Interviewing Hamas in Lebanon
At the beginning of the year I went to Syria and in early spring to Lebanon for a research project for the Bucharest-based Middle East Political and Economic Institute (MEPEI) that focused on the Palestinian refugee issue and the not-that-well-defined ongoing Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue (http://www.lpdc.gov.lb). Part of the project were several visits to the camps in both Syria and Lebanon and meetings with leaders and members of various Palestinian factions, from left, centre, right and anything in between.
I arrived in Lebanon at a time when the shifts in Fatah’s leadership had created some tensions. However, the overall situation in the camps was much calmer than several months ago. The Nahr el Bared conflict in 2007 made a powerful impression on all Palestinians, irrespective of their allegiance to the Palestinian cause or to other more opportunistic causes. No-one wanted that event repeated.
Getting to see Ousama Hamdan, the Hamas leader in Lebanon, is neither difficult nor easy. It can be frustrating to get hold of him by mobile phone as he travels extensively inside and outside Lebanon. Hamdan is quite a charismatic figure: more of a shrewd realist than anything else. He used to be the go-between between Hamas and Iran, but for years now he has been the Hamas leader in Lebanon. His role increased in importance shortly before we chatted in Beirut. He is also in charge of the International Affairs department in the party.
Hamas began life as a paramilitary group. That had some temporary appeal but was bound to be a short to medium term plan of action. Rockets sent into Israel may boost some egos, but what do you do when the people you claim you represent become targets because of your actions? Is there any cogent strategy behind sporadic attacks against an entity that is many times your military superior ? Further more, what can be accomplished by a party for its followers if it offers nothing but violence?
Had they continued down that sole path, Hamas would hardly have distinguished itself from any Islamist group that has a street, maybe two, or ten streets in its clutches, and a self-declared Emir to rule over them. Aside from being a dangerous pastime, that is not the way to become an influential power, able to represent your interest as a group and convince others that your agenda is good for them too. Hamas seem to have understood that they needed to do less to become more. Less attacks, more political involvement and hopefully more responsibility.
In 2006, Hamas won the elections in Gaza. They presented themselves as an alternative to Fatah. After decades of one-party rule, Hamas managed to break down some of the formidable barriers and rival Fatah more closely than any other faction. Due to their observance of some Islamic principles, notably the principle of less-to-zero corruption, Hamas’ message resonated with most Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
But getting elected is easier than keeping power.
Hamas nowadays tries to emulate Hezbollah in the sense that they too wish to become a powerful political player, a partner to Fatah in governance, able to enjoy the official recognition of the power brokers, both of the region and the world.
If power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, nevertheless politics can moderate a party’s discourse. The people who elect that political party can use their influence to moderate its actions too. That may not happen with a snap of the fingers, but it is a strong possibility. However, Hamas can’t change overnight, even if it wishes to. Already their leadership position inside Gaza has been challenged by smaller, more radical groups, unhappy with the status quo.
So in the interview that follows, there are several levels to consider: the local narrow one, Gaza, the broader context – the Palestinian territories, Gaza and West Bank, the regional and the international layer. Each has sub layers. All require effort, energy, astute plans and ultimately depend on the global framework. Hamas exists and acts no more in a void than anyone else.
They have yet to come up with a medium to long-term viable, acceptable solution for the intra-Palestinian quarrel and overall stalemate, or to present their political agenda built around increasingly aggressive economic and social programmes. Alone there is little they can do. Nevertheless, they have to start pushing the agenda up hill and show real willingness and determination to move ahead. Despite these challenges, Hamas has a good chance both for themselves and the Palestinians of changing their prospects for the better. How they will play this card remains to be seen.
When discussing the Palestinian refugee issue, it is only realistic to assess their situation taking into account the fact that they live in both Syria and Lebanon as temporary guests. The Palestinian problems in Syria differ from those of the Palestinians in Lebanon or Jordan. But all of the above have a better living standard than those living in Gaza. As strange as it may seem to some, many Palestinians I have talked to have said that, in spite of the legal and societal restrictions, they enjoy a greater freedom of speech and action in Lebanon – much superior to that in West Bank.
