'It is the occupation, not Hamas recognition of Israel, which is the core problem'
It is rather unnerving to come face to face with a man regarded by many people in the West as the leader of a terrorist organisation, and by possibly more people elsewhere in the world as the head of a legitimate resistance movement. It might, I suppose, have been the same for journalists meeting the late Nelson Mandela when politicians in Britain and America, for example, called him a terrorist who "should be shot" (according to Teddy Taylor, a British MP, in the mid-80s) while to most others he was a freedom fighter to be admired and supported.
Is the switch from sinner to saint going to be the same for the head of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Meshaal? Time will tell, but seeing that the Islamic Resistance Movement was described just last week in Britain's unelected second chamber by hereditary peer Viscount Slim as "one of the nastiest and most vicious terrorist organisations in the world", it seems that there is a lot of ground to make up. Convincing people like John Slim that resistance against Israel's occupation of Palestinian "by any means available" is not only a legal right for the people under occupation but also, according to Meshaal, a "duty", is likely to be an uphill struggle. Struggle, though, is what Palestinians have been born into for almost 100 years.
I met with the Hamas leader in his office in Doha on, coincidentally, the 97th anniversary of the infamous and much misinterpreted Balfour Declaration. It was with this letter, which has no legal status, that the British government effectively signalled its intent to give Palestinian land to the Zionist movement for a "national home for the Jewish people". Meshaal is both modest and charming, and although he will no doubt be surprised to be compared with Mandela, he shares such characteristics with the great African freedom fighter. As with Mandela, Meshaal's charm masks a steely determination to achieve freedom for his people from an unjust oppressor. Criticism like that of Viscount Slim is par for the course and he shrugs it off. Nevertheless, he admitted in his book "The political thought of the Islamic Resistance Movement HAMAS" (MEMO Publishers, 2013) that there is a need to present the movement's case "properly".
Born in Silwad, Jerusalem, in May 1956, Khaled Meshaal has lived in exile since the 1967 war launched pre-emptively by the Israelis against Egypt. His homes have included Kuwait, Jordan, Syria and now Qatar. He joined the Muslim Brotherhood in 1971, leaving to join its newly-formed offshoot Hamas in 1987, and was listed as the 18th "most influential" figure in the world by the New Statesman in 2010. He has more right than most not to trust the current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a serious "partner for peace". In September 1997, during Netanyahu's first term in office, he ordered Israel's Mossad security agency to assassinate Meshaal in the Jordanian capital Amman. The personal intervention of the late King Hussain forced the Israelis to supply the antidote for the poison with which Meshaal had been injected by Mossad agents.
Politics, it seems, has been his life, so why did he choose to go down that route when, clearly, as a physics graduate there were other options available to him? "I didn't choose this because of politics per se but simply because politics is very much a part of the struggle for liberation and self-determination. The political struggle is an integral part of the whole struggle against the Israeli occupation; armed, political and diplomatic efforts are summed up by the legitimate framework of struggle 'by all means available' in order to end the occupation."
The struggle against Israel's occupation of Palestine since 1948, not just 1967, is central to Meshaal's reason for being involved at such a senior level in the resistance movement. Indeed, it is, he says, "the core issue". Although the international community in the guise of the Middle East Quartet of the UN, US, EU and Russia, has said that Hamas recognition of Israel is a pre-condition for any degree of normalisation with the movement, Meshaal believes that the group is looking in the wrong place for the starting point to move towards peace. "The problem arises not from Hamas refusing to recognise the usurper of Palestinian rights which occupies Palestinian land; it is the occupation itself."
He believes that it is "unjust and unrealistic" to impose such a pre-condition. "This is the wrong way to solve the conflict," insists Meshaal. "We are victims of the Israeli occupation and have the legitimate right to be free of that occupation. Is it fair, or even legal, to require the victims of the crime of ethnic cleansing, displacement and the occupation itself to recognise the rights of the occupier to carry out such crimes? That is the logical result of recognition of the state of Israel; it gives legitimacy to the crimes that it has carried out ever since it was founded."
Formal recognition is normally made between states and Hamas is a popular movement, not a state. Moreover, does Israel recognise the right of Hamas to lead the Palestinian resistance to its military occupation? It most certainly does not, and neither does Israel's main supporter, the United States and the other members of the Quartet. "The US and other main powers of the world have not helped the Palestinians to end the occupation at the core of the problem," Meshaal points out. He has no doubt that this makes the US an unsuitable interlocutor for the now discredited peace process. He is not alone in thinking that way; Washington's status as an "honest broker" is tarnished beyond repair due to its unswerving support for Israel, right or wrong.
Wasn't, though, the offer of a long-term truce, a hudna, made by Hamas to the state of Israel de facto recognition of the existence of such a state? He is quick to tell me that the offer was not recognition of the right of that state to exist on someone else's — the Palestinians' — land. Meshaal told former US President Jimmy Carter in 2008 that the offer of a 10-year hudna was on the table as long as Israel withdrew to the 1967 borders, and that this was "proof of recognition".
