In mid-May of 2008, Alexander Cockburn was among a group of Americans who sat down in a house in a Damascus suburb for two hours with Khaled Meshal, then the chairman of the political bureau of Hamas. Cockburn later described Meshal as an alert and humorous man who looks to be in his early 50s, born in a village not far from Ramallah. He was trained as a physicist, has visited the U.S. a number of times and speaks good English. Significant portions of the exchange follow. – JSC
Meshal: We, as Palestinians, have the honor of representing a just issue. We have endured atrocities and occupation. Because of the Israeli occupation, half of the Palestinian people live under occupation inside Palestine, and the other half are living without homes outside. Today we, as a Palestinian people, a Palestinian nation, are looking only to live in peace without occupation. We reject the occupation. We reject the atrocities. And we reject being without a home and away from home. We have no problems with any religion in the world, nor any race in the world. We learned very well that the almighty god Allah created human beings with different races and different religions and he asked us to accommodate these diversities. Hence, we request the same with nations all over the world to accommodate this just issue.
Our problem is with unfair policies in the international community: pre-eminently the policies of the American [Bus] administration. And, of course, we do not consider the people of America responsible for that. I have visited America many times. And I know very well that the American people are very kind people. But our problem is with the foreign policies of successive American administrations. We accepted a state of
Palestine on the borders of 1967. The international community failed to pressure Israelis to do the same. So, what is left for Palestinians to do, except resist? For our part, we prefer the peaceful path. But we find the peaceful path blocked. Hence, the Palestinians are left with no option but the resistance. And this is what explains why the Palestinian people elected Hamas and why, amid famine and hunger and siege inflicted on the Palestinian people today, you find the same thing: the Palestinian people are supporting Hamas.
Gaza is the biggest detention camp in the history. Remember Newton’s law that to every action there is always an equal opposing reaction. The Israeli occupation is the action, and resistance is the reaction. Whenever you increase the level of atrocities in an occupation, at the same level you increase the reaction of the resistance. So our rockets come within this formula. If the atrocities and occupation stopped, the rockets would stop.
Israel’s habit is to set its own agenda, to put its match to the fire any time it wants and to stop the fire anytime it wants. They don’t want a reciprocal commitment. Do you know why? Because they feel that the Arabs are weak. Why should they respect them? Why should they manufacture any reciprocal formula with them? Hence, I say that peace cannot be made between a weak party and a strong one.
Peace is manufactured by strong parties. We are ready for peace, but one forged from competition and reciprocity, without atrocities and without occupation.
AC: What do you think Israel’s ultimate strategy or vision is? What is its idea of a solution?
Meshal: I believe that Israel wants to keep the land of Palestine. Gaza is an exceptional case. Because of Gaza’s high population density and size, it was OK for the Israelis to leave. But because of religious considerations, issues of access to water, and military outposts, Israel will never surrender the West Bank. Yes, they may offer to withdraw from 60 or 70 percent of it. Sometimes they offer 40 or 50 percent of the land. But this is a temporary tactic in order to win time, to build or to establish a “reality on the ground,” to expand settlements and chop up the land in such a way that it is impossible to build any national entity. In any peace proposal, Israel always wants to keep four settlement blocs on the West Bank. The biggest is the one surrounding Jerusalem; the second bloc is the northern area of the West Bank. The third is in the southern area of the West Bank and the fourth is in the Jordan Valley. So, what is left of the West Bank then?
When former President Carter visited over here, I told him that the circumstances surrounding the Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel no longer exist. In those days, Israel was compelled or pressured to sign the agreement for two reasons. First, the war of 1973. By then, the Israelis understood that Egypt was not an easy country to defeat. The second reason is that the then Prime Minister Begin saw that Israel had a major interest in isolating Egypt from the general Arab constituency. Today, Israel is not under the weight of any such compulsions. We told former President Carter that the Palestinian resistance is the only power to force Israel to move.
Q. Would you accept a single state?
Meshal: The problem is not with what the Palestinians or the Arabs might accept. The Palestinians have accepted many things. And the Arabs have accepted many things. But Israel refused. Even what the Israelis did endorse, under the auspices of the Americans, the American organizations, Israel did not abide by. The main question is: is Israel going to accept or not? The mistake in Arab strategy and in the strategy of the former Palestinian leadership consists in the various easy offers, duly rejected by the Israelites. We will not adopt that track. Israel has to offer. They have to propose what they want to accept. Then we will respond.
AC: You’ve said that force and the ability to resist is the only thing that Israel and its backers will understand. How will this resistance continue and unfold under the leadership of Hamas?
Meshal: The resistance in Palestine is living in a very abnormal situation. Under classical conditions of resistance, there should be no resistance in Palestine. There’s no international party, which supports us. The Arab neighborhood and the regional neighborhood do not welcome the resistance, though there are some regional parties who collaborate with the resistance. So, from a holistic perspective, the “whole” wins against the resistance.
