Khaled Meshal, Hamas leader: “It is possible to reunite the Palestinians”

In a world exclusive, Ken Livingstone discusses religion, violence and the chances for peace with the Hamas leader Khaled Meshal.

The Hamas leader Khaled Meshal. Photo: Getty
The Hamas leader Khaled Meshal. Photo: Getty

The key to peace in the Middle East is restoration of international law and the recognition of the right of both Palestinians and Israeli Jews to live in peace and security side by side. As President Obama says, there is no peace process today. Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, continues to extend illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and maintain a near-complete blockade of Gaza. Palestinians fire ineffectual rockets into Israel. Israel regularly attacks Palestinian territories with modern weapons.

No major conflict can be resolved without each side talking to the other. That was the case in South Africa, Ireland and countless other situations where people said they would never talk to their opponents. I was vilified in the Eighties for saying that, to resolve the Irish conflict, you had to talk to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

In the Middle East, peace can only be achieved through discussion between the elected representatives of both the Israelis and the Palestinians - and that means Hamas, which won a big majority in the last Palestinian parliamentary election, as well as Fatah. This does not mean that I agree with the views of Hamas, Fatah or the government of Israel. Far from it: I do not. For example, I think a number of passages in the original Hamas charter are unacceptable and should be repudiated. Many observers believe that this is also the view of some in Hamas.

Yet, for too many people, Hamas as an organisation remains opaque. What they know about it is derived from a hostile media; it has no face. Most would probably think its leader is some disturbed Osama Bin Laden figure. In fact, al-Qaeda's supporters in Gaza are so hostile to Hamas that they have declared war on it.

For these reasons, I thought it important to interview the de facto leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshal, who lives in exile in Syria. Not every issue is clear. But at the beginning of any peace process, what matters most is engagement. Dialogue is necessary to get to clarity and mutual understanding. Sinn Fein did not answer every question at the beginning and neither does Binyamin Netanyahu today. The answers from Meshal come at a time of heightened tensions and renewed death threats against him, adding to the permanent danger of assassination bids not only by the Israelis, but also al-Qaeda supporters in the region.

I hope this interview will help to make the case for the dialogue that is needed, which I believe is inevitable. It is simply a question of how much suffering there will be, on both sides, before we get there.

Ken Livingstone: Could you explain a little about your childhood and the experiences that shaped your development into the person you are today?

Khaled Meshal: I was born in the West Bank village of Silwad near Ramallah in 1956. In my early age, I learned from my father how he was part of the Palestinian revolution against the British mandate in Palestine in the Thirties and how he fought, alongside other Palestinians using primitive weapons, against the well-equipped and trained Zionist gangs attacking Palestinian villages in 1948.

I lived in Silwad for 11 years until the 1967 war, when I was forced with my family, like hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, to leave home and settle in Jordan. That was a shocking experience I will never forget.

KL: What happened to you after the war?

KM: Soon afterwards, I left Jordan for Kuwait, where my father had already been working and living since before 1967. After completing my primary education in 1970, I joined the prestigious Abdullah al-Salim Secondary School. In the early Seventies, it was a hub of intense political and ideological activity.

During my second year at al-Salim school, I joined the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun). Upon finishing my fourth year successfully I secured admission to Kuwait University, where I studied for a BSc degree in physics.

Kuwait University had an active branch of the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS), which had been under the absolute control of the Fatah movement. I and my fellow Islamists decided, in 1977, to join GUPS, which we had previously shunned, and contest its leadership election. However, working from within GUPS proved impossible; we felt constantly impeded and realised we Islamists would never be given a chance. By 1980, two years after I graduated, my juniors decided to leave GUPS and form their own Palestinian association on campus.

Many of the students had become disillusioned with the Palestinian leadership, who seemed intent on settling for much less than what they
had grown up dreaming of, namely the complete liberation of Palestine and the return of all the refugees to their homes.

KL: What is the situation in Gaza today?

KM: Gaza today is under siege. Crossings are closed most of the time and for months victims of the Israeli war on Gaza have been denied ­access to construction materials to rebuild their destroyed homes. Schools, hospitals and homes in many parts of the Gaza Strip are in need of rebuilding. Tens of thousands of people remain homeless. As winter approaches, the conditions of these victims will only get worse in the cold and rain. One and a half million people are held hostage in one of the biggest prisons in the history of humanity. They are unable to travel freely out of the Strip, whether for medical treatment, for education or for other needs. What we have in Gaza is a disaster and a crime against humanity perpetrated by the Israelis. The world community, through its silence and indifference, colludes in this crime.

KL: Why do you think Israel is still imposing the siege on Gaza?