Hamas and the international community
Manuela Paraipan: How do you see European engagement in the area and what do you think are the main challenges for the international community in dealing with the region?
Ousama Hamdan: Most of the time, Europeans support American policies, although I believe they understand the region better than the Americans. And that is important. If you want to deal with the region you have to understand it. There is a difference between dealing with the facts as they are, and dealing with them as you might wish them to be – or, to put it from a political perspective, attempting to divide the region before dealing with it. That can only create more problems, including breakdowns in communication.
Some look to the Arab ‘moderate countries’… I don’t believe in ‘moderate’ or ‘hardline stances’ in politics. Every nation is out for its own benefits. What is moderate for me is hardline for others. And vice versa. The issue is, how to deal with other people? If you want to control them – that instigates new problems. Now, if you want to deal with them in order to create stability in the region, then you have to treat them as part of the region, and understand what they need and what they want. This is one of the major challenges that the peace process faces.
Ousama Hamdan, Hamas leader in Lebanon
Until now, no-one has asked the Palestinians what they want. Throughout its period as negotiators, the PLO accepted the conditions laid down, and faithfully implemented what was dictated to them by the international community – in fact mainly the United States, especially after the demise of the USSR. But what happened? Nothing. They found themselves confronted by more problems than ever before.
Yasser Arafat – who was in fact able to deliver on his undertakings – accepted everything. After the Oslo Agreement, he used to call Israelis, ‘my cousins’. In the end, Arafat was killed by the Israelis. The Israelis have consistently tried to undermine the PLO and Fatah. And that has now become a major stumbling block for Mahmoud Abbas, because he can’t deliver anything.
If the PLO and Fatah reacted positively to the approaches of the other side, Israel would say, ‘That’s good: some pressure generates results. So, let’s apply more pressure to have more results.’ If they don’t react positively, Israel says, ‘Unfortunately, although we added more pressure, they did not respond as we hoped. Let’s increase the pressure, and maybe they’ll react.’ All the time, their sole purpose is to put more pressure on the other side, full stop.
Arafat recognized Israel as long ago as in 1988. Until now, they have not reciprocated. Meanwhile, there is no clear position from the international community, the United States, on the prospects for a Palestinian state. Maybe a verbal Palestinian state. What does that mean for us? Nothing. With respect to the West Bank, the Israelis are insisting that you have to exclude 55% of the land before negotiations can begin: the land on the borders of Jordan, Jerusalem, the settlements, and the main roads. We are talking about 55% off before we enter negotiations, and 45% is the crash point. Not long ago they said that if we recognize Israel, and join the peace process, we will have a state along the 1967 borders. Now all they are talking about is a Jewish state, and Jewish cities…
If things continue in this way, with the international community not doing anything and the US stance remaining the same, they may decide to kick out two, three million Palestinians outside Palestine, and no one will say a word. Maybe the international community will put some tents up for the Palestinians…
This stalemate is bound to create a reaction against the occupation. In the past, some people have gone from fighting the occupation to supporting it. However, that did not create stability. For six decades the Israelis have been fighting the Palestinians and they could not achieve stability. They are an illegitimate entity and they are making themselves more and more so. They have signed agreements with the Jordanians, Egyptians and Palestinians. For the people of those nations that has not turned out to mean that there is peace with Israelis.
If we want a solution we have to start talks from a clear position. The Israelis must say that they are responsible for the suffering of the Palestinians. If they are ready to recognize our rights as a nation, and they prove they are committed to the goal and its implementation, it will be a start. Without their assuming responsibility, there is no hope. What is the meaning of negotiations if there is no clear resolution from the Israelis to recognize the rights of Palestinians? Under those circumstances, what does it mean to ask the Palestinians – a nation under occupation – to recognize their occupier?
MP: It is not only Israel you have problems with. What about the intra-Palestinian disagreements?
OH: It happens all the time between brothers: it is an internal problem.
