In the run up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the Palestinian territories and Israel, Khaled Mashal, chief of the Hamas, which is in power in Gaza, had recently met a select group of Indian journalists. In a free-wheeling tete-a-tete with Iftikhar Gilani, the leader of the controversial Hamas, which had been engaged in a pitched armed battle against Tel Avivi, Mashal addresses the issue of terrorism and the intricacies of West Asian politics in a candid fashion.
Excerpts from the interview:
Across the world, there seems to be no scope for resistance movements, particularly those engaged in armed struggles. They are now bracketed with terrorist groups, and there is global hostility against terrorism. How is Hamas holding itself up in this new geo-strategic environment?
Yes, it is a difficult situation for any resistance movement. Refusing to distinguishing between resistance and terrorism reveals more about people and super-powers who have double standards. Despite the difficulties, people who are seeking to restore their freedoms will not submit to these double standards and propaganda. We are a national resistance movement, not a terrorist organisation. We have the right to resist occupation. We have gained legitimacy because of our election victory. We are not random killing machines like terrorists. We are confining our battle against the occupier and within the borders of Palestine. This struggle against occupation has legitimacy in international law, and it also has been recognised in all faiths. If this is terrorism, how will you classify Vietnamese resistance, the South African fight against apartheid, the French struggle against Nazis, and the Indian resistance against British and so on...
But the European Union and many other countries have declared Hamas and its military wing as a terrorist organisation?
Hamas believes in moderate Islam. We are against extremist movements, whether they are Islamic, Christian, Jewish or non-religious. We believe that terrorism has no religion, no faith. Some super powers do classify Hamas with terrorist groups, but we are steadfast in our belief. We firmly believe in our rights. Nelson Mandela was tagged as a terrorist. And then he was received all over the world as freedom fighter. Yasser Arafat was also dubbed a terrorist. But then he was received as a freedom fighter. These labels don’t bother us. Our history shows that we had never engaged in random killing sprees of either occupiers or settlers.
India had submitted a draft of Convention Against Terrorism at the United Nations way back in 1996. But of late, because of robust diplomacy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it is finding many takers in global community. The draft doesn't make a difference between a resistance movement and terrorist groups.
Let me take advantage of this opportunity to send a message to the Indian public here. India has a long history of standing with us. I just appeal to both people and government there to know the difference between resistance movement and terrorism. I call upon you not to get carried away by deceptive propaganda of Israel and some vested interests in the international community, and continue to support Palestine rights. Our resistance is against occupation. We are not terrorists, blind killers. We are victims of Israeli occupation and their terrorism. We are hopeful of India as your PM had started his outreach from West Asia. He has visited Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE and Iran. He must have gained a clear picture of Palestine struggle by now.
You have often stated that you don’t recognise Israel. But Israel is a reality. If you don’t accept the two-state formula, then what is the way forward?
The last 25 years have shown us that waiting for a solution from an occupier and the international community is a mirage. The main lesson is unless people take their rights into their own hands, nobody listens to you. No one else will give you your rights. When people are keen to fight for their freedom and rights, they will get it. It is a matter of time. The best example is that of India, where the occupier was even more powerful.
On the two-state solution, I must tell you Hamas believes that we have full rights over the whole land and we don’t recognise occupation. Our fathers and grandfathers lived there. Hamas is also very much keen on a unified Palestine front. That is why we have accepted a joint Arab and Palestine programme, based on 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as its capital, with the right of return of Palestinians expelled during years by successive Israeli governments.
On the one hand you don’t recognise Israel’s right to exist, and then you say Hamas is toeing a middle path. You also mention about the 1967 borders. Are these not contradictions?
We are facing apartheid. Nobody can force us to treat Israel as friendly nation or a legitimate entity. All of this also doesn't mean that at a certain moment or at a proper moment, we will not negotiate with the enemy. Given the political circumstances, we are positive of achieving our national goal through political means.
Hamas’ refusal to recognise Israel is not a stumbling block as you mentioned. The history is different. Yasser Arafat recognised Israel and he engaged in the peace process., But did Israel reciprocate his gesture? Mahmoud Abbas also recognised Israel. But did he succeed? He came up with nothing. Impasse in peace process is not because of us. The problem is not about recognising Israel. There are no shortcuts in a struggle. The main reason is occupation by Israel and its refusal to recognise the rights of the people.
