Sep 28th 2010

Khaled Meshaal Interview: A Hamas Take on Mideast Geopolitics (Part 2)

by Sharmine Narwani

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East, and a Senior Associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University. She has a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in both journalism and Mideast studies.

Palestinian resistance group Hamas has beaten some unusual odds to survive today: Israel's unlawful siege of Gaza has crippled the coastal strip's economy and left Hamas scrambling to govern a restless population living under increasingly desperate conditions. Its officials and members are targeted by Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) for detention, torture and extrajudicial killings. Pro-US Arab leaders undermine it at every turn, partly to satisfy American demands, partly because they fear the widespread popularity of any moderate Islamist resistance group among their own populations.
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Classified by the US as a "terrorist" organization, Hamas has spent the past year battling armed Salafist extremists who want to enforce Islamic law in the Gaza Strip and who view the Hamas leadership as too weak-willed to challenge Israel's occupation of Palestine.

It is ironic that Hamas today is criticized for being hardline -- and liberal too. Militant -- and not militant enough. Islamist -- and not Islamist enough. Iranian stooges -- and US pawns, both.

I expected to see some of these contradictions in Khaled Meshaal, head of Hamas' political bureau, when I interviewed him in Damascus recently. What I discovered instead is that, like a select crop of leaders we are seeing in the Middle East today, Meshaal refuses to be seen through one lens only. A real challenge for US policymakers with their unidimensional approach to regional politics.

The former high school physics teacher convincingly argues that the New Middle East is one where nations need to keep their "options open." He rejects a regional status-quo where countries stay in "blocs" unthinkingly, and vehemently argues against the notion that Mideast democracy and reform cannot advance unless foreign intervention ends.

Meshaal may be more of a geopolitical strategist than suspected, but he also manages to stay infuriatingly "on message" most of the time -- never a fun thing when you would love a stray impolitic anecdote. Toward the end of our discussion I asked him about his rumored stash of Dubya jokes, and received nothing but a twinkle in his eye in return, though I could swear he almost caved.

But Hamas' goal to end Israel's occupation of Palestine is no laughing matter, and Meshaal's earnest focus reflects the gravity of events in the Mideast today. In Part 1 of the interview seen here, he addresses the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Hamas' perspective on the recently launched peace talks. This time around, Khaled Meshaal talks about broader regional issues, including the emergence of the "Resistance Bloc," the New Middle East, relations with Iran, the Ground Zero mosque...and on a more personal note, his relationship with his father:


SN: The "Resistance Bloc" in the Middle East - Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas - how did it come about?

KM: The forming of this bloc is a natural consequence of events in the region - firstly, the presence of Israel and its atrocities against the region, and then the failure of the negotiation process to achieve something substantial. Even when the Arabs compromised and agreed to the borders of 1967, they did not receive a serious response from Israel. Thus, we have this stalemated situation where Israel has a free hand to do whatever it wants - with the world community turning a blind eye - which leads to the response in the street and to the forming of the bloc you have mentioned.

So there is a vacuum. There is a fiasco. There is a frustration. There is an increasing fury and anger among the masses. And now, embarrassment at the official level in the region. There is also the emergence of resistance in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. This resistance keeps standing up to Israel and keeps developing its capabilities - as you can see, they accomplished some successful results in Gaza and in Southern Lebanon. Resistance has therefore become an attractive model for states in the region. This naturally created an environment conducive to the forming of this bloc.


SN: You mention Israel as a key reason for this Resistence Bloc forming in the Middle East. But I believe this "bloc" has more than just four members - it is more of a "Worldview" which includes Qatar, Turkey, maybe Oman, Iraq and others - the one common denominator being "the desire for a state to act in its own self-interest." Israel may have been a trigger for this Worldview emerging in parts of the Mideast, but how does a country like Qatar for instance get drawn in?

KM: You got this in the same context as I wish to continue. Look at a country like Qatar - it has good relations with the United States, used to have a degree of relations with Israel until the Gaza War, and is considered to be a moderate and liberal state. Qatar's foreign policy is being formed by the views of its leader, the Emir. The situation in the region created a belief, for a country like Qatar, that if it wants to have a role in the region, it has to open up its options in all directions. The one who keeps himself away from the relevant elements in the region, he won't be relevant himself. In Qatar you have this leadership - someone who is smart and courageous like the Emir. He understands and realizes full well the aspirations and the mood of his own people and the people of the region. So he adopts those issues and causes which are popular among his constituencies, among those nations - which works well if those issues are already close to his own beliefs and his own interests.

Keeping in mind that other Arab countries have for decades been unable to present a successful model that is attractive for others to adopt, this new regional state model has thrived in recent years. These countries - Qatar, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Turkey - share some common elements, but they are not identical to each other. They each have their own modus operandi and interests. Something these nations do share, however, is the self-desire to develop this new trend, but at the same time to remain open - not closed or bound - to enjoying options.


SN: Not dogmatic, as in the past...

KM: ...ah yes, not like that. Why should we be dividing ourselves into two blocs - either being against America and the West, or acquiescing 100% to them?

