A dialogue with Hamas – Part 1

A dialogue with Hamas – Part 1

In early November 2010, Manuela Paraipan met with the Beirut-based Hamas leader Ousama Hamdan in Damascus. Delegated to speak on Hamas’s behalf, in this extended two-part interview Hamdan engages in an in-depth discussion of the party’s affairs, policies and interests. This dialogue follows Manuela Paraipan’s recently published interview with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal and offers additional views and insights into Hamas’s position and activities.

Military activity in Hamas

MP: What is Hamas’s perspective on false flag operations? Are you using this particular strategy?

Ousama Hamdan: In our situation it would not work because our resistance is against the occupation. It works when you are doing it against your own government.

In Hamas, no one denies that we are a resistance movement and everyone knows the principles for resistance. The decisions about the militant actions are taken by the militant body. They decide when, where and how to do it. However, there are general policies that everyone abides by.

In the normal, if I can call it that, situation (under occupation) there is resistance through any means, not only military, and this is all the time.

There are extraordinary states of affairs, like a ceasefire. Then the decision is taken by the political leadership and that reflects on the militant body. They don’t discuss it, don’t negotiate that, they accept that there is a ceasefire. But at the end of the ceasefire, they go back to the normal situation.

They have their leadership, they follow up their targets—and they establish their string of actions against the occupation. Even when they are attacked by the Israelis, they react according to specific policies.

Often you speak of resistance. What exactly do you mean by that?           

Ousama Hamdan: It is resistance in its fullest sense. Individuals, groups and communities resist in different ways. Political resistance, civil resistance, militant [resistance]—all and more can work together. Occupation is not accepted, and I am not talking here only about the military one but about principles and ideas.

If you accept occupation the nation will die although the individuals may live.

Targeting civilians is not a Hamas policy

What is Hamas policy, if any, regarding civilians? Are they a target for the militants?

Ousama Hamdan: In 2005, I challenged the Israelis to bring out the list with the people that were killed in Hamas operations and to identify the militants and the civilians. I said at the time that you will discover that more than 70 percent of them are militants.

In fact, Hamas did not work to target civilians. It is so simple if you want to do that.  However, Hamas does not target schools, cinemas, hospitals, which the Israelis have done all the time.

The main question was about the settlers: are they civilians or not? According to the Geneva Accord they are not. Even according to the Israelis they are not.

In 2003 we went to Cairo. The Egyptians asked whether Hamas is ready to stop the martyrdom operations or not. We gave the Egyptians a better offer. We were ready to have an agreement to stop targeting civilians [on] both sides. The army is supposed to fight, but civilians should be out of it. The Egyptians agreed and passed it on to the Israelis.

Ariel Sharon sent Efraim Halevi, who was the head of Shin Bet at the time. The Egyptians, who were the mediators, negotiated with Halevi. When we reached the definition of civilians, we accepted the definition put forward by the Geneva Accord. The Israelis were surprised as they did not expect that. We said that the settlers are not civilians and the answer was, yes, they are not.

Halevi went back to Israel, but Sharon rejected the proposal. He said that he is not giving us the chance to kill his soldiers while his hands are tied behind the back because he retaliated against civilians.During the war in Gaza (2008 – 2009), in two specific events our militants captured Israeli militants and they were killed in both occasions by the Israelis.

In one of those occasions, they negotiated for 30 hours with the Israelis. In the end the Israelis bombed the house and killed them all. An Israeli soldier told an Israeli newspaper that there were direct orders that should they be captured they will die with the Palestinians. They knew that on the field they may be killed by friends alongside those that captured them. That was the Israeli mentality then and now.

West Bank – Hebron attacks

MP: How do you explain the attacks that took place end of August and early September?

Ousama Hamdan: Before the attacks in Hebron no one could claim that Hamas targeted civilians. It was more of a message sent than a policy change.

There is no ceasefire in West Bank. The Israelis insisted to have the ceasefire only in Gaza, not West Bank. Firstly, no ceasefire; second, they were harassing and arresting our people.

It is a joint venture, Israeli – PA (Palestinian Authority), in arresting and investigating Hamas affiliated individuals or those they think they are affiliated with us, but the assassinations are done by the hands of the Israelis—maybe with the help of the Palestinians.

For example, the assassination of Iiyad Shilbaya: He was a Hamas member jailed in Palestinian prisons for more than two years. In less than 48 hours from his release he was assassinated in his house.

The attacks were not related to the peace process. There is no need to sabotage a failed process. Let it go down by itself.

The PA security forces attack Hamas in West Bank not because Hamas attempts to attack them. They do it on behalf of the Israelis and because they want to protect themselves from the Israelis.