Is it possible for Israel and Palestine to co-exist for the sake of peace in the Middle-East? Is it acceptable to Hamas?
When we get rid of occupation, we will shape our relations towards Israel. On several occasions, I gave the analogy of a person in custody. How can he decide his relations? Only a free people and a sovereign state can decide and shape its relations with another country. We will put any peace accord and our relations with Israel to a referendum. Hamas will respect the decision of the majority. Somebody may say we are making it difficult. But others had made it easier like Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas. So the problem doesn’t lie on our side, not on Fatah’s side and not even with Khalid Mashal. The problem is on the Israeli side. The master key is with Israel. They have to recognise our right.
You have been involved in targeting Israeli civilians and allowing Al-Kasim Brigade to fire rockets?
You should be clear about the picture we are facing. We have a difficult situation. We are not fighting against any race or any religion. We are fighting against occupation. We are not resisting Israel because they are Jewish, or that they are ethnically different from us. We lived side by side with Jews in Jerusalem for centuries. Hamas does not indulge in military acts around the world. We are confining our resistance against Israeli occupation within Palestinian borders. Its our right which has been acknowledged world over by international law and by all faiths. Our people are attacked and our land is occupied. We have a right to resist and fight back, and it is not terrorism.
There is also an impression that Palestinians are fragmented and divided. No peace process can work with a fragmented movement. There is talk that Egypt has been mediating to arrange a meeting between Palestinian Authority leaders and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
We have an agreement with the other Palestinian factions. We have a joint programme. We are sticking to it and its a signed document called National Palestinian Accord Document, 2006. We are not against their engagement. But as I mentioned earlier also, this endavour is bound to fail. It did not succeed in the past 25 years. Israel is procrastinating to create new hurdles on the ground, and its focus is not on principles of negotiation but on taking its own time. They are actually exploiting our weakness. We have consensus on many things with other Palestinian groups.
When President Obama took over, there was hope in Palestine. Now his term is at the fag end. Why has he failed to achieve peace in the Middle East?
We have seen how Natanyahu insulted the American presidency many times. But surprisingly, it has not diminished the bias of the US administration towards Israel. They did nothing to reply to Israeli insults and they did not exert any pressure on it.
Your neighbour Egypt has been in turmoil. After ouster of President Morsi, there are apprehensions in Egypt about Hamas.
We believe Egypt is a big country and it is a pivot in the region. So whatever happens there affects us. But, we do not interfere in their domestic issues. We are very much keen to build a firm and strong network of relations in the region and world. We are relying on the depth of Arab and Muslim states. They are our strategic support. We are keen to expand our relations to other countries as well. We are garnering support from all over the world.
Don’t you think, that much bigger issues than Palestine have cropped up in Middle East, from Iraq, Syria, Libya and so on?
Yes, there are crises in the region. They have taken away the limelight from Palestine. It has set new political priorities in the region and it has made our mission more difficult. And on the other hand, Israel is not also sitting idle. They are working overtime to use this opportunity to tear down Arab unity and exploit our weaknesses. They are waging a campaign against our people. The strategy of Hamas is to counter this. We feel the pain of the bloodshed. Our sympathy is with people in countries like Iraq, Syria. We are also pained at the sectarian conflicts in the region. We hope peace in the region will prevail, and that countries in the region will become democratic and pursue development. The situation which the super powers have created in the Middle-East has made it a fertile ground for terror groups. We are firmly against all extremist movements in the world, of whatever faith. We are against killing sprees. Regrettably, the superpowers are ignoring the main reason and the core issue that allows extremist phenomenon to get oxygen. They are creating an atmosphere for these groups to flourish and then they are using this phenomenon to colonise.
There are allegations that Hamas and ISIS do share support base and weapons supplies.
With the Palestine issue unresolved, occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq has sent out a message that the US is standing with enemy, and that it is inimical towards our rights. They are also giving support to authoritarian governments and dictatorships in the region at the expense of the interests of people who are looking for reforms and development of their own countries. Some of the superpowers not only support authoritarian regimes, but also practise sectarian killings. That has pushed some sections of the people into the hands of the ISIS, Al Qaeda and other extremist groups. They attract ignorant people who lack knowledge and who have no hope. In my belief, if occupation, colonialisation end, and people in the region are given their rights, this phenomenon will end.