He has said previously that Hamas favours a "gradual approach" to resolving the conflict that blights the region. So a long-term truce would be part of a series of moves? "The hudna was offered as a first step in the process but was rejected by Israel. This is a clear indication that the problem lies with Israel, not Hamas or the Palestinians."
The reasoning behind the hudna, proposed also by the founder of Hamas, Shaikh Ahmed Yassin, who suggested a 50-year truce, is that it will provide an opportunity for people on both sides to live and work together before reaching "final status" decisions. It has been said that the hudna period would also allow for those with "serious baggage" to be less involved at the crucial stages. When Israel killed Shaikh Yassin as he left a mosque after morning prayers in March 2004, Britain's then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that although Israel is entitled to defend itself against terrorism, "it is not entitled to go in for this kind of unlawful killing and we condemn it. It is unacceptable, it is unjustified and it is very unlikely to achieve its objectives." The UN Secretary General of the time, Kofi Annan, also condemned the assassination, as did a number of UN member states.
"Nevertheless," continues Meshaal, "as a Palestinian faction, Hamas has a common agreement with the others that the initial aim is a sovereign, independent state within the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital and the right of return for the refugees." That is what the movement is working towards and there is nothing in these objectives that contradicts international laws and conventions; indeed, their achievement would fulfil the terms of numerous UN resolutions.
Israel is adamant, however, that if Palestinian refugees and their descendants were allowed to go back to historic Palestine it would signal the end of the self-declared "Jewish state". This is no surprise to the Hamas leader, who is convinced that as a "civilisational spearhead in the region", a colonial project no less, Israel has, in any case, a limited life-expectancy. Is this, I wonder, what is meant when critics of Hamas claim that the movement wants to "wipe Israel off the map"?
"We offered a truce which was rejected by Israel," he responds defiantly. "All of the [Palestinian] factions agreed to establish a state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital and the return of the refugees. It was rejected by Israel, and the world didn't take this seriously, but we work with all factions. The fact that Israel has no future has been suggested by think-tanks, other countries (including, for example, Russia) and even Israeli thinkers. Why? Because it is a state built on the theft of someone else's land, aggression, bloodshed, terrorism and violence." Citing a poll which revealed that 59 per cent of British citizens think that Israel is the biggest threat to world peace, he adds that this is reflected around the world.
"Looking at the issue from the perspective of the global powers," he continues, "it is clear that they use Israel as a colonial tool to impose their hegemony on the Middle East, but things are changing. They can see now that this colonial tool is losing its value to them. They are more aware that the entity is a moral and political liability, especially after its wars against Gaza.
At this point Meshaal uses the term "Holocaust". Did he really say that? He did, and means it. The Hamas leader sees a great irony in the fact that the West was keen to help the Jews of Europe to escape from Hitler and the Nazis during and after World War Two, "but is now supplying the means for Israel to commit its own Holocaust against the Palestinians."
That is a serious charge which he makes with absolute conviction that what his people are facing is another genocide of massive proportions. Not, it must be said, through a direct replication of the industrialised murder of European Jews and others by the Germans and their allies, but in the way that the tools of the modern military-industrial complex across the West are used on Palestinian civilians and then sold at arms fairs on the basis that the weapons and ammunition have been "field tested" on human beings and their homes. The fact that Palestinians appear to be entirely dispensable as part of this obscene process is evidence, it is believed, of the genocidal intent of the Israelis and their supporters.
For Meshaal, the "Israel-Palestine" issue is definitely much broader, not least because of the direct and indirect involvement of other countries behind Israel. I wonder if this include Arab states as he has said before that the threats from "Israel's colonial expansionism… go way beyond the borders of historic Palestine" and that the conflict involves "the entire Arab and Islamic world". Although there has been an "Arab betrayal of the Palestinians", and "weak Arab diplomacy" certainly hasn't helped, Meshaal is clear that Israel needs to be "challenged by an Arab, Islamic and humanitarian response". Some Arab governments may be in the same camp as Israel, but the people have different ideas.
Is there, I ask, still an "Arab nation" which can respond? Given that the Arab states have had decades to do something about the state of Israel but have generally shied away from it, preferring good relations with the US over putting pressure on Israel, will they ever do anything positive for the Palestinians?
"The Arab nation ("Ummah") is a historical reality but it is weak and fragmented, Meshaal replies without hesitation. "The Western powers are aware of the geo-political importance and potential of the Arab nation and so are keen to keep it weak and preoccupied with domestic problems, denying the people democracy and freedom. The Arab nation is suffering, so the Palestinians are suffering even more because the Arabs form the Palestinians' strategic back. It is a fact, though, that the Ummah will rise again, insha'Allah [God-willing], including the Palestinians." He bases this belief on the experience of independence struggles in other countries.
"Look around the world, all of the people who fought for freedom from occupation succeeded in their struggle. All forms of colonialism are doomed to fail and all of the nations who work hard for self-development have achieved their goal. This is a difficult process of change and it takes time and sacrifice no matter where it takes place."
He is talking primarily about the Arab Ummah. Does this include the Muslim Ummah, the worldwide community of believers? "They overlap and interact."