The people in the region, they are looking for leadership to match their own aspirations and ambitions. In a way we need a model where democracy is there, internal reform, successful economy, justice at the social level - and at the same time, there is independence in their political decisions, away from acquiescing to the threats of Israel - and not being a proxy to foreign, American and Western policies. We do not want to wage a war against the world. Or to sever relations with countries. So the nations and the people of the region want a state model based on self respect - without any enmity with the world.


SN: But is it possible to make progress in domestic reforms before foreign interference in the region stops?

KM: My view is that no doubt the foreign intervention is an impediment and has its own negative repercussions. But of course it cannot stop our internal reforms....


SN: It completely stopped the Palestinian democratic process...

KM: The Palestinian situation is different because we are under occupation and don't have a state. I am talking about stable countries in the region. They have no excuse not to have their own democratic models and reforms -- even with foreign intervention -- and Turkey is an example of that. Any leadership that genuinely desires to make internal change will do it irrespective of obstacles or foreign intervention. Otherwise if we acquiesce to the notion that the foreign element is the decisive factor in a process for transformation, we will never have democracy, reform, social justice and vibrant economies in this part of the world.

In Hamas, we know very well how the intervention of Americans, Israelis and other international actors has had a significant impact on the Palestinian situation -- especially if we talk about the control of money and financial assistance. Finances have had a direct impact on Palestinian politics, which is why the Palestinian Authority -- Salam Fayyad, Mahmoud Abbas - is very weak. Hamas realizes the impact of this element on us and on the Palestinian situation, but we will not acquiesce to it.


SN: Do you think Hamas' more conciliatory positions in recent years has "watered down" your organization? Have any of these efforts reaped any rewards for you whatsoever?

KM: The "openness" which you acknowledge yourself, comes neither from changing Hamas' position nor from acquiescing to external pressures -- this openness is part of Hamas' strategy:

On the one hand, we have remained steadfast in our determination to attain the legitimate national rights of our people and to continue the resistance. On the other hand, in politics, we proceed with an open mind. How do we do this? I restrict my battle to Israel only. Our battle is not with the United States of America -- nor with the West. Yes, the American policies and some Western policies are hostile to us, but there is still no way that my battle is with them. So I am open - I can talk and I can engage in dialogue with the West and with the Americans. But I will not acquiesce to them. We have confidence in ourselves and independence in our decisions - we will not be a proxy for anybody, and our enemy is only restricted to the occupation - to the Israelis.

SN: Ok, but in all fairness, Hamas once was in large part about armed resistance like Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) is still today. There are all these demands on Hamas from the international community today -- to accept the Quartet Principles, accepting all the treaties, recognizing Israel, renouncing violence, etc. So your efforts to engage has landed you somewhere between PIJ and Fatah -- and not so distinguishable any longer. I know exactly what those two organizations are about -- but Hamas...not so much.

KM: You want a very distinctive or explicit answer. Either you adopt this track or that track. What you are suggesting in your question is not what Hamas desires.

Firstly, Hamas did not reduce its level of resistance because we wanted to present some flexibility with the Quartet conditions, or even to satisfy the West. The level of resistance diminished because of very objective field conditions inside Palestine. This goes for Hamas, Islamic Jihad -- for everybody. I mean it wasn't our political decision to downsize the resistance, but it happened because of the significant security pressures in the field -- security pressures from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Secondly, Hamas is not practicing being a "moderate" movement to satisfy the other side or expecting something in return from the West -- not at all -- it is part of our own personality, our creed, the strategy we believe in. The West will decide to engage with Hamas when they are convinced that they will not achieve anything in the region without engaging with Hamas. And this time is coming.


SN: Israel is helping you a great deal these days, it seems? They are drawing censure from all quarters about their behaviors since the Gaza war, flotilla killings, Mabhouh assassination, settlement activity, destruction of the Bedouin communities in the Negev, etc.

KM: Yes of course, Israel is acting against its own interest. They want more regional hegemony, more power. They commit fatal mistakes against themselves, leaving no future for Israel. Occupation has no future, occupation will never be legitimized. It is only the weak people who live this fallacy, these false dreams -- and we are not weak. We are realistic and so we will achieve our ambitions. Yes, today Israel is more powerful than us - the balance of power is not in our favor today. There is a Palestinian and Arab weakness, there is an American bias, there is weakness in the international community's plans, but nevertheless the Palestinian people will ultimately win.


SN: Your political foe today -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- was also prime minister in 1996 when he ordered your assassination. The attempted killing drew the direct intervention of US President Bill Clinton and Jordan's King Hussein who forced Netanyahu to provide an antidote for the toxin administered to you by Mossad agents. Politically, Netanyahu is your enemy -- but what are your emotions toward this man on a personal level?

KM: I say but the truth, so you must believe me. For me there is nothing personal, there is no single personal feeling toward him -- the only feeling I have is regarding his position towards my people. He is my enemy. Not because he tried to assassinate me - but because he is occupying my land. He is killing my people. Other than that dimension of being an enemy, an occupier in my homeland -- I don't have any additional personal feelings about him.