When you deny any link with ISIS, the siege of Yarmook camp says something different. The ISIS ran over the camp, while Hamas and Fatah abandoned the camp. And also the events in Sinai in Egypt have been traced to your doorsteps.
I declare once again that Hamas doesn't have any link or truck with the ISIS, al Qaeda or any extremist outfit. This is against our conviction, our strategy and policies. The whole world should ask itself as to why there is no ISIS or al Qaeda inside Palestine? Such a phenomenon doesn't exist inside Palestine. And the reason is that Hamas and our brother resistance movements are national freedom movements. We have not left any vacuum. We don’t receive any support or arms from these movements. We don’t require their support. Our people have firm belief in moderate thinking. We don’t take refuge in extremist ideology or indulge in killing spree.
As far as incident in Yarmook camp is concerned, let me tell you this camp is inside Syria. The events there and presence of ISIS in the camp were influenced by events of Syria. It is a Syrian problem. As far as Sinai (Egypt) is concerned. Hamas has declared openly, it doesn't interfere in the domestic policies of Egypt. We have nothing to do what is happening inside Egyptian borders. All allegations of interference are baseless.
You have mentioned about superpowers. Are you pointing towards Russia as well? What are your views about about Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen?
There is no doubt that the US Administration have to take much of the blame because of its biased policy. Their policies towards the people in the region are due to other superpowers as well, and it is not necessary to name them. Foreign intervention against the interests of the people are recipe for a disaster. Their proxy wars are at the expense of lives of the people of the region. We are against these policies in any part of world.
On Yemen, again I tell you, we have adopted a policy of not standing as judges and don’t interfere in domestic polices of other countries. We are with the rights of the people. We stand firmly against the intervention in the region. We don’t allow ourselves to be drawn into crises in the region or in any other part of world.
Crises in Syria and Iraq have turned into Shia-Sunni conflicts. How, in your view, has this changed political dynamics of Middle East?
This is very annoying and a matter of concern. Our region was a model for religious, ethnic and sectarian diversity, of people living together over hundreds of years peacefully despite differences. These sectarian crises came because of several reasons. The first factor is occupation in Afghanistan, Iraq, the dismantling of states and the creation of chaos in region. US treated Iraqi people along Shia, Sunni and Kurdish divisions. The second factor is the agenda of regional powers which exploited sectarian issues to serve their interests.
Are you apprehensive about that the US and Iran are coming together?
We had firm relations with Iran and Hizbullah. They supported our resistance. We are so grateful to them. But eruption of crises in Syria did affect us. Our relations with Iran were affected and people’s perception towards Iran in this region has also got affected. This has more to do with how the region is now looking at Iran, more than its new-found relations with US. Iran’s policies in the region affected perceptions.
The Turkish government has also renewed its relations with Israel. Turkey has been your important supporter so far.
As far as rapprochement of Turkey with Israel is concerned, that is their bilateral issue. During talks, they did place pre-conditions on lifting siege of Gaza. They made it a point. This is highly appreciable. Their relations with Israel have never affected our relations with Turkey.
You are now about to complete your term as Hamas chief. What are your succession plans.?Most resistance movements the world over are personality-centric.
We are an institutional movement. We apply democracy in our ranks. There are elections within our ranks. We are keen to set an example to abide by democratic principles. There will be a smooth transaction. The leadership will come up through ballots. It is not easy to practice democracy in a transparent way when you are under occupation. It is a challenge, but we are taking up this challenge. Given that we have divisions among ourselves, I assure you , we will keep up democratic traditions alive.
Iran, Syria and Hizbullah supported you over many years. Syria hosted you also against all odds. But you deceived them.
As far as Syria and Iran are concerned, truth is they gave us all support we needed over the years. We will never forget that. But that does not mean that whoever gave us support we will return that favours and we will get involved in their internal affairs and fight against their own people. That is what has happened in Syria. The government there was seeking our support to fight Opposition, their own people We stayed away from their internal crises, and so had to shift from Damascus. Our differences with them were not related to foreign aggression or foreign fighters. We are with them in the battle against ISIS and for foreign aggression.
(This story was first published on DNA)