When you arrest, torture and kill Hamas members it is easy to say whatever lies about Hamas.

Is Hamas likely to have such actions in the future?

Ousama Hamdan: I told you initially what is the normal situation—that of a resistance—so according to that I have to expect operations not only from Hamas but from all Palestinians factions. In fact, I expect operations from some members in Fatah. Maybe it will not happen tomorrow but in the future.

In the second Intifada around 20 percent of the operations, if not more, were done by individuals not connected to parties.

Islamic Groups in Gaza Strip

MP: How do you deal with the Islamic groups and factions, perhaps Al Qaeda affiliated, active in Gaza?

Ousama Hamdan: We differentiate between two issues: the resistance against the occupation, which, I believe, is the right of all Palestinians [to undertake] in their own manner and stepping away from existing laws which has been done by some minor groups, like the group of Abdul Latif Musa. When they put bombs in a wedding festival because they were against what the people were doing, that simply is a trespassing of the law and is not permitted.There was an investigation, some were arrested, they went to courts and we implemented the law.

We also discussed with them [and] their leaders, [and] we made pressure through their families and the social network, explaining that they were harming their community.

We used all the available tools to change their ways and do it in a peaceful manner. Law enforcement was part of that. Some did not accept what we had to say.

Another small group was connected directly to one of the generals in the Palestinian security forces in West Bank, and he was the go-between the group in Gaza and some Salafi Sheikhs in Jordan bringing fatwas that supported radical messages and actions.

The Interior Ministry in Gaza had the letters (the fatwas), tapped the phone calls between them and those Sheikhs, and were in the possession of the raw video tapes they recorded for the operations. All the material was sent to the court of justice.  When they resisted the arrest, the police stepped in. This happened in 2009, after the war.

The group was arrested while they were planning to assassinate Ismail Hanyyeh. They were connected to a general in Ramallah who used to work for Tawfik Tirawi and now responds to Majed al Faraj. He brought the fatwas; he was the leader.  If you were to listen to them, you may think they are like Al Qaeda, but when you follow up the chain of command, you reach the Palestinian intelligence in Ramallah.

Is there any truth to the rumour that Muhammad Dayf was leading or connected to such factions?

Ousama Hamdan: Dayf is the leader of the Qassam Brigades. It is a rumour [his connections to other factions] spread by the security forces in Ramallah, and it was taken [on board] by Americans and some of the Europeans in order to convince themselves that they are right to do the things they do against Hamas.

An example that points out the irony of such [a] bogus claim is that [when] Abu Mazen himself said a while ago that Gaza is the Emirate of Darkness and that Hamas works on behalf of Al Qaeda, …  Al Qaeda attacked Hamas and attacked Abu Mazen. They wanted to clarify that there is no association with Hamas—to clear their reputation presumably.

Is there a centralized command of the radical factions? Are they a problem or merely a nuisance?

Ousama Hamdan: There is no centralized command. Some are doing it alone, others have connections outside Gaza. These days we speak of elements rather than factions. In any community you may find such elements but they are talking, not acting.

Our best tool is to enforce law on the ground and to make them understand that their actions go against the well being of the society they too are part of. It is [a] pre-emptive and protective step.

Hamas started as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Are you still bound ideologically to the Brotherhood?

Ousama Hamdan: It is true that we came from the Brotherhood organization, but it is different now.  We are a Palestinian national movement representing our national cause.   There are no structural links to the Brotherhood, just ties like with any other movement or political party.

The Brotherhood network is bigger than Hamas’s, no doubt. We work among 10 million Palestinians, and they work among 1.3 billion Muslims.

Cast Lead Operation

Was there an impact of the Cast Lead operation on the group’s military strategy or tactics?

Ousama Hamdan: I have to say something that is common knowledge. When you face such a big operation—close to being a full-fledged war against Hamas—you have to evaluate what happened. According to the conclusions reached you may remove, add or change some things. I believe this action had been taken.

But, I don’t have the specifics. It is the work of the militant wing and it stays with them.

In Hamas, and this is one of the most important features, we don’t ignore our experiences. We don’t say, it happened and let it go. We look for the lessons to be learned. If there are positive results for Hamas, we have to know why, so we look at the process and see how we reached that particular point. We have to improve ourselves and we have to protect ourselves.

Gilad Shalit

MP: What can you tell me about Gilad Shilat’s case? How are the negotiations going?

Ousama Hamdan: There was what everyone calls the pre-final offer, and the Israelis accepted a suggestion from the Germans, and we also thought it is a good one, just that it needed a bit of work to make it into the final offer. When the Germans went back to the Israelis, they said they are not interested in the offer anymore and introduced new ideas that eventually led to the collapse of the whole process. The Germans were upset, but they could not change the Israelis’ minds. Now, I have to quote from Gilad’s father when he said that Netanyahu is a liar. He undermined the process and was not willing to conduct negotiations in a proper, positive way.

