In this exclusive interview for Muslim Views, SURAYA DADOO spoke to Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, about the movement’s vision for Palestine.
AFTER exchanging the customary Islamic greeting, Khaled Meshaal raises a clenched fist and offers an ‘Amandla!’ ‘Isn’t that how political discussions begin in your country,’ Hamas’s political chief asked, fondly recalling his whirlwind visit to South Africa in 2015.
The gesture reminded me how Meshaal’s combination of wit, charisma and razor-sharp political acumen has transformed the Islamic resistance movement into a formidable liberation movement and a serious Palestinian political actor.
In what was eventually his last act as Politburo head, Meshaal unveiled the organisation’s ‘Document of General Principles and Policies’ in the Qatari capital, Doha, on May 1. The 42-point political platform presents Hamas’s vision and strategy for Palestinian liberation, and wipes away its outdated founding charter. That document – written by one man during the first intifada – conceived of the occupation of Palestine primarily as a religious strife between Muslims and Jews.
Hamas’s new political manifesto, however, is about the here and now, dealing with the current facts on the ground. According to Meshaal, ‘This is a plan of action that reflects our current thinking and vision.’
International law, Meshaal explains, was a major focus of the document, and he had spent over nine hours with international law experts scrutinising the document in Arabic and English. The document is the product of four years of dialogue among Hamas leadership in Gaza, in prison and in exile. It is, according to Meshaal, ‘a reflection of the natural progression and evolution of Hamas’. The biggest change comes in the redefinition of Hamas’s enemy. Article 16 affirms that it is the occupation, rather than Judaism, that Hamas is fighting.
The two-state solution
The document reminds the world that the Palestinian people can never be forced to give up the dream of returning to their homeland from which they were expelled in 1948.
According to the platform, however, Hamas supports the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of June 4, 1967. The right of Palestinian refugees to return is not negotiable.
While significant, this is not as radical a change as it might first appear. As early as 1997, Hamas leaders publicly stated their readiness to explore political solutions based on 1967 borders. They were ignored by Israel and the Middle East Quartet consisting of the UN, the US, the EU and Russia.
The main feature separating Hamas’s two state solution from the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) is the question of refugees. Hamas clearly states that refugees have an unconditional right of return. The PLO stresses finding ‘a just solution to the refugee issue’ without ever specifying what this looks like or if it includes a return at all.
Although the new manifesto captures Hamas’s current political evolution, the movement has retained its core principles. Chief amongst these is Hamas’s refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist. I asked Meshaal why.
‘We acknowledge Israel’s existence but we will not recognise its right to exist,’ says Meshaal. ‘For us to recognise Israel’s ‘right to exist’ means that we would be legitimising our own ethnic cleansing and dispossession. We cannot make legitimate what is illegitimate,’ explains Meshaal.
Does this non-recognition mean that Hamas wants to destroy Israel?
‘We do not advocate the destruction of anyone. We are simply recognising that Israel was not established on just grounds.’
‘How can there be justice if there is a denial of the Nakba, the crimes perpetrated against Palestinians?’ asks Meshaal.
Will Hamas enter into negotiations with Israel?
‘The policy of Hamas at this time is not to negotiate directly with Israel,’ Meshaal answers emphatically. ‘Netanyahu does not want peace. Israel does not recognise the basic right of our people to self-determination.’
According to Meshaal, ‘Israel uses negotiations as a public relations exercise to fool the world into believing that it wants peace. It continues stealing land, building settlements and altering realities on the ground.’
I ask Meshaal if it is time to press the restart button on the peace process.
‘Yes, it is. Israel and the PA [Palestinian Authority] have been doing the same thing for 20 years, expecting a different result. That is insanity.’
‘Negotiations are an extension of the liberation struggle, a tactical tool. Whatever you take away from the negotiating table is a consequence of your position on the ground and the balance of power. Right now, there is no balance of power. It is simply a surrender of the weaker side.’
‘Peace cannot be achieved between a weak party and a strong one. Negotiations serve the strong but not the weak. We will only enter negotiations when there is sufficient balance of power. Regrettably, the Palestinians are in an extremely sorry state of affairs, negotiating without any real manoeuvres or leverage.’
‘Peace talks are not the only strategic option,’ says Meshaal. ‘If your enemies know that you do not possess anything except negotiations, you don’t speak about anything except negotiations and you don’t possess any other option, why should they make concessions to you?’ he asks earnestly. It is for this reason that Hamas will not renounce its armed struggle and the right to resist occupation.
Prospects for unity
‘Despite its weaknesses and the political blunders of its leadership, the PLO remains a framework with a history and a role for the Palestinian people,’ says Meshaal. The new charter wants to rebuild the PLO as a national framework for all Palestinians seeking liberation.
Policy – as many South African political movements are also now learning – isn’t determined by heavy-handed rhetoric and history but by circumstances on the ground. The new Hamas document is proof of this.
‘This is the document that our grassroots must teach to their children,’ stresses Meshaal.
Towards the future
Having served a maximum of two terms as Hamas’s political head, Meshaal now steps down and hands over the reigns to Ismail Haniyeh.
I jokingly ask Meshaal if he is ready for retirement. ‘A resistance fighter never retires,’ he quips.
Meshaal confirmed that he will continue to serve as a member of Hamas’s Shura council.
Suraya Dadoo is a researcher and writer with Media Review Network, a Johannesburg-based advocacy group. Find her on Twitter: @Suraya_Dadoo