Khalid Michal Interview by Paul McGeough

Khalid Michal Interview by Paul McGeough

The tea-cup stops short of his lip, as Khalid Mishal pauses to consider the ironies of trench warfare in the Middle East – a lurch to the political right has anointed as Israel’s next prime minister the man who, 11 years ago, sent Mossad agents on a bizarre mission to assassinate Mishal.

It is late Wednesday evening – March 18 – and Mishal sits deep in a plump armchair, in a second-floor reception room. “Netanyahu…,” he asks, returning to his cup of tea. “Its fate, God’s destiny, but we can’t set policy on the basis of personal grudges.”

The Palestinian resistance leader, whose suicide bombers and assassins have taken their own toll on Israeli life over the years, then declares his would-be-killer to be a man of straw. “We’ve already experienced Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel, so Palestinians are not afraid of him second time round,” Mishal vouches.

“After the battle of Gaza [in December-January] and the steadfastness of our people in the face of the Zionist war machine, do you expect a single Palestinian to be scared of this man? It doesn’t matter if he tries again to kill me, because he’s already killed my people.”

At the time of the 1997 attempt on his life, Mishal was an unlikely target – a mid-level Hamas operative, based in Amman, the capital of Jordan.

These days he is the supreme leader of Hamas, hunkering in a bunker set against a scrabbly hillside in the southern suburbs of the Syrian capital, deep inside a secure enclave which is reserved for high officials of the Damascus regime, foreign diplomats and the staff of foreign NGOs.

It is an unmarked, nondescript apartment block that doubles as jihad headquarters and as Mishal’s family home, where his teenage children are just as likely to wander in, taking a seat for the most intense discussions on Hamas operations.

Festooned with swivelling security cameras, the building also is watched over by an outer ring of leather-jacketed security men who juggle firearms and walkie-talkies as they prowl the pavement.

A Hamas car collects select visitors from city hotels – only by prior arrangement. When discretion is needed, one of a fleet of heavy black Mercedes Benz sedans is wheeled out – black curtains are drawn behind the tinted glass.

When greater discretion is required, the Hamas driver jumps the car on to the pavement, easing to a halt under an outstretched awning that hangs from the perimeter wall of the Hamas HQ. The house guards, moving with practised precision, then seize the loose ends of two bunched canvas flaps suspended from the awning, and draw them quickly out to the edge of the pavement, enveloping vehicles as they arrive, before some of Mishal’s more mysterious callers dare to alight.

The arrival of an outsider is an emergency event for Mishal’s suit-and-tied inner security ring. These men frequently speak into microphones concealed in the cuff of their jacket sleeve. Their thoroughness reveals an understanding that their boss is a constant target for a determined enemy.

Beyond an airport-like, walk-through security scanner and up a set of stairs with a dog-legged turn, a heavy, double-bolted door leads into a hallway, from which a visitor is escorted through a set of big double doors into Mishal’s diwan, or meeting place.

Armchairs line the long walls and the décor is various shades of Hamas green. But upon entering, it is a wall of mostly gaunt faces that locks the attention of a visitor – arranged in a honeycomb pattern; they are 20 Hamas leaders, fighters and bomb-makers, all victims of Israel’s campaign of targeted assassination. It is a sobering achievement in life that Mishal has reached age 53 without his visage being added to this wall of death.

The Hamas leader holds forth expansively, negotiating the tripwires of the diplomatic and political minefields that he inhabits daily, with certainty and a confidence that verges on bombast, as he lectures a fast-changing world on how it should respond to his movement – not than the reverse.

This is the first interview in which Mishal, designated a terrorist by Washington and Europe, makes his first detailed response to the outcome of transformative elections in the US and Israel; the Gaza war; and the imminent return to power in Israel of his would-be assassin – Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mishal starts, on what he genuinely seems to believe is a conciliatory note. However, in the corridors of power in Washington and the other capitals of the Middle East Quartet, they likely will be heard as a challenge.

“We’re willing to open a new page with the US and Europe,” he says through an interpreter, daring President Barak Obama to chart a radical change of course in the Middle East as an acknowledgement of decades of failed US policy in the region. “He’ll continue to repeat the mistakes of those who went before him, unless there is a marked change.”

But as Mishal expanded on his ‘new page’ theme, it soon emerges that what he really means to say is that Hamas requires the US and the European Union to open a new page with the Palestinian Islamist movement.

“I don’t mean that Hamas will take a new [policy] position. I’m talking about a readiness on our part to deal with Washington and Europe. But they have to be serious about dealing with us on Palestinian rights.”