There was a real problem inside the coalition between the seven member committee, the prime minister, foreign minister, defence, military and intelligence leaders. The military and the intelligence had different positions, and instead of taking a decision Netanyahu took a step back and that showed that we are not dealing with a leader.

The second point, and we learned it later on, [was that] Netanyahu was advised by the Americans—maybe some regional parties too—that this exchange will be counter-productive to the peace process, will weaken Abu Mazen and will strengthen Hamas, so better not to do it. I don’t know if he accepted the ill advice, but actions speak for themselves.

The German negotiator went a month ago to Gaza and concentrated on specific issues. He asked if we were ready to go through negotiations and we repeated what we said from the beginning, that yes, we are. But we don’t want to start from scratch but from where discussions were left. He then went to the Israelis and did not come back. I assume there was not a positive answer from the Israelis.

Relationship between Hamas and Islamic Jihad

MP: How do you describe the relationship between Hamas and Islamic Jihad?

Ousama Hamdan: It is based on the same principles as the relationship with other Palestinian organizations, parties and groups.

With Islamic al Jihad we have a similar ideology—similar, but not identical. They are more militant in style and approach, but I think they are changing. They are creating a political and social body.

Islamic Jihad focuses on the militant work more than anything else. That’s fine. When you have the struggle we have, you need the efforts of everyone—of people who may be able to negotiate. All this is supposed to be part of one plan: the liberation of Palestinian lands.

We resist the occupation. When working in the field there can be issues, field related issues. Accidents …  not being synchronized, mainly among the youths but we solve these problems.  There isn’t a daily contact, but there is an open channel in Gaza.

In Lebanon we don’t have problems, unlike Gaza. We have a leadership for the eight factions allied with Hamas in Lebanon. We have meetings; we arrange a common agenda in order to be more effective.

Is Islamic Jihad closer to Iran than Hamas is?

Ousama Hamdan: Everyone is saying that. If they are saying that, I cannot say anything else.

They started their relationship with the Iranians before Hamas did. That was in 1988, four years before us. I cannot speak about their ties with the Iranians because I don’t know how far they go [or] how deep [they are].

I hope this type of tie can be developed with some Arab countries as well. This is true for both Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Could Hamas be a mediator between Arab states and Iran?Did anyone suggest it, or did you offer?

Ousama Hamdan: We did not propose it and we are not willing to. Some Arabs who accused Hamas for its relations with Iran have a better relationship themselves with Tehran.

What about Hamas’s relationship with Syria?

Ousama Hamdan: Our interest is to have a good standing with all regional players and to have ties with players in the international community. It is part of our work as political party.

We are people under the occupation and we have to gain the support of everyone. We work hard to have ties with the Arab countries but it depends on them. Some countries accept it and open the door widely, others prefer an undercover relationship; they don’t want to talk about it and asked us not to talk about that. We respect their wish. Some opened the door a little bit so everyone can see there is a relation, but no one knows for sure how this is going to work; you know something is happening but you don’t dare to say you’ve seen it with your own eyes.

With the Syrians we have good relations. They support the Palestinians, our cause, including Hamas.

The leadership is not only in Damascus and the Syrians are not interfering in our business. You can say that since I am part of Hamas what else could you expect from me? All that I can say to those who are suspicious of Syrian meddling is, try us. Invite us in your country and you will find the answer yourself.

While talking to one of the regional leaders, he said that we are under the influence of both Iran and Damascus. I told him that we were in Jordan and they asked us to leave, so, can I consider his interest an invitation to move our offices from Damascus to his capital? His immediate reply was that it is all right to stay in Damascus.

Maybe they did not want the headache? Sorry to be so blunt.

Ousama Hamdan: I think he knew better than anyone else that ties with Hamas are a leverage. Why would they have it otherwise?

The Syrians have, and know, their limits, but they can go further than others.

And if we’re at it, if someone wants to criticize Hamas, what about Abu Mazen? Is he under the influence of the Americans and Israelis? Are you convincing him to pursue intra-Palestinian reconciliation? Damascus encouraged us and Fatah to reconcile, but they do not interfere in any other way.





This is the first part of a two-part interview in which Hamas leader Ousama Hamdan speaks on behalf of the organization.  Part 2 will be published on Thursday, 30 December 2010

Manuela Paraipan has acted as media advisor to various parties in the Middle East. She was a media fellow and contributing editor to World Security Network. She has authored articles and policy studies on topics including human rights in Lebanon, Middle East politics, global governance and economic advancement in underdeveloped countries.