KM: The Israelis claim that the siege is for security reasons. The real intention is to pressure Hamas by punishing the entire population. The sanctions were put in place soon after Hamas won the Palestinian elections in January 2006. While security is one of their concerns, it is not the main motivation. The primary objective is to provoke a coup against the results of the democratic elections that brought Hamas to power. The Israelis and their allies seek to impose failure on Hamas by persecuting the people. This is a hideous and immoral endeavour. Today, the siege continues despite the fact that we have, for the past six months, observed a ceasefire. Last year, a truce was observed from June to December 2008. Yet the siege was never lifted, and the sanctions remained in place. Undermining Hamas is the main objective of the siege. The Israelis hope to turn the people of Gaza against Hamas by increasing the suffering of the entire population of the Strip.

KL: How many supporters of Hamas and elected representatives of Hamas are there in prison in Israel? Have they all been charged and convicted of crimes?

KM: Out of a total of 12,000 Palestinian captives in Israeli detention, around 4,000 are Hamas members. These include scores of ministers and parliamentarians (Palestinian Legislative Council members). Around ten have recently been released, but about 40 PLC members remain in detention. Some have been given sentences, but many are held in what the Israelis call administrative detention. The only crime these people are accused of is their association with Hamas's parliamentary group. Exercising one's democratic right is considered a crime by Israel. All these Palestinians are brought before an Israeli system of justice that has nothing to do with justice. The Israeli judiciary is an instrument of the occupation. In Israel, there are two systems of justice: one applies to Israelis and another applies to the Palestinians. This is an apartheid regime.

KL: What part, if any, do other states and insti­tutions, such as the US, the EU, Britain, Egypt, or the Palestinian Authority, play in the blockade of Gaza?

KM: The blockade of Gaza would never have succeeded had it not been for the collusion of regional and international powers.

KL: How do you think the blockade can be lifted?

KM: In order for the blockade to be lifted, the rule of international law must be respected. The basic human rights of the Palestinians and their right to live in dignity and free from persecution would have to be acknowledged. There has to be an international will to serve justice and uphold the basic principles of international human rights law. The international community would have to free itself from the shackles of Israeli pressure, speak the truth and act accordingly.

KL: Israel says that the bombing and invasion of Gaza last year was in response to repeated breaking of the ceasefire by Hamas and the firing of rockets into southern Israel. Is this the case?

KM: The Israelis are not telling the truth. We ­entered into a truce deal with Israel from 19 June to 19 December 2008. Yet the blockade was not lifted. The deal entailed a bilateral ceasefire, lifting the blockade and opening the crossings. We fully abided by the ceasefire while Israel only partially observed it, and towards the end of the term it resumed hostilities. Throughout that ­period, Israel maintained the siege and only intermittently opened some of the crossings, ­allowing no more than 10 per cent of the basic needs of the Gazan population to get through.
Israel killed the potential for renewing the truce because it deliberately and repeatedly violated it.

I have always informed my western visitors, including the former US president Jimmy Carter, that the moment Hamas is offered a truce that
includes lifting the blockade and opening the crossings, Hamas will adopt a positive stance. So far, no one has made us any such offer. As far as we are concerned, the blockade amounts to a declaration of war that warrants self-defence.

KL: What are the ideology and goals of Hamas?

KM: Our people have been the victims of a colonial project called Israel. For years, we have suffered various forms of repression. Half of our people have been dispossessed and are denied the right to return to their homes, and half live under an occupation regime that violates their basic human rights. Hamas struggles for an end to occupation and for the restoration of our people's rights, including their right to return home.

KL: What is your view of the cause of the conflict between the state of Israel and the Palestinians?

KM: The conflict is the outcome of aggression and occupation. Our struggle against the Israelis is not because they are Jewish, but because they invaded our homeland and dispossessed us. We do not accept that because the Jews were once persecuted in Europe they have the right to take our land and throw us out. The injustices suffered by the Jews in Europe were horrible and criminal, but were not perpetrated by the Palestinians or the Arabs or the Muslims. So, why should we be punished for the sins of others or be made to pay for their crimes?

KL: Do you believe that Israel intends to continue to expand its borders?

KM: Israel does not, officially, have stated borders. When Israel was created in our homeland 62 years ago, its founders dreamed of a "Greater Israel" that extended from the Nile to the Euphrates. Expansionism manifested itself on different occasions: in 1956, in 1967 and later on in the occupation of parts of Lebanon in the Eighties. Arab weakness, Israeli military superiority, the support given to Israel by the western powers, and the massacres it was prepared to commit against unarmed civilians in Palestine, Egypt and Lebanon, enabled it to expand from time to time. Although expansionism still lurks in the minds of many Israelis, it would seem that this is no longer a practical option. Lebanese and Palestinian resistance has forced Israel to withdraw unilaterally from lands it had previously occupied through war and aggression. While in the past Israel was able to defeat several Arab armies, today it faces formidable resistance that will not only check its expansionism but also, in time, force it to relinquish more of the land that it illegally occupies.