Arguing that Washington and its European allied need to abandon their policy of isolating Hamas until the movement folds to conditions set by the Middle East Quarter, Mishal lectures: “They’ve been trying the wrong way and the wrong approach.”

Then he takes apart what he sees as early signs that nothing has changed in Washington since George W. Bush departed the White House in January.

There is little value, Mishal says, in appointing the experienced Northern Irish peace-broker George Mitchell as a US envoy to the Middle East, if he is not authorised to talk to Hamas. “Would he have succeeded in Belfast if he was ordered to ignore the IRA?”

Mishal is derisory of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s ready acceptance of the Bush Administrations’ insistence that Hamas accede to Quartet demands that the Islamists renounce violence, recognise the state of Israel and abide by all previous undertakings on behalf of the Palestinian people.

He belittles Clinton’s warning that international donations for the reconstruction of Gaza had to be kept out of the “wrong hands.” And he ridiculed the seeming contradiction in her invitation to Iran to attend a regional conference on the future of Afghanistan, at the same time as she shunned Hamas on the grounds that not only was it a terrorist group, but “increasingly it was a client of Iran.”

“So despite a new presidency, it’s the same attitude in Washington,” Mishal says. “We expected real change from Obama – not just talk about change.

“They refused to accept the results of the Palestinian election because Hamas won – that failed. They resorted to imposing a siege on the Gaza Strip – that failed. Then they went to war against the Palestinians – and that failed.

“Despite all this, Hamas has advanced and grown, [so] within the logic of real politick, it is Washington that must reconsider its position if they want to achieve an outcome that is not failure.

“The US and Europe have become accustomed to insisting, that the change they demand of the Arabs will be that which is demanded by Israel, [but] the Israeli vision of peace creates only war and chaos.”

The bulk of the Hamas leader’s critique is aimed at Washington’s conduct of what Mishal calls the Palestinian file. And he denies there can be any reason for concern in Hamas at the Obama Administrations dramatic departure from the other policies of its predecessor in the region – its efforts to engage Tehran and Damascus, which could expose Hamas to uncertainties about its future.

Washington is seeking a thaw in its relations with Syria. At the same time it has asked Russia to intervene with Iran, hoping Moscow middlemen might persuade the Iranian regime to back away from its nuclear program. But Syria and Iran are Hamas’ principal sponsors in the region.

Mishal concedes that these indeed are significant events unfolding around his movement. But he prefers to cast them as Obama’s admission of the errors of the Bush II era, or as he puts it, “Washington having to deal with parties that have proved themselves on the ground.”

There’s more lecturing on this theme before he will address the question – which is about the risk that Hamas might become a sacrificial small-fry in any big-picture horse-trading between Washington and Damascus and or Tehran. Mishal inches up to the issue, warning that the U.S. should not seek to “isolate certain parties at the expense of other parties.”

Finally he bites in terms of the position of Hamas. “We’re not worried,” he says. “Hamas is not a card in anyone’s hand. We play an effective role, even in times of dramatic change. Nothing is going to happen in this region until the Palestinian issue is properly addressed – and many countries in the region, including Iran and Syria, hold a principled commitment to the Palestinian cause.”

As much as Mishal criticises Washington, he also pitches a quick plea that it not accept an argument in some quarters that perhaps the U.S. should seek achievable goals elsewhere, while leaving the Palestine-Israel diplomacy to regional players – like Cairo and an increasingly assertive Istanbul. “Israel doesn’t listen to the regional players. The only party that has the power to pressure Israel and to dictate terms to it is Washington.”

Does Khalid Mishal have any regrets about the extent of the damage Israeli forces inflicted on Gaza in December-January – about 1300 Palestinians dead, thousands injured and thousands of homes and other buildings damaged and destroyed? The assault came after Hamas refused to renegotiate a truce, on the grounds that Israel had consistently violated what Hamas understood to be the terms of the six-month ceasefire.

Reminded that the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah had publicly acknowledged that had he known the ferocity of the Israeli retaliation when it invaded Lebanon after the abduction of three Israeli soldiers in 2006, he would not have taken the soldiers, Mishal insists that Gaza and Hamas are different cases.

“The 2006 captures were an option, a choice for Hezbollah; so they are entitled to assess the validity of what they did in terms of the consequences for Lebanon. But for the Palestinians, Gaza wasn’t a question of choice.

“Israel was supposed to end the siege and open the border-crossings in return for a halt to the rockets – the rockets stopped, but the siege remained and the crossings stayed closed. It’s unfair to ask Palestinians if they want to die slowly under siege, or quickly under fire.”

Hamas senses a thaw in its isolation. Mishal’s visitors on the day he is interviewed, include parliamentary delegations from Greece and Italy. A few days previously, they came from the British and European parliaments.