As Palestinians we live in the state of transition between one party rule and development into a real democratic situation. It is difficult for Fatah who has ruled the Palestinians alone for 40 years, to reconcile itself to having a partner. Ours was never the goal of removing Fatah from every governing position just because we won the elections. What we tried to say was that we need a political partnership till we have an independent sovereign state. Then we can talk about sharing power.
Ismael Hanyeh suggested to Fatah a national unity government with 1/3 ministers for Hamas, 1/3 for Fatah and 1/3 for other factions. The response was not positive. They said that we lacked experience in governmental positions. That was part reason, part excuse. They could not envisage having a partner.
We understand that Fatah needs time to accept this notion. What we have to do is to help Fatah understand that times are changing. It is not as if you can control and overcome everything. In the past, when Fatah could not accept the Popular Front, they adopted the approach of dividing them into a Popular and a Democratic Front, and from there it went on to become smaller factions. They were helped by the regional system that we live in.
The fact is, Fatah has direct and good contacts with Israel and the United States and they don’t wish to see Hamas sharing the political scene. They, however, are being used by both. That is not my claim. That is what Fatah themselves said after what happened in June 2007 in Gaza. Fatah said that Mohamad Dahlan received $10 million from the United States for his campaign against Hamas. He spent around six million, but four remained in his account and they have got it back. This is what they say and we have more evidence… We know that they are also worried to lose their benefits. They are holding onto those very hard. OK. They have become wealthy business men, and that’s good. But you can’t do this at the expense of the Palestinians – that is to pay too high a political price.
Ahmed Qureia, for example, has been negotiating with the Israelis and condemning the separation wall, which as far as I am concerned is an apartheid wall. Anyway, it turns out that Qureia himself provided, through one of his firms, the cement for the wall. This happened in 2005. He said that his company was simply doing business and that if he were not to do it, someone else would.
Part of the problem is that they think that Hamas will become stronger and will remove them from the decision-making scene. So you have a wide range of motives for these hostilities, ranging from personal ones at the leadership level, to external pressures, and not forgetting the normal reactions from anyone who is in power and feels that it might be being removed. We are not attempting this. They are destroying their own reputation.
Fatah has tried to bypass the results of the elections with the support of the Israelis, the United States and some regional powers. Had they had the chance to re-evaluate their behaviour the situation might have been very different. This is not because Hamas is a superpower or stronger than them, but simply because we were elected by the people.
Hamas popularity and alliances
MP: Should elections be organized tomorrow would Hamas win? And would you agree that many people voted for Hamas not for its Islamic principles, but as an alternative to Fatah?
OH: I believe that is part of the truth. And yes, I think we would win. We have the same confidence we had in 2006 and it is not based on emotion, but on the regular studies we’re making on the ground.
The most important reason is that Hamas is a resistance movement and we’re committed to supporting our rights. We are still committed to resisting our oppression in all necessary ways until we have our rights restored. After four years, everyone understands that you can’t defeat the will of the people. But we cannot give up military resistance unless we achieve these goals. There are different ways of resisting. But you can’t renounce any kind of resistance till you have achieved these objectives.
What all Palestinians want is to have Palestine for Palestinians. Forcing people to accept Israel does not make it a reality. Convincing them is something else entirely: so far, only force has been tried on the people of this region. Go to Egypt. You have done that, and you will hear from the average guy on the street a different story from the official one. The Islamic movements have no problem with Jews or Christians. When Jews were living in ghettos in Europe, in this part of the world they were part of the people: they were alongside us. No one criticized their Judaism or treated them as a different people.
MP: Together, do you see Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran in alliance as a challenge for Israel?
OH: Israel has tried hard to keep their unity intact, but they are not united. They have major problems inside Israel between the seculars and the Orthodox and so on. They can’t move on as long as they keep creating more enemies who they must presume want to destroy them. Why is Hamas resisting them? Why are the Syrians or the Iranians? Because they are an occupation force. They know it only too well. Why else have more than 100,000 soldiers in the West Bank? A civilian state? One third of the Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank have been arrested and jailed in Israel.
Through this alliance, we are looking to have Palestine, and the Syrians want the Golan Heights back.
