Exclusive: Hamas leader interview
Exclusive: Hamas leader interview
Published 17 September 2009
In a world exclusive, Ken Livingstone discusses religion,
violence and the chances for peace with the Hamas leader
The key to peace in the Middle East is restoration of
international law and the recognition of the right of both
Palestinians and Israeli Jews to live in peace and security
side by side. As President Obama says, there is no peace
process today. Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu,
continues to extend illegal settlements in the West Bank
and East Jerusalem and maintain a near-complete blockade of
Gaza. Palestinians fire ineffectual rockets into Israel.
Israel regularly attacks Palestinian territories with
No major conflict can be resolved without each side talking
to the other. That was the case in South Africa, Ireland
and countless other situations where people said they would
never talk to their opponents. I was vilified in the
Eighties for saying that, to resolve the Irish conflict,
you had to talk to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.
In the Middle East, peace can only be achieved through
discussion between the elected representatives of both the
Israelis and the Palestinians - and that means Hamas, which
won a big majority in the last Palestinian parliamentary
election, as well as Fatah. This does not mean that I agree
with the views of Hamas, Fatah or the government of Israel.
Far from it: I do not. For example, I think a number of
passages in the original Hamas charter are unacceptable and
should be repudiated. Many observers believe that this is
also the view of some in Hamas.
Yet, for too many people, Hamas as an organisation remains
opaque. What they know about it is derived from a hostile
media; it has no face. Most would probably think its leader
is some disturbed Osama Bin Laden figure. In fact,
al-Qaeda's supporters in Gaza are so hostile to Hamas that
they have declared war on it.
For these reasons, I thought it important to interview the
de facto leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshal, who lives in exile
in Syria. Not every issue is clear. But at the beginning of
any peace process, what matters most is engagement.
Dialogue is necessary to get to clarity and mutual
understanding. Sinn Fein did not answer every question at
the beginning and neither does Binyamin Netanyahu today.
The answers from Meshal come at a time of heightened
tensions and renewed death threats against him, adding to
the permanent danger of assassination bids not only by the
Israelis, but also al-Qaeda supporters in the region.
I hope this interview will help to make the case for the
dialogue that is needed, which I believe is inevitable. It
is simply a question of how much suffering there will be,
on both sides, before we get there.
Ken Livingstone: Could you explain a little about your
childhood and the experiences that shaped your development
into the person you are today?
Khaled Meshal: I was born in the West Bank village of
Silwad near Ramallah in 1956. In my early age, I learned
from my father how he was part of the Palestinian
revolution against the British mandate in Palestine in the
Thirties and how he fought, alongside other Palestinians
using primitive weapons, against the well-equipped and
trained Zionist gangs attacking Palestinian villages in
I lived in Silwad for 11 years until the 1967 war, when I
was forced with my family, like hundreds of thousands of
Palestinians, to leave home and settle in Jordan. That was
a shocking experience I will never forget.
KL: What happened to you after the war?
KM: Soon afterwards, I left Jordan for Kuwait, where my
father had already been working and living since before
1967. After completing my primary education in 1970, I
joined the prestigious Abdullah al-Salim Secondary School.
In the early Seventies, it was a hub of intense political
and ideological activity.
During my second year at al-Salim school, I joined the
Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun). Upon finishing
my fourth year successfully I secured admission to Kuwait
University, where I studied for a BSc degree in physics.
Kuwait University had an active branch of the General Union
of Palestinian Students (GUPS), which had been under the
absolute control of the Fatah movement. I and my fellow
Islamists decided, in 1977, to join GUPS, which we had
previously shunned, and contest its leadership election.
However, working from within GUPS proved impossible; we
felt constantly impeded and realised we Islamists would
never be given a chance. By 1980, two years after I
graduated, my juniors decided to leave GUPS and form their
own Palestinian association on campus.
Many of the students had become disillusioned with the
Palestinian leadership, who seemed intent on settling for
much less than what they had grown up dreaming of, namely
the complete liberation of Palestine and the return of all
the refugees to their homes.
KL: What is the situation in Gaza today?
KM: Gaza today is under siege. Crossings are closed most of
the time and for months victims of the Israeli war on Gaza
have been denied access to construction materials to
rebuild their destroyed homes. Schools, hospitals and homes
in many parts of the Gaza Strip are in need of rebuilding.
Tens of thousands of people remain homeless. As winter
approaches, the conditions of these victims will only get
worse in the cold and rain. One and a half million people
are held hostage in one of the biggest prisons in the
history of humanity. They are unable to travel freely out
of the Strip, whether for medical treatment, for education
or for other needs. What we have in Gaza is a disaster and
a crime against humanity perpetrated by the Israelis. The
world community, through its silence and indifference,
colludes in this crime.
KL: Why do you think Israel is still imposing the siege on
KM: The Israelis claim that the siege is for security
reasons. The real intention is to pressure Hamas by
punishing the entire population. The sanctions were put in
place soon after Hamas won the Palestinian elections in
January 2006. While security is one of their concerns, it
is not the main motivation. The primary objective is to
provoke a coup against the results of the democratic
elections that brought Hamas to power. The Israelis and
their allies seek to impose failure on Hamas by persecuting
the people. This is a hideous and immoral endeavour. Today,
the siege continues despite the fact that we have, for the
past six months, observed a ceasefire. Last year, a truce
was observed from June to December 2008. Yet the siege was
never lifted, and the sanctions remained in place.
Undermining Hamas is the main objective of the siege. The
Israelis hope to turn the people of Gaza against Hamas by
increasing the suffering of the entire population of the
KL: How many supporters of Hamas and elected
representatives of Hamas are there in prison in Israel?
Have they all been charged and convicted of crimes?
KM: Out of a total of 12,000 Palestinian captives in
Israeli detention, around 4,000 are Hamas members. These
include scores of ministers and parliamentarians
(Palestinian Legislative Council members). Around ten have
recently been released, but about 40 PLC members remain in
detention. Some have been given sentences, but many are
held in what the Israelis call administrative detention.
The only crime these people are accused of is their
association with Hamas's parliamentary group. Exercising
one's democratic right is considered a crime by Israel. All
these Palestinians are brought before an Israeli system of
justice that has nothing to do with justice. The Israeli
judiciary is an instrument of the occupation. In Israel,
there are two systems of justice: one applies to Israelis
and another applies to the Palestinians. This is an
KL: What part, if any, do other states and institutions,
such as the US, the EU, Britain, Egypt, or the Palestinian
Authority, play in the blockade of Gaza?
KM: The blockade of Gaza would never have succeeded had it
not been for the collusion of regional and international
KL: How do you think the blockade can be lifted?
KM: In order for the blockade to be lifted, the rule of
international law must be respected. The basic human rights
of the Palestinians and their right to live in dignity and
free from persecution would have to be acknowledged. There
has to be an international will to serve justice and uphold
the basic principles of international human rights law. The
international community would have to free itself from the
shackles of Israeli pressure, speak the truth and act
KL: Israel says that the bombing and invasion of Gaza last
year was in response to repeated breaking of the ceasefire
by Hamas and the firing of rockets into southern Israel. Is
this the case?
KM: The Israelis are not telling the truth. We entered
into a truce deal with Israel from 19 June to 19 December
2008. Yet the blockade was not lifted. The deal entailed a
bilateral ceasefire, lifting the blockade and opening the
crossings. We fully abided by the ceasefire while Israel
only partially observed it, and towards the end of the term
it resumed hostilities. Throughout that period, Israel
maintained the siege and only intermittently opened some of
the crossings, allowing no more than 10 per cent of the
basic needs of the Gazan population to get through. Israel
killed the potential for renewing the truce because it
deliberately and repeatedly violated it.
I have always informed my western visitors, including the
former US president Jimmy Carter, that the moment Hamas is
offered a truce that includes lifting the blockade and
opening the crossings, Hamas will adopt a positive stance.
So far, no one has made us any such offer. As far as we are
concerned, the blockade amounts to a declaration of war
that warrants self-defence.
KL: What are the ideology and goals of Hamas?
KM: Our people have been the victims of a colonial project
called Israel. For years, we have suffered various forms of
repression. Half of our people have been dispossessed and
are denied the right to return to their homes, and half
live under an occupation regime that violates their basic
human rights. Hamas struggles for an end to occupation and
for the restoration of our people's rights, including their
right to return home.
KL: What is your view of the cause of the conflict between
the state of Israel and the Palestinians?
KM: The conflict is the outcome of aggression and
occupation. Our struggle against the Israelis is not
because they are Jewish, but because they invaded our
homeland and dispossessed us. We do not accept that because
the Jews were once persecuted in Europe they have the right
to take our land and throw us out. The injustices suffered
by the Jews in Europe were horrible and criminal, but were
not perpetrated by the Palestinians or the Arabs or the
Muslims. So, why should we be punished for the sins of
others or be made to pay for their crimes?
KL: Do you believe that Israel intends to continue to
expand its borders?
KM: Israel does not, officially, have stated borders. When
Israel was created in our homeland 62 years ago, its
founders dreamed of a "Greater Israel" that extended from
the Nile to the Euphrates. Expansionism manifested itself
on different occasions: in 1956, in 1967 and later on in
the occupation of parts of Lebanon in the Eighties. Arab
weakness, Israeli military superiority, the support given
to Israel by the western powers, and the massacres it was
prepared to commit against unarmed civilians in Palestine,
Egypt and Lebanon, enabled it to expand from time to time.
Although expansionism still lurks in the minds of many
Israelis, it would seem that this is no longer a practical
option. Lebanese and Palestinian resistance has forced
Israel to withdraw unilaterally from lands it had
previously occupied through war and aggression. While in
the past Israel was able to defeat several Arab armies,
today it faces formidable resistance that will not only
check its expansionism but also, in time, force it to
relinquish more of the land that it illegally occupies.
KL: What are your principal goals? Is Hamas primarily a
political or a religious organisation?
KM: Hamas is a national liberation movement. We do not see
a contradiction between our Islamic identity and our
political mission. While we engage the occupiers through
resistance and struggle to achieve our people's rights, we
are proud of our religious identity that derives from
Islam. Unlike the experience of the Europeans with
Christianity, Islam does not provide for, demand or
recognise an ecclesiastical authority. It simply provides a
set of broad guidelines whose detailed interpretations are
subject to and the product of human endeavour (ijtihad).
KL: Are you committed to the destruction of Israel?
KM: What is really happening is the destruction of the
Palestinian people by Israel; it is the one that occupies
our land and exiles us, kills us, incarcerates us and
persecutes our people. We are the victims, Israel is the
oppressor, and not vice versa.
KL: Why does Hamas support military force in this conflict?
KM: Military force is an option that our people resort to
because nothing else works. Israel's conduct and the
collusion of the international community, whether through
silence or indifference or actual embroilment, vindicate
armed resistance. We would love to see this conflict
resolved peacefully. If occupation were to come to an end
and our people enabled to exercise self-determination in
their homeland, there would then be no need for any use of
force. The reality is that nearly 20 years of peaceful
negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis have
not restored any of our rights. On the contrary, we have
incurred more suffering and more losses as a result of the
one-sided compromises made by the Palestinian negotiating
Since the PLO entered into the Oslo peace deal with Israel
in 1993, more Palestinian land in the West Bank has been
expropriated by the Israelis to build more illegal Jewish
settlements, expand existing ones or construct highways for
the exclusive use of Israelis living in these settlements.
The apartheid wall that the Israelis erected along the West
Bank has consumed large areas of the land that was supposed
to be returned to the Palestinians according to the peace
The apartheid wall and hundreds of checkpoints turned the
West Bank into isolated enclaves like cells in a large
prison, which makes life intolerable.
Jerusalem is constantly tampered with in order to alter its
landscape and identity, and hundreds of Palestinian homes
have been destroyed inside the city and around it, making
thousands of Palestinians homeless in their own homeland.
Instead of releasing Palestinian prisoners, the Israelis
have arrested an additional 5,000 Palestinians since the
Annapolis peace conference in 2007 - actions that testify
to the fact they simply aren't interested in peace at all.
KL: Does Hamas engage in military activity outside
KM: No; since its establishment 22 years ago, Hamas has
confined its field of military operation to occupied
KL: Do you wish to establish an Islamic state in Palestine
in which all other religions are subordinate?
KM: Our priority as a national liberation movement is to
end the Israeli occupation of our homeland. Once our people
are free in their land and enjoy the right to
self-determination, they alone have the final say on what
system of governance they wish to live under. It is our
firm belief that Islam cannot be imposed on the people. We
shall campaign, in a fully democratic process, for an
Islamic agenda. If that is what the people opt for, then
that is their choice. We believe that Islam is the best
source of guidance and the best guarantor for the rights of
Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
KL: Does Hamas impose Islamic dress in Gaza? For example,
is it compulsory in Gaza for women to wear the hijab, niqab
KM: No. Intellectually, Hamas derives its vision from the
people's culture and religion. Islam is our religion and is
the basic constituent of our culture. We do not deny other
Palestinians the right to have different visions. We do not
impose on the people any aspects of religion or social
conduct. Features of religion in Gaza society are genuine
and spontaneous; they have not been imposed by any
authority other than the faith and conviction of the
KL: It is suggested that the division in the Palestinian
people between the West Bank and Gaza and between Fatah and
Hamas, which obviously weakens their position, came about
because Hamas seized power by force in Gaza. Is this true
and how do you explain this division?
KM: Undoubtedly, division does weaken the Palestinians and
harms their cause. However, the division is caused not by
Hamas, but by the insistence of certain international and
regional parties on reversing the results of Palestinian
democracy. It dismayed them that Hamas was elected by the
The division is compounded by the existence of a
Palestinian party that seeks empowerment from those same
regional and international parties, including the US and
Israel, that wish to see Hamas out of the arena. Soon after
its victory in the election of January 2006, every effort
was exerted to undermine the ability of Hamas to govern.
When these efforts failed, General Keith Dayton, of the
United States army, who currently serves as US security
co-ordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, was
despatched to Gaza to plot a coup against the Hamas-led
national unity government that came out of the Mecca
agreement of 2007. The plot prompted Hamas in Gaza to act
in self-defence in the events of June 2007. The claim that
Hamas carried out a coup is baseless because Hamas was
leading the democratically elected government. All it did
was act against those who were plotting a coup against it
under the command and guidance of General Dayton.
KL: Do those of other political or religious views such as
Fatah enjoy democratic freedoms in Gaza? What is the
situation of Hamas members in the West Bank territories
controlled by Fatah?
KM: Some Palestinian factions have been inspired by Arab
nationalism, others by Marxism or Leninism, and others by
liberalism. While we strongly believe that these ideas are
alien to our people and have failed to meet their
aspirations, we insist that the people are the final
arbiter on whom they wish to lead them and by which system
they desire to be governed. Thus, democracy is our best
option for settling our internal Palestinian differences.
Whatever the people choose will have to be respected.
We endeavour to the best of our ability to protect the
human rights and civil liberties of the affiliates of Fatah
and all the other factions within the Gaza Strip. In
contrast, the Palestinians in the West Bank under Israeli
occupation and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah
continue to be denied their basic rights. General Dayton is
in the West Bank supervising the severe and brutal
crackdown on Hamas and other Palestinian groups. More than
1,000 political prisoners, including students, university
professors and professionals in all fields are hunted down,
detained and tortured, sometimes to death, by the US-,
British- and EU-trained and -sponsored Palestinian
Authority's security force.
KL: Do you believe it is possible to reunite the
Palestinian people? If so, how do you think this could be
done and within what kind of timescale?
KM: It is possible to reunite the Palestinians. In order
for this to happen two things are needed. First, foreign
interventions and demands must stop. The Palestinian people
should be left to deal with their own differences without
external pressure. Second, all Palestinian parties must
respect the rules of the democratic game and submit to the
results of its process.
KL: Hamas's refusal to recognise Israel is frequently cited
as an insuperable obstacle to negotiations and a peace
KM: This issue is only used as a pretext. Israel does not
recognise the rights of the Palestinian people, yet this is
not raised as an obstacle to Israel being internationally
recognised nor to it being allowed to take part in talks.
The reality is that Israel is the one that occupies the
land and possesses superior power. Rather than ask the
Palestinians, who are the victims, it is Israel, who is the
oppressor, who should be asked to recognise the rights of
In the past, Yasser Arafat recognised Israel but failed to
achieve much. Today, Mahmoud Abbas recognises Israel, but
we have yet to see any of the promised dividends of the
Israel concedes only under pressure. In the absence of any
tangible pressure on Israel by the Arabs or by the
international community, no settlement will succeed.
KL: Do you have a "road map" of interim steps which could
realistically lead to a peaceful settlement of the
conflict? Do you think Jews, Muslims and Christians can one
day live together in peace in the Holy Land?
KM: We do, in Hamas, believe that a realistic peaceful
settlement to the conflict will have to begin with a
ceasefire agreement between the two sides based on a full
withdrawal of Israel from all the territories occupied in
1967. Israeli intransigence and the lack of will to act on
the part of the international community are what impede
this settlement. We believe that only once our people are
free and back in their land will they be able to determine
the future of the conflict.
It should be reiterated here that we do not resist the
Israelis because they are Jews. As a matter of principle,
we do not have problems with the Jews or the Christians,
but do have a problem with those who attack us and oppress
us. For many centuries, Christians, Jews and Muslims
coexisted peacefully in this part of the world. Our society
never witnessed the sort of racism and genocide that Europe
saw until recently against "the other". These issues
started in Europe. Colonialism was imposed on this region
by Europe, and Israel was the product of the oppression of
the Jews in Europe and not of any such problem that existed
in the Muslim land.
KL: What role do you think that other countries and
organisations, in particular the US, EU and Britain, are
currently playing in the Israel/ Palestine conflict and the
divisions between the Palestinians?
KM: The role played by all these has thus far been
negative. The attitude towards Israeli crimes against our
people has been either silence or collusion. The policies
and positions adopted by these parties have contributed to
the Palestinian division or augmented it. On the one hand,
conditions are stipulated that have the effect of
torpedoing unity talks and reconciliation efforts. On the
other hand, some of these international parties are
directly embroiled in suppressing our people in the West
Bank. The US and the EU provide funding, training and
guidance to build a Palestinian security apparatus
specialised in the persecution of critics of the
Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
We have particularly been concerned about reports that the
British government, directly as well as indirectly by means
of security firms and the services of retired army, police
and intelligence officers, is fully involved in the
programme led by General Dayton against Hamas in the West
KL: What should countries such as the US and Britain do to
assist a peaceful settlement?
KM: They should simply uphold international law - the
occupation is illegal, the annexation of East Jerusalem is
illegal, the settlements are illegal, the apartheid wall is
illegal, and the siege of Gaza is illegal. Yet nothing is
KL: What relations does Hamas wish to have with the rest of
the world, and, for example, with Britain?
KM: Hamas defends a just cause. For this purpose, it
desires to open up to the world. The movement seeks to
establish good relations and to conduct constructive
dialogue with all