These MPs come in a wave of publicity, challenging their governments to engage Hamas. But the trail-blazers came earlier – analysts from American and European think-tanks who decided the time had come to make discrete efforts to understand the Hamas mindset.

These are small, non-government delegations. But they are signs of different times for Hamas, of feelers being extended from corners of the world that till now have gone along with the US-led campaign to keep Hamas snap-frozen. And they are in marked contrast to the cold shoulder Israel is feeling around the world in the aftermath of its ferocious assault on Gaza, a chill that is billed in Israel as the country’s worst diplomatic crisis in two decades.

As Israel increases its PR spend in a bid to arrest its plummeting stocks internationally in the aftermath of Gaza, Hamas is buoyed by confirmation from Britain that, notwithstanding consternation in Washington, it is moving to ease its isolation of Hezbollah, Hamas’ counterpart in Lebanon, by agreeing to talk to its political wing.

London says the move is justified because Hezbollah joined a government of national unity. Given that national unity talks are on foot in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, an argument is being formulated in Hamas that it should be granted the same dispensation by London.

France too has intimated a willingness to open dialogue with Hamas and a growing army of former government officials and international peace negotiators is urging that Hamas be given a seat at the table. Led by former US president Jimmy Carter, who has visited Mishal in Damascus, it includes the likes of former British Prime Minister Tony Bair and the head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki Bin Faisal.

Despite, or perhaps because of the carnage in Gaza, the mood in the Hamas bunker is upbeat – support for the Islamist movement among Palestinians rose markedly after the January hostility, just as it fell for the US-backed Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and his enfeebled Fatah faction, whose writ is confined to the West Bank.

“More and more, the US and Israel and others in their camp understand that they cannot implement their agenda against us – because of the strength that we have acquired,” Mishal says. “Netanyahu destroyed the peace process the last time he was prime minister and his plan now for Palestinians to be limited to some kind of economic independence will fail too.”

Pressed on what policy changes Hamas might make as a gesture to a new regional order, Mishal offers little, arguing: “Hamas has already changed – we accepted the national accords for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders and we took part in the 2006 Palestinian elections. Where is the response by Washington and the others? All we got was hostility and negativity.”

In particular, Mishal refuses to entertain rewriting Hamas’ offensive charter, despite the chance that such a move could alter perceptions of the movement at the same time as it might serve to protect the movement’s underbelly from sniping by its critics.

In 2005, the Hamas had appointed a committee to review its controversial 1988 Charter – with its offensive language, its anti Semitism, its incitement to battle and is calls for the elimination f the state of Israel. In a costly fit of pique over being consigned to the sinbin by the US and others after its election win, Hamas shelved the review.

Policy changes by Hamas have rendered much of the document redundant. But the continued inclusion of the call for the destruction of Israel has exposes Hamas to regular atacks.

Revealing that the pique of 2006 is just as potent today, Mishal says: “They didn’t give us a chance after we won the election, irrespective of what we might have done.” Will the charter be rewritten – “not a chance.”

“The message to us from the world was absolute rejection of the election outcome, because the result was not acceptable to the US and to corrupt elements of the Palestinian community [read Fatah].

“Our approach is not by means of changing the charter, a document written in 1988, but by virtue of our policy program today. Judge us by what we do today – not by what was written more than 20 years ago.

“Hamas has declared it’s acceptance of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories; we have joined the political process; we have entered short-term truces with Israel – this is the reality that the world needs to deal with. You say people use the Charter as a weapon against us – well, let them.”

For now, at least, Mishal’s public face is that Hamas is prepared to engage the world – but on his terms.

He becomes irritable when questioned about a letter from Hamas to President Obama, which reportedly was passed to US Senator John Kerry during a recent visit to Israel and Gaza.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he says. Pressed, he claims that the letter was on behalf of an individual – not the movement.

“If Hamas wishes to communicate with the US Administration, it will do so in a different way – at the right time; in the appropriate manner. Up to now, the Americans have rejected any communication with us. Hamas knows itself well and those who reject it today will find themselves compelled to deal with it tomorrow,” he says.

“In the meantime, Hamas will communicate with Washington through its actions on the ground – I’m talking about all our activities; about our weight and effectiveness; our social welfare and our resistance.”

If that’s how he feels about talking to Washington, what about direct talks with Israel?

Neither side likes to admit it, but Israel and Hamas have demonstrated that they actually can negotiate and in some circumstances, achieve outcomes that are acceptable to each other.