The Iranians are a regional power and if the Lebanese, Syrians and Hamas have their rights, the Iranians will be satisfied with that. However, Syria and Iran influence Hamas far less than many would like to believe. Both know that our situation as Palestinians is not something to be treated lightly. They understand the complications. As allies, some have expected them always to support Hamas against Fatah. But in fact, they have throughout supported only our unity. Even more than the official mediators, they have focused their influence on achieving this unity. The Syrians hosted the summit for Hamas and Fatah in February 2007. But we signed the agreement in Mecca. If it had had to be signed in Damascus it would not have received the support we needed. Iran understood that as allies. Knowing the regional power of the Saudis, we went there and it did indeed secure us some benefits. However, it did not work as we and they expected. We thought we were going to implement the agreement, but not only did the United States act against this, as unfortunately we had expected, but a regional power, Egypt, also acted against it, just because the agreement was not coordinated by themselves. Both Syria and Iran, by contrast, consider what will benefit our cause. Till now, they have accepted that what we call for is in the interests of the Palestinians. Sometimes we discuss matters with them: on other occasions, we don’t. We don’t really consult them much. There are limits for everything and everyone involved.
Some of the countries that point the finger of blame at our relationship with Damascus and Iran do so because they have tried to influence us, and they could not. Some wanted Hamas to be a puppet for them. That is not the way we operate. They are puppets for others, so they can’t accept that a movement such as ours makes its own decisions. Before being in Syria, we were in Jordan and the decisions were taken in the same way. Does that mean we were puppets for the Jordanians at that time?
Hamas in Lebanon
MP: How do you see the possession of Palestinian weapons outside the camps?
OH: We have policies to deal with Arab states and other states and we don’t interfere in their internal affairs.
MP: But you do interfere by having training facilities and arms outside the camps.
OH: We are not doing that as Hamas. There are historical facts to be considered.
MP: Doesn’t this pose a danger for Lebanese society?
OH: Maybe some see it like that, but we have an ongoing dialogue with the Lebanese authorities and we can solve our problems through this dialogue. Palestinian groups don’t need to be armed: they have these weapons as dictated by tradition and the historical situation brought about in Lebanon. There was the Cairo agreement in 1969 to establish camps and to train fighters to resist Israel.
The situation changed and we agree that it has changed, but we can’t just say, ‘the situation is different, let’s remove the weapons.’ We have to sit down and talk and find ways to solve the problem. Hamas is not a party to this discussion as we don’t have any weapons outside the camps. But as part of the Palestinian National Movement, we do have to talk with the Lebanese on the basis of the right of the refugees to support their own cause. If the Lebanese don’t want the weapons: we have to accept that. This would be an outcome of Lebanese–Palestinian dialogue. We were in favour of this happening before Hariri’s assassination. Between then and 2006 there were events that marginalised Palestinian issues here and postponed the talks.
In 2006, from our position as an elected party, we insisted on having a united Palestinian delegation to the dialogue. We talked to Fatah. The situation was not that stable with Fatah at the time, but at least there was no division. So it was easier to talk about this. In 2007 we faced a major problem here with the Nahr el Bared situation. We tried to solve it before that fight. We, as Hamas, came up with a proposal to solve matters pending and discussed it with Mr. Fuad Siniora, the Prime Minister at that time, and with Saad Hariri, the leader of the majority, and with the major parties in Lebanon.
MP: What did you propose?
OH: We wanted to dismantle the group involved (Fatah al Islam) because we knew
it was not a Palestinian group. They were not from the Palestinian camps or the camps of Lebanon. About 40% of them were Lebanese. One of the leaders was Lebanese from Akkar. We went to his family, to his village and talked to the head of the family to convince his son to turn himself in to the authorities. We understood that he would have received, if convicted in a court, a sentence of no more than 9 to 12 months. We did our best, but unfortunately we did not succeed.