So, what is the secret behind the steadfastness of the resistance? First of all, the ferocity of the occupation. Hence, with such pressure, there is a reaction from the people, which is the resistance. The second element is Israeli intransigence. The Palestinians have tried the negotiation option, and they gave a chance for the peace process to succeed: with Oslo agreements, its aftermath, with 1991 and the Madrid Conference. The Palestinian people tracked the peace process, the negotiations, and the result was negative. Hence, the Palestinian people understood that all other paths were blocked.
This reality has pushed the Palestinians to steadfastness in their resistance. Third, there is no other party internationally that the Palestinians can depend on. An American administration could pressure the Israelis, but they don’t do so. When we talk about the international community, they are helpless in front of Israel. Hence, the Palestinian people consider resistance not as an option or as an alternative but as a way of life, a way to survive. Now, does this resistance have a future or is time against it? I would say that the future is for the resistance and the future is for the Palestinian people.
Today, Israel refuses the proposals offered by the Arabs and the Palestinians: it’s Israel’s loss because the future is not in its favor.
Q: Is Hamas willing to accept a two-state solution if Israel withdraws to the ’67 borders?
Meshal: In order to unify the Palestinian position politically, we agreed on one political platform in 2006, in a document we signed. We called it the National Conciliation Document. And we said in it that we accepted a state of Palestine based on the borders of 1967, including Jerusalem, without settlements and with the right of return to the refugees.
This is a platform we agreed upon. But we, in Hamas, have a very important issue and that is not to recognize Israel. But not recognizing it does not imply war with Israel. What we want is a state of Palestine on the borders of 1967. Then, there will be a cease-fire between us and Israel. We say that international relations between states are not always established on the basis of reciprocal recognition.
And when a Palestinian state is established, it will specify the level of relation with Israel. The big challenge for all of us today is to give a chance for Palestinians to live in peace. The problem today is that the Palestinian people are the victims. Half live under Israeli occupation amid deadly conditions. The rest are refugees in the camps, without a homeland. And so the victim here – the Palestinian people – is being asked to recognize Israel? This is unfair.
Q: You mean, they’re saying, “Recognize Israel now.” They’re asking the Palestinians to say, “It’s okay to go ahead and steal our land, we forgive you.”
Meshal: Of course.
AC: If we’d been having this conversation 30 years ago, there would’ve been a mention of the U.N., but no one here today has mentioned the U.N. Do you think now the U.N. is purely an instrument of the United States?
Meshal: Unfortunately, the United Nations is rendered a joke.
AC: Earlier you said the future of Israel is not that good, not that bright. Could you elaborate on that?
Meshal: When we try to read the future, we read it from the perspective of the past and the present. And we read it with the measurements of the nation’s values and the people. Is there any future for occupation and settlement? Is there any nation in the history of the world that insisted on establishing its own rights and failed to do so? Third question: since 1948, if we want to draw a curve of Israel’s progress, do you think that this curve is still heading up, or maybe is at a plateau, or is heading down? I believe that the curve is now in descent. And today, the military might of Israel is not capable of concluding matters to Israel’s satisfaction.
Since 1948, you may notice that Israel has defeated 7 armies. In ’56 they defeated Egypt. In ’67 they defeated 3 countries: Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. In ‘73, the war was somewhat equal 0n both sides between Egypt and Israel; if not for Nixon’s airlift to Israel’s forces at that time, the map of the world would be different. In ’82 Israel defeated the PLO in Beirut. But since ’82, 26 years ago, Israel has not won any war. They did not defeat the Palestinian resistance, and they did not defeat the Lebanese resistance. Since that time, Israel has not expanded but has contracted. They have withdrawn from southern Lebanon and from Gaza.
These are indicators that the future is not favorable to Israel. Then today Israel, with all its military capabilities – conventional and unconventional – are not enough to guarantee Israel’s security.
Today, with all these capabilities, they can’t stop a simple rocket from being launched from Gaza.
Hence the big question is, can military might ensure security? Hence, we may say that when Israel refused the Arab and the Palestinian offer, a state of Palestine on the border of 1967, Israel lost a big opportunity. Some years down the road, a new Palestinian generation, new Arab generations, may not accept those conditions, because the balance of power may not be in Israel’s favor.
Alya Rae.: My question is about using violent means. When people use violent means, inevitably innocent people suffer, in particular children – not only on the Palestinian side, but Israeli children too. What do you think about the use of violence?
Meshal: Good question. We do not like to see any victim, such as a child or a woman, even on the Israeli side, even though at the start it was the Israelis who attacked us. But, unfortunately, the insistence on violent repression by our assailants leads to innocent blood on the street. Since 1996, 12 years ago, we have proposed to exclude civilian targets from the conflict (on both sides). Israel did not respond to that. When Israel insists on killing our kids, our elders and senior citizens and women, and bombarding houses with the guns ships, F16s and Apaches, when Israel continues these attacks, what is left for the Palestinians to do? They are defending themselves with whatever they have. If the situation was such that we had a smart missile, we would never launch it, unless at a military target. But our missiles and rockets are very crude.
Hence we fire it, within its own capabilities, in reaction to Israeli atrocities. And we do not know specifically what it will target. Had it been that we had smart missiles – and we wish that some countries could give us these – rest assured that we will never aim at anything except the military targets.