Hamas is critical of the Goldstone commission's report on alleged war crimes in Gaza, but will nonetheless accept its recommendations and investigate charges that militant groups violated the rules of war, senior Hamas official Ahmad Yousef told Ma'an.
In an extended interview at his home in the Gaza Strip town of Rafah, Yousef said that while he disagreed with Justice Richard Goldstone's equivalence between occupying forces and Palestinian resistance, the Hamas-backed government in Gaza would nonetheless "do our best" to pursue investigations into the deaths of three Israeli civilians.
Yousef's reaction differed from that of Israel, which refused to cooperate with Goldstone's UN Fact-Finding Mission and pilloried his 574-page report as biased. On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vetoed a suggestion that the government establish a commission of inquiry into Goldstone's findings.
The Goldstone report was one of dozens of topics addressed in Ma'an's extensive conversation with Yousef, who serves as an advisor to Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on foreign affairs.
Ma'an: We've been shocked to see how much devastation still remains from the Israeli onslaught on Gaza last winter. What is Hamas and the current government doing to further reconstruction?
Ahmad Yousef: In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful. From the beginning, after the war we announced that we welcome any efforts to rebuild Gaza. We are more than welcoming. We are not putting any restrictions on any efforts in that direction.
But, without construction materials it's going to be hard to start reconstruction. We tried bringing some tents and caravans to make sure that people who lost their houses are going to be housed. You know Israel closed all the gates. If you have the intention to do something, without opening the crossings, it's going to be in vain. If the world community, if UNRWA can't do anything, what can we do?
Unfortunately the world community is failing to put pressure on Israel to open the gates. Everybody sounds like they can't do anything.
In your opinion, what does the international community need to do? Where does the pressure need to be applied?
They have to put pressure on Israel to end the siege, to allow reconstruction to begin.
You said you wouldn't place restrictions on reconstruction efforts. Does that include those that are facilitated by the government in Ramallah?
Of course, if Ramallah has the intention to invest some of the money from the donors. They also have to cooperate with the institutions we have in Gaza. Nobody will come just to hand over money and construction materials without consulting with the local authorities. And I don't think it's going to be any problem to coordinate something with Ramallah in that respect.
What was your reaction to the conclusions of the Goldstone commission report that came out recently?
It depends on how you look at the report. If you look at the report from a moral and political perspective you shouldn't blame Hamas or the groups that were defending Gaza against aggression. The Israelis started the war, and they used the most advanced military technology known to man to cause that kind of large-scale destruction. So the groups are going to use whatever is necessarily and whatever is in their hands to defend the people.
The report tried to equate in one way or another between the aggressors and the victims. That is actually where we are not satisfied totally with the report.
But in general the report highlighted Israeli crimes against humanity, and they recommended that the United Nations, also, pressure the Israeli authorities to conduct more investigations to bring the criminals to justice. Blaming the Palestinians, one way or another, this is where we have some reservations. From a realpolitik standpoint, you can say the report, it's quiet fair, because it highlighted the Israeli crimes against the Palestinians.
The report did also call for investigations into what are alleged violations by the Palestinian side. Do you accept that recommendation?
We will try to do our best, also. They mentioned that three Israelis have also been killed. That's fine. Hamas has said all the time that they were targeting military bases. Maybe because these are primitive weapons – the rockets, because they're homemade – maybe some of these rockets missed their targets, some of them fell short.
Again, because these are primitive weapons – to compare it with 6,000 injured and 1,400 killed – I think it's unfair to make that comparison. And to compare the Israeli high-tech weapons, smart bombs and F16s and Apaches to the homemade Qassams and the mortars we have, it's like comparing the sword to the stick.
In July, you gave an interview to The Economist magazine in which you said Hamas is "close on recognizing Israel." You later retracted that statement and we reported that on Ma'an. What did you mean by that statement?
Actually I didn't make that statement. I was misquoted in an interview that was not recorded. The interviewer was a senior editor and I expected more professionalism from him. I called him to task on the misquote and he was ready to correct the statement. I issued another statement actually clarifying the things that I said.
The issue of recognition – it's not required by international law. There is nothing in international law requiring an occupied people to recognize their occupier. This is a unique Israeli demand where they keep demanding that Hamas recognize them. Still, we, the people whose land is occupied, reserve the right to defend ourselves, and the occupation must leave.
Hamas' political vision is crystal clear. We have said that we will accept a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders. We have said that we won't hinder any peace efforts that will lead to the establishment of a free independent state with Jerusalem as its capital.
You mean the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem?
Yes. The occupied territories and Jerusalem is its capital. We can give a truce 10 to 20 years. That means also the right of return, because it's also guaranteed by United Nations Resolution 194. Israel also must accept that UN resolution, which guarantees the right of return and compensation to Palestinian refugees in the Diaspora.