For all the squabbling over how the Gaza truce was breached and by which party, they did agree to a six-month ceasefire last summer – which Hamas held to, despite its view that Israel did not stick to its side of the deal.

There was no agreed text. This was an indirect understanding, arrived at through talks by negotiators for Hamas and Israel who met separately with Egyptian middlemen.

Israel believed that Hamas had agreed to stop the rain of rockets fired from Gaza into nearby Israeli communities. Hoping to breathe some life back into the strip’s comatose economy, Hamas understood that in exchange, Israel would end its year-long siege of Gaza.

Figures quoted by The New York Times, indicate that the rocket-rate was reduced by as much as 80-90 per cent as Hamas curbed its own fire and that of the lesser militia groups in Gaza.

But in comparison, the number of trucks entering Gaza increased only marginally. By closing its border crossings into Gaza, Israel can stop the movement of goods, fuel and people, often allowing a trickle of movement that imposes a level of hardship that amounts to total economic collapse.

Under the June deal, the daily rate of trucks entering Gaza did increase – but only from about 70 a day to about 90 which, according to the figures quoted in The New York Times – well short of a pre-siege delivery-rate of 500-600 trucks a day.

In light of that experience, would Hamas negotiate directly with Israel, to produce documented deals that might allow third parties to more accurately verify compliance or violations?

“Direct or indirect is not the point,” Mishal says. “What really matters is will Israel be truly ready to recognise Palestinian rights and to end the occupation? When Israel is ready to accept this,” he goes on, “we will decide what to do … but we’ll not give them a platform for useless negotiation, for trying to improve their image internationally [because] they always try to buy time and to create new facts on the ground.”

When the shooting stopped in Gaza earlier this year, there were more indirect talks. But Hamas refuses to buckle to Israel’s terms and as Mishal describes it, rather cumbersomely, “the situation is not war like it was in January … and it’s not a state of calm.”

At this point, the Hamas leader stubbornly refuses to acknowledge a more colourful description of events on the ground by one of his colleagues, who told reporters in February, “the [smuggling] tunnels are still operating and rockets are still being fired.”

Mishal refuses to take the question. Pressed to explain, he says: “I am a leader. From my position as leader, I describe and express myself in a manner which I deem to be best when I speak about the situation.”

“But the tunnels are open and rockets are firing, aren’t they?” he is asked. At this point, Mishal becomes Delphic: “You know my way of talking. There is an Arab proverb -‘every situation has its way of being expressed’!”

Mishal insists that it is the Israelis who must explain why the latest truce negotiations collapsed – including their failure to agree terms for the release of the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. But in what Israel will read as a threat, he warns there is a risk that more Israeli troops will captured by Hamas – to increase the pressure for Israel to agree to Hamas’ demand for the release of as many as 1400 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.

Asked about reports the accuracy of reports that Hamas is seeking freedom for 1400 prisoners, Mishal explains the calculus of the negotiations – from Hamas’ perspective.

In the most celebrated exchanged in the past, three Israeli soldiers were swapped, in 1985, for 1150 Palestinians – almost 400 Palestinians for each Israeli.

Asked how Hamas now could demand more than three times that many Palestinians in return for Shalit’s freedom, he says: “Israel’s prisoner numbers were relatively low in ‘85 – 1150 would have been most of those they held. The number we are seeking for Shalit is only one-tenth of today’s number of Palestinians in Israeli jails.

“The Israelis just don’t learn. When they refuse to release Palestinians, it forces the Palestinians to resort to other means to gain their release – and inevitable this incudes the capture of more Israeli soldiers.”

In the March 18 interview in Damascus, Mishal recommits Hamas to the electoral process in the Occupied Territories – despite Israel rounding up and jailing more than 30 of Hamas’ West Bank MPs in the aftermath of the 2006 election. And in the days after the interview, taking in 10 senior Hamas figures in the West Bank, including four MPs, who Israel described as ‘terror operatives’ – reportedly in a bid to pressure Hamas to accept Israel’s terms in the haggling over Shalit.

Underlying Mishal’s analysis is Hamas’ determination to avoid what it sees as the pitfalls, for the Palestinian side, of the years that followed the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, the Fatah movement and the PLO renounced violence as a weapon and recognised the state of Israel, but achieved little in endless rounds of so-called peace talks as Israel continued to carve up the Occupied Territories to suit its own needs. Since Arafat’s death at the end of 2004, his successor Mahmoud Abbas has made no headway either.

Finishing up, Mishal lays out the pieces of the geopolitical puzzle and he laughs. Despite Islam’s prohibition on gambling, he concludes: “If the Palestinian people were gamblers, they would bet on Hamas.”

Paul McGEOUGH is Chief Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)

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