KL: What are your principal goals? Is Hamas primarily a political or a religious organisation?

KM: Hamas is a national liberation movement. We do not see a contradiction between our Islamic identity and our political mission. While we engage the occupiers through resistance and struggle to achieve our people's rights, we are proud of our religious identity that derives from Islam. Unlike the experience of the Europeans with Christianity, Islam does not provide for, demand or recognise an ecclesiastical authority. It simply provides a set of broad guidelines whose detailed interpretations are subject to and the product of human endeavour (ijtihad).

KL: Are you committed to the destruction of Israel?

KM: What is really happening is the destruction of the Palestinian people by Israel; it is the one that occupies our land and exiles us, kills us,
incarcerates us and persecutes our people. We are the victims, Israel is the oppressor, and not vice versa.

KL: Why does Hamas support military force in this conflict?

KM: Military force is an option that our people resort to because nothing else works. Israel's conduct and the collusion of the international community, whether through silence or indifference or actual embroilment, vindicate armed resistance. We would love to see this conflict
resolved peacefully. If occupation were to come to an end and our people enabled to exercise self-determination in their homeland, there would then be no need for any use of force. The reality is that nearly 20 years of peaceful negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis have not restored any of our rights. On the contrary, we have incurred more suffering and more losses as a result of the one-sided compromises made by the Palestinian negotiating party.

Since the PLO entered into the Oslo peace deal with Israel in 1993, more Palestinian land in the West Bank has been expropriated by the Israelis to build more illegal Jewish settlements, expand existing ones or construct highways for the exclusive use of Israelis living in these settlements. The apartheid wall that the Israelis erected along the West Bank has consumed large areas of the land that was supposed to be returned to the Palestinians according to the peace deal.

The apartheid wall and hundreds of checkpoints turned the West Bank into isolated enclaves like cells in a large prison, which makes
life intolerable.

Jerusalem is constantly tampered with in order to alter its landscape and identity, and hundreds of Palestinian homes have been destroyed inside the city and around it, making thousands of Palestinians homeless in their own homeland. Instead of releasing Palestinian prisoners, the Israelis have arrested an additional 5,000 Palestinians since the Annapolis peace conference in 2007 - actions that testify to the fact they simply aren't interested in peace at all.

KL: Does Hamas engage in military activity outside Palestine?

KM: No; since its establishment 22 years ago, Hamas has confined its field of military operation to occupied Palestine.

KL: Do you wish to establish an Islamic state in Palestine in which all other religions are subordinate?

KM: Our priority as a national liberation movement is to end the Israeli occupation of our homeland. Once our people are free in their land and enjoy the right to self-determination, they alone have the final say on what system of governance they wish to live under. It is our firm belief that Islam cannot be imposed on the people. We shall campaign, in a fully democratic process, for an Islamic agenda. If that is what the people opt for, then that is their choice. We believe that Islam is the best source of guidance and the best guarantor for the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

KL: Does Hamas impose Islamic dress in Gaza? For example, is it compulsory in Gaza for women to wear the hijab, niqab or burqa?

KM: No. Intellectually, Hamas derives its vision from the people's culture and religion. Islam is our religion and is the basic constituent of our culture. We do not deny other Palestinians the right to have different visions. We do not impose on the people any aspects of religion or social conduct. Features of religion in Gaza society are genuine and spontaneous; they have not been imposed by any authority other than the faith and conviction of the observant.

KL: It is suggested that the division in the Palestinian people between the West Bank and Gaza and between Fatah and Hamas, which obviously weakens their position, came about because Hamas seized power by force in Gaza. Is this true and how do you explain this division?

KM: Undoubtedly, division does weaken the Palestinians and harms their cause. However, the division is caused not by Hamas, but by the insistence of certain international and regional parties on reversing the results of Palestinian democracy. It dismayed them that Hamas was elected by the Palestinian people.

The division is compounded by the existence of a Palestinian party that seeks empowerment from those same regional and international
parties, including the US and Israel, that wish to see Hamas out of the arena. Soon after its victory in the election of January 2006, every effort was exerted to undermine the ability of Hamas to govern.

When these efforts failed, General Keith Dayton, of the United States army, who currently serves as US security co-ordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, was despatched to Gaza to plot a coup against the Hamas-led national unity government that came out of the Mecca agreement of 2007. The plot prompted Hamas in Gaza to act in self-defence in the events of June 2007. The claim that Hamas carried out a coup is baseless because Hamas was leading the democratically elected government. All it did was act against those who were plotting a coup against it under the command and guidance of General Dayton.