Hamas is clearly working hard to gain access to the international sphere and the political process. We once asked Tony Blair why the Quartet doesn't deal with Hamas, even though Khalid Mesh'al said, in an interview with the New York Times the same day, that Hamas accepts the 1967 borders. He said the Quartet understands this, that it's not a communication issue. How will this impasse be broken? Who is going to change their position?
I think the world community must change its position to make Israel adhere to international law and United Nations resolutions. It is not the Palestinians, who have been squeezed all the time to the corner, who will keep giving concessions to the Israelis because they have the upper hand. They have the military might. So the Palestinians, the victims, have to keep giving concessions? This is unacceptable.
Say more about the Hamas position toward Israel. Surely when you say recognition, you mean recognition of Israel's legitimacy, and the legitimacy of the occupation.
This issue is a very complicated issue, because the Palestinian question has religious, political, moral, and legal dimensions. All of these dimensions need to be addressed. It's not logical to ask the Palestinians, who lost their homeland, to recognize their occupier. The PLO already recognized Israel, and what did they get? Nothing.
I don't think the Israelis also have any political intention to resolve the problem. The Israelis are buying time to build more settlements in the West Bank and to usurp most of the strategic land, so that we Palestinians will have no chance to have a state. The Israelis grab more land every year putting more settlements in the West Bank. Already more than 200 settlements exist in the West Bank with different capacities of population and about a half-million settlers.
If we keep silent 10 more years there is no West Bank at all, except for these condensed populated areas, and I don't know what they're going to do with that.
In the Makkah platform of the 2007 government, you worked out a formula where the president, Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] had control over the negotiation file, and he could negotiate with Israel or not. Are you interested in returning to such a platform?
If we succeed in the national reconciliation talks and we have a unity government or a coalition and Hamas is a part of it – for sure they will address this issue of who is going to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians. When we had the unity government, Abu Mazen had that mandate.
Now that we have been divided, from the Hamas perspective I don't think he has that kind of mandate. We have to accept first what kind of political platform we have together, as a unity or coalition government. […]
So, your position is that because of the split, because there is no unity government, all the current discussions between renewing negotiations – you're saying Abbas doesn't have the legitimacy even to be talking about negotiations?
Of course yes, from the Hamas perspective he does not have the legitimacy. If he is talking … Abu Mazen has initiated many things without consulting even the PLO. He thinks he has the jurisdiction to do whatever he wants. From Hamas' perspective he doesn't have anything legitimate.
The moment we split and divided the West Bank and Gaza, Abu Mazen is doing his own initiative and proposal. He doesn't consult with us, so why should we give him that kind of mandate. We don't know exactly what he is doing.
From the things we heard from Abu Ala [PA negotiator Ahmad Quriea], after all these rounds of talks and after all this hugging and kissing with [former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert, they said that we achieved a big zero, so why do we have to count on someone who achieved a big zero, and discredited us as Palestinians among the world community, among the Arabs and Muslims by deceiving us that he's achieving something, and that's why he's kissing Olmert.
He [Abbas] is giving wrong signals to us as Palestinians to the world community … that there is something moving, but if you look and see at the end of the road we didn't reach our destiny and all the things that Abu Mazen is talking [about]. … There is nothing that has actually been achieved.
Is Abu Mazen still the legitimate president of Palestine?
From Hamas' perspective, I don't think they consider him as a legitimate president because his term has ended, and in light of the [Palestinian] Basic Law he lost that legitimacy. But that is a controversial issue; I don't think it's useful to go and talk about it.
What is your view of the suggestion that there will be new elections in January?
If you're going to have elections, you need first national reconciliation. And when you have national reconciliation, at least you need six months to prepare for elections, to do the procedures that are required for elections. I don't think it's going to be feasible. We are now in the end of September, and we need at least two or three months to reconcile the rift between Fatah and Hamas. To set the stage for elections you need at least six months.
So, the need, really, is for administrative unity, a single bureaucratic framework between the West Bank and Gaza.
That's right. And you see in the Egyptian vision to end the rift, they mentioned that they might need until the middle of 2010. They understand the complexity: the next round of talks, how long will that take? The things in the Egyptian proposal, how long will they take to implement? Reforming the security services and such.
Do you feel there has been progress in the Egyptian proposals, that they are becoming more realistic?
I think this time there is a glimmer of hope and room for optimism, more than all the previous rounds of talks. During the talks there were lot of difficulties and everyone tried to put up obstacles, but I think this time the Egyptian vision addressed both Fatah and Hamas' demands. I think the Egyptians are trying to make some kind of compromise to accommodate both of them. I think we are more optimistic than at any time before.