Turning back to the political struggle for freedom, I ask if Hamas was surprised to win the 2006 Palestinian elections. "The movement's participation in the elections [which surprised many people] was part of its vision to have a role in the democratic system. Hamas was aware of its support amongst the masses when the decision to participate was taken, so it was no great surprise to win, although we thought that we would be sharing government with other factions."
The election was described by observers, including some British parliamentarians, as free and fair but the result was still rejected by Israel and its Western backers, including the US and UK. The subsequent political split caused in no small part by Western political and financial pressure on the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has seen the PA operating under PLO/Fatah control in the occupied West Bank and the, more legitimate it must be said, Hamas government in the Gaza Strip. This is despite the fact that the Oslo Accords which founded the authority insist that the two occupied territories must be dealt with as one. Are fresh elections to try to overcome this damaging division likely in the near future as part of the much-vaunted reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah?
"There are many aspects to the reconciliation process, of which just one is the planning for elections," says Meshaal. "The others include reform of the PLO, social reconciliation between families and partnership in decision-making." If an election is held tomorrow, will Hamas win again? "Hamas can say that its popularity is at a high level after the latest Israeli war against Gaza and the movement is ready to take part in free and fair elections. It will accept the results as long as the process is free, fair and transparent." Doubts have been cast on this likelihood given that the Abbas-led PA has been active in clamping-down on Hamas as a political force in the West Bank and the Israelis continue to detain elected members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the nearest the Palestinians have to Members of Parliament. A source within the Hamas leadership said recently that it is "difficult" to work in partnership "when your partners are plotting against you."
Doesn't this indicate, I ask, that there are too many Palestinian groups in the "leadership" which merely serve to complicate matters? Wouldn't it be better to achieve an independent state under one umbrella, after which differences could either be reconciled or expressed through civil society and political activism? The Palestine Liberation Organisation, once despised by Israel and the West as a terrorist group but now recognised as the "sole legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people, is said to be ripe for reform. A major political and social player in Palestinian society like Hamas is not, for example, a member of the PLO. The movement wants to see the organisation reformed.
"Hamas wants to see all of the Palestinian institutions — the PLO, PA and PLC, and the government — established on a democratic basis," explains Meshaal. "The reconciliation agreement included the formation of a National Unity Government to begin the preparations for the elections for president, the legislative council and the PLO, including its legislative body, the Palestine National Council (PNC). All of our institutions are important." He points out that the PA represents the system for governing issues in the West Bank and Gaza Strip whereas the PLO covers all Palestinians inside historic Palestine as well as those in the diaspora. "Some obstacles have been placed in the way of holding the elections by internal Palestinian sources; other obstacles have been placed in the way, especially for the reform of the PLO, from international sources, with negative foreign intervention blocking reconciliation and reform of the organisation. However, it is the right of the Palestinian people to reform the PLO and nobody can stop us."
In his 2013 publication, Meshaal referred to the "insular priorities" of the nation state, and said that the world appears to be moving to a preference for "quasi-federal blocs". Will the establishment of an independent state of Palestine be a prelude to the creation of a federal set-up with other nation states in the Middle East and beyond? Given that pro-Israel Lobby claims that Jordan "is the Palestinian state", this could be an interesting and potentially damaging scenario.
"We are one nation in this region; the colonial powers divided us. The nation states we have today were created by the colonial powers and we see no problem for them to have their own national priorities for the benefit of their own people, to have security and stability for their countries," says Meshaal. I can sense a "but…" coming. "However, they should act as part of an Ummah, as one hand, for example, when one is attacked. The concept of the Ummah should be in their minds for working together on economic and security issues." The USA is a federal state but one nation, he notes; in Europe, with the EU, nation states work together for the common good. "This is the strategy that the Arab and Islamic nation/Ummah should commit to. At the same time, we must be open to other nations for the sake of our common humanity. As such, when, not if, the occupation is ended and a sovereign Palestinian state is established it will be a nation state which will work for the good of its people but with the requirements of the wider Ummah in mind."
Is the Palestinian state going to be established despite all of the obstacles; will it be free and independent? The head of the Hamas political bureau has no doubt: "Of course, insha'Allah!" He means it.
Back in 2008, Jimmy Carter said that it was ridiculous for Hamas to be excluded from the peace talks. Similar sentiments were expressed by veteran British MP Sir Gerald Kaufman in parliament in January 2009; Kaufman's speech made it clear that he is no fan of the movement, "but it was democratically elected and it is the only game in town". To this day, though, neither Israel nor its supporters will entertain the idea of even speaking to the Islamist group. According to Kaufman, "The boycotting of Hamas, including by our Government, has been a culpable error, from which dreadful consequences have followed."
Claims that Israel and the West have "shared values" which include "respect for law and order" have been shown to be false, leading to increasing pressure from civil society and public opinion to change government policies. The Palestinians have waited for decades and have patience in abundance, so until and unless such changes take place, the struggle for Palestinian freedom will continue. Hamas and its leader Khaled Meshaal believe that victory will come because "colonialism remains an unacceptable anachronism in the 21st century." Can anyone really disagree with that?