inside the Palestinian political arena.
We received a paper that had significant changes. To give you an example, in the first [original] paper at the paragraph about the security forces, the sentence clearly stated that we're looking to reform all the forces in Gaza and West Bank. In the second paper, it mentioned only Gaza. It wasn't acceptable. Each side blamed the other; there were external pressures that reflected upon this get-together process.
They tried to cast the blame on Hamas but could not. Last August Khaled Meshal met Omar Suleyman in Mecca. On September 23 there was the meeting in Damascus. There was no settlement on [the] security arena.
The Egyptian paper, and then the additional Palestinian Understanding paper, will be the foundation for the reconciliation. This is where we are today.
MP: Did you decide to have elections?
OH: We discussed that. We did not decide on the timing, but according to the Understanding it will take place in six to 12 months.
MP: Would the reconciliation lead to your involvement in the peace process?
OH: I believe this is separate. Let's have the reconciliation first and then we'll talk about the issue of our involvement.
MP: Can it (the peace process) drag on?
OH: I cannot say. This will be a serious question after the reconciliation.
MP: Would the negotiations segment be part of the reconciliation?
OH: No. Why? 
MP: Because you have to know what your steps will be as the government in Gaza.
OH: That will be decided afterwards, and we agreed that a Palestinian leadership will be formed in a specific way.
MP: What do you mean by a specific way?
OH: The newly elected leadership decides the next moves.
MP: You mean elections for both sides?
OH: Of course.
MP: But that implies that Fatah is now willing to share power with Hamas?
OH: They have to accept that.

International arena

MP: How do you see American policy towards Hamas and towards the Palestinian political arena in general?
OH: 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 U.S. 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.
OH: 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.

The war in Gaza

OH: In the war against Gaza, Hamas did the best to defend the people. The old generation who watched the war in '56 and in '67 remembered that Gaza was occupied in less than one day while there was an army, not merely the resistance. For 22 days the Israelis could not invade Gaza due to the resistance.
Fatah has most of the regional support. They have the U.S. and Israel on their side and that is a heavy burden on their shoulders. The logic behind is that the people know that the US is the major heavyweight that upholds the occupier's policies. When Abu Mazen said that the Israelis support him during the security arrangements, that made his position more difficult. 
MP: For how long can you keep going?
OH: 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.
OH: 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.

Perspective on West Bank

MP: Do you have an official representation of the group in West Bank? How do you deal with Fatah?
OH: There is no official representation of the group except for PLC (Palestinian Legislative Council) members. They enjoy a sort of immunity. They were arrested by the Israelis, but till now they were not arrested by the Palestinian Authority security forces. They tried to arrest some and that turned the people against them so they stopped. It is not only Hamas they are after but anyone who disagrees with PA.
When Abu Mazen decided to go to direct negotiations in Washington DC, some senior Palestinian activists like Munir al Masri, Barghouti and others decided to have a sitting in a closed hall to say that they are against the negotiations. They had the permission from the mayor of Ramallah. When they went in at 11 am, they discovered that around 300 members of the security forces were already there. The protestors had no seats left. The security forces employees were in civilian clothes and when someone started to speak, they started waving flags and shouting, "long life for Abu Mazen," so they actually disregarded and countered a peaceful event.
When the protestors tried to go outside there were harsh verbal exchanges with the security members. I don't know if Abu Mazen condones such a behavior, but I know that a security senior official, General Majed Faraj, from the intelligence did all this.
The United States' biggest mistake is that they did not accept the conclusion of the elections. Perhaps it would have been different should they [have] at least talked to Hamas. Instead they choose to dialogue with Abu Mazen although he cannot deliver.
MP: Is the Arab support for President Abbas the leverage he needs in order to remain the main Palestinian interlocutor for Israel and the US?
OH: Most of the Arab states support him because the Americans support him. They don't want to have problems with the Americans. If the United States says tomorrow that it is not backing Abu Mazen anymore and they need him to be first and foremost upheld by his own people, I guarantee that a large percentage of the regional support disappears.
MP: Can Hamas be trusted?
OH: It is not about Hamas here. We are an elected party and we have responsibilities towards our constituency, and they [Israel] deal with political parties and so do we.
We need to know, and the Israelis have to have a clear definition of, the Palestinian rights. [They need] to recognize them and to show some commitment towards them. Thus far the Israelis and the Americans did not accept the Palestinians as a nation. Mainly the Israelis refer to us as a people who are living on the lands. [The] PLO recognized Israel, but they [Israel] did not reciprocate.
MP: Have you recognized Israel officially?
OH: No.
MP: Would you?
OH: When we have an independent, sovereign state, our government will answer this question—not the resistance, not the political parties. This has to be done by the government, not by people who are under occupation.
MP: How about going to U.N. to recognize the Palestinian state? Is it a worthwhile strategy?
OH: There are already hundreds of U.N. 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 U.N. may be a good idea, but to this day our experience with U.N. resolutions is not particularly impressive. So we need to see some evidence that it may be worthy.
MP: Are you going to have a peace conference in Egypt anytime soon?
OH: The Egyptians talk about it, but we are not supposed to be part of, according to the U.S.
This is the second part of a two-part interview in which Hamas leader Ousama Hamdan speaks on behalf of the organization. Read part one. This interview was originally published by the Middle East Political and Economic Institute:

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