I consider myself bigger than this -- than having a personal clash with him. The suffering of my people is more important than my own suffering. The most important lesson out of this assassination attempt for me is that every individual has a pre-decided "time" from the almighty Allah, whether he dies in an assassination attempt or in his bed. If anything, this incident has made me more brave. We have a proverb which says "courage will never be a reason to shorten your life, nor would cowardliness be a reason to extend it."


SN: The war drums are beating against Iran -- what are your thoughts on this?

KM: At the Israeli level it's increasing and worsening, but I believe that it will need some time at the American level. I believe that Israel will need American support to wage a war. The Israelis will not be in need for direct support of the Americans for the war on Lebanon, but they will for a war on Iran.

Israel does not want peace. Israelis -- historically speaking -- live on wars and battles. The failure of Israel in the last two wars, in Southern Lebanon and in Gaza, reinforces this image in front of the world. They want to save their face, they want to change the history -- hence they are preparing for wars.


SN: We are often told that Hezbollah and Hamas take marching orders from Iran, and that Iran plans to use you folks in a proxy war against Israel. So let me ask you this...If Israel launched a military attack against Iran, how would Hamas react?

KM: We are not agents for anybody. We are not tools in the hands of the others. For sure we, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria have many things in common -- especially in terms of resistance -- but just as certainly, we are not a proxy for anybody, nor do we plan wars in other states. Hamas is not a "superpower" that can intervene to defend Hezbollah or Syria or Iran. Israel and America try to portray this -- that we are proxies for each other -- but this is very unrealistic.


SN: When you went to Saudi Arabia recently, Saudi Prince Faisal asked you whether you chose Iranians over Arabs....

KM: Correction - he asked whether our relations with Iran were at the expense of our relations with the Arabs and the Palestinian national interest. I told him: "yes, we have relations with Iran and will do so with whomever supports us. We will say thank you to them, but this is not at the expense of our Arab relations." We are a resistance movement, open to the Arabs, to the Muslims and to all countries in the world, and we are not part of any agenda for regional forces.


SN: A senior member of the Islamic Action Front in Jordan told me that in the first year after the Iranian revolution, 80 books were published on the Shia but that there had only been three, maybe four, such books published in the decades before the revolution. This division between Muslims continues to be exploited by different parties -- what can be done to diffuse this situation?

KM: You know the differences between the Sunni and the Shia is very well established historically, and it is still present today. But how to address this situation? Yes, some of the International parties they try to exploit to do as you say: divide and rule. And some parties in the region, official and non-official entities both, yes they want to make it a reason for war between the two worlds -- a sectarian battle -- between Shia and Sunni.

We, in Hamas, see ourselves -- Sunni and Shia -- as different sectarian-wise, but all part of one world. So we have to accommodate this difference and be united to confront the foreign enemy.


SN: Have you been reading about the Ground Zero mosque controversy in New York city? What are your thoughts on this very sensitive debate in the United States?

KM: Naturally speaking, America has to be in harmony with its own declared values. It's not fitting or appropriate for Americans - under the guise of an anti-terrorism war - to fight Muslims by restricting them in their rituals or religious practice. One of your citizenship rights is to practice your religion. If they are American and they are Muslim American, they have the right to build a mosque as part of their citizenship rights.

In short, aside from the political differences, the freedom of practicing religious rituals and having religious freedom -- for all religions -- should be granted without having disparity or political differences brought into it.


SN: Not too long ago, I was talking to someone from the US Military's CENTCOM who lamented the fact that there was never very much information available about the "personalities" of the Resistance leadership -- he enjoyed the fact that Hezbollah's foreign relations chief revealed in an earlier interview that he sometimes watches the Oprah Winfrey show with his wife. So I promised I would ask one personal question on his behalf, and it is this: What was your relationship with your father like growing up?

KM: Tell him to meet me and I will explain everything!

I am the eldest son of my father. We were 11 children, and being the eldest made it a special relationship. In our culture, when a man or woman becomes a parent, they are nicknamed after their first-born child, and my father was therefore called "Abu Khaled" or "father of Khaled" his whole life. My father fought the British Mandate and the Israeli terror gangs like Stern and Irgun. This is one of the influences that passed from my father to myself -- I have taken that spirit of resistance from him. And of course, within part of our Islamic and Arab culture, the deep emotional relationship between father and son -- this is also part of it.

My father passed on many of his qualities to me -- resistance; the practice of religion; courage and resolve; a democratic soul. He was very fair in his approach within the family, inside the home. He used to give us freedom and it has had its own impact on my upbringing. The child that gets such a democratic atmosphere will have more confidence in his or her decisions. Since I was a young boy, my father gave me complete liberty -- I have now brought the same policy to my own seven children.

My father was also a leader in his tribe, and with the clans and families at a social level. In a way he was a reference for our town on social affairs, so one major part of his personality was to be open to all horizons for the benefit of the family and the town. I was brought up with this environment, and I got this openness from my relationship with him.


Khaled Meshaal Interview, Part 1: Hamas Chief Weighs in on Eve of Peace Talks

Follow Sharmine Narwani on Twitter: www.twitter.com/snarwani

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