KL: Do those of other political or religious views such as Fatah enjoy democratic freedoms in Gaza? What is the situation of Hamas members in the West Bank territories controlled by Fatah?

KM: Some Palestinian factions have been inspired by Arab nationalism, others by Marxism or Leninism, and others by liberalism. While we strongly believe that these ideas are alien to our people and have failed to meet their aspirations, we insist that the people are the final arbiter on whom they wish to lead them and by which system they desire to be governed. Thus, democracy is our best option for settling our internal Palestinian differences. Whatever the people choose will have to be respected.

We endeavour to the best of our ability to protect the human rights and civil liberties of the affiliates of Fatah and all the other factions within the Gaza Strip. In contrast, the Palestinians in the West Bank under Israeli occupation and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah continue to be denied their basic rights. General Dayton is in the West Bank supervising the ­severe and brutal crackdown on Hamas and other Palestinian groups. More than 1,000 political prisoners, including students, university professors and professionals in all fields are hunted down, detained and tortured, sometimes to death, by the US-, British- and EU-trained and -sponsored Palestinian Authority's security force.

KL: Do you believe it is possible to reunite the Palestinian people? If so, how do you think this could be done and within what kind of timescale?

KM: It is possible to reunite the Palestinians. In order for this to happen two things are needed. First, foreign interventions and demands must stop. The Palestinian people should be left to deal with their own differences without external pressure. Second, all Palestinian parties must respect the rules of the democratic game and submit to the results of its process.

KL: Hamas's refusal to recognise Israel is frequently cited as an insuperable obstacle to negotiations and a peace settlement.

KM: This issue is only used as a pretext. Israel does not recognise the rights of the Palestinian people, yet this is not raised as an obstacle to
Israel being internationally recognised nor to it being allowed to take part in talks. The reality is that Israel is the one that occupies the land and possesses superior power. Rather than ask the Palestinians, who are the victims, it is Israel, who is the oppressor, who should be asked to recognise the rights of the Palestinians.

In the past, Yasser Arafat recognised Israel but failed to achieve much. Today, Mahmoud Abbas recognises Israel, but we have yet to see any of the promised dividends of the peace process.

Israel concedes only under pressure. In the absence of any tangible pressure on Israel by the Arabs or by the international community, no settlement will succeed.

KL: Do you have a "road map" of interim steps which could realistically lead to a peaceful settlement of the conflict? Do you think Jews, Muslims and Christians can one day live together in peace in the Holy Land?

KM: We do, in Hamas, believe that a realistic peaceful settlement to the conflict will have to begin with a ceasefire agreement between the two sides based on a full withdrawal of Israel from all the territories occupied in 1967. Israeli intransigence and the lack of will to act on the part of the international community are what ­impede this settlement. We believe that only once our people are free and back in their land will they be able to determine the future of the conflict.

It should be reiterated here that we do not resist the Israelis because they are Jews. As a matter of principle, we do not have problems with the Jews or the Christians, but do have a problem with those who attack us and oppress us. For many centuries, Christians, Jews and Muslims coexisted peacefully in this part of the world. Our society never witnessed the sort of racism and genocide that Europe saw until recently against "the other". These issues started in Eur­ope. Colonialism was imposed on this region by Europe, and Israel was the product of the oppression of the Jews in Europe and not of any such problem that existed in the Muslim land.

KL: What role do you think that other countries and organisations, in particular the US, EU and Britain, are currently playing in the Israel/ Palestine conflict and the divisions between the Palestinians?

KM: The role played by all these has thus far been negative. The attitude towards Israeli crimes against our people has been either silence or collusion. The policies and positions adopted by these parties have contributed to the Palestinian division or augmented it. On the one hand, conditions are stipulated that have the effect of torpedoing unity talks and reconciliation efforts. On the other hand, some of these international parties are directly embroiled in suppressing our people in the West Bank. The US and the EU provide funding, training and guidance to build a Palestinian security apparatus specialised in the persecution of critics of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

We have particularly been concerned about reports that the British government, directly as well as indirectly by means of security firms and the services of retired army, police and in­telligence officers, is fully involved in the programme led by General Dayton against Hamas in the West Bank.

KL: What should countries such as the US and Britain do to assist a peaceful settlement?

KM: They should simply uphold international law - the occupation is illegal, the annexation of East Jerusalem is illegal, the settlements are illegal, the apartheid wall is illegal, and the siege of Gaza is illegal. Yet nothing is done.

KL: What relations does Hamas wish to have with the rest of the world, and, for example, with Britain?

KM: Hamas defends a just cause. For this purpose, it desires to open up to the world. The movement seeks to establish good relations and to conduct constructive dialogue with all those concerned with Palestine.