Maybe some people tried to use the incident. They said it was more than an internal issue for Lebanon that we were facing, but a multinational problem since some of those involved were Saudis, Algerians, Tunisians and other nationalities. We tried and we talked with some embassies, but as they say, that is now part of history. As Palestinians, we faced up to the Nahr el Bared crisis and then we faced the Lebanese and the Palestinians divisions. The whole situation postponed all chances for dialogue.
MP: How would you describe your relationship with Fatah in Lebanon?
OH: We have tried not to import our problems from Palestine here, and we have succeeded. In the camps we are together. Fatah’s problems are not with Hamas. Their last minor issues with Islamist groups, like Osbat al Ansar in Ain el Hilwe, were solved through us, as mediators. We hosted the last meeting between both sides so that they could reach an agreement and that’s fine for us. We deal with them as part of our people and we have to unite this nation.
Hitherto, we have had a good relationship with former Ambassador, Abbas Zaki. He is a good and reasonable man. I’m not sure about the next Ambassador (Abdallah Abdallah). I have my worries… He is not a senior Fatah leader like Abbas Zaki and he is a man wedded to one direction. He does not really like to listen and he prefers to dictate his ideas. However, as Hamas, as Palestinians, we have to work with everyone. In Lebanon, Hamas has not been a militant group. That does not mean I criticize the militant groups here. I always keep their history in consideration, how they were formed… In the camps we were and are a political movement that works on the social and political level.
I can’t say that these political relations will necessarily stay the same. Of course the Hamas position will have to change over time, which does not mean to say that any such development will be within the parameters set down by the United States or the international community. First and foremost, we ask, what are the benefits for the Palestinians? For example we are committed to the right to return. Fatah has not decided its position yet, but we’re still working with them on that. The time will come to take a clear stand, and people and movements will have to have an answer. If Fatah says no, then they will face the reaction of the people. And if they say, yes, they have to live with the fact that people want to go back.
In the camps the situation is different from what is going on inside Palestine. We have done a good job in the camps as Palestinians, and I look forward to having the dialogue with the Lebanese as there are many topics to talk about. As I tell our friends in Lebanon, we have to see how to protect the situation from getting worse. If you keep the camps in such poor humanitarian conditions with people out of work, without rights, how can you expect that these people will respect the law? That is not an excuse. But if we want to solve the problem then we have to go into it in some depth and discuss it clearly. The people need the right to medical treatment, education, the right to own their houses, to have a job and live a decent life.
The areas covered by the camps catered for less than 100,000 Palestinians in 1948 and we have had three more camps built since that time. Now we have less camps, with more people. That would create problems even if it happened in a stable state, let alone in such accommodation. If you improve the lives of the Palestinians, this will connect them with the daily life here in Lebanon and they will respect the law because they are part of society.
We are not looking to receive Lebanese citizenship. The Palestinians seek to go back home and neither the Palestinians nor the Lebanese will accept Lebanese citizenship for the Palestinians. This is the political aspect that we have to reiterate. Another aspect is the legal one. How do we define the legal identity for Palestinian refugees while in Lebanon? Then there is also the security dimension. What are the responsibilities inside the camps? Who is supposed to secure the camps? What about the positions outside the camps? All these have to be discussed and figured out. And whatever we agree on as Palestinians and Lebanese, we have to find a way of implementing.
MP: One of your colleagues Mahmoud Mabhouh has been assassinated in Dubai. Is Hamas in any way responsible for this breach in security?
OH: When Israel is targeting people you can’t protect everyone. The fault is that of the Israelis. They acted on foreign land as if it was no man’s land. As if they were above law. If Hamas had killed an Israeli, what would have happened? The UN Security Council would condemn it, as would the international community. Since it is a Palestinian,no-one has any comment to make. No one knows how the internal investigation is going till it is finished.
MP: How is your relationship with Hezbollah and other Lebanese political parties?
OH: The relationship with Hezbollah is good. But we have good relations with all major powers in Lebanon, from Hezbollah to Amal, Al Mustaqbal (the Future Movement), Aoun, Walid Jumblatt… In politics it is normal to have closer relations with some than others. Hamas and Hezbollah are fighting the same enemy, Israel. Nevertheless, I believe people who are not facing the same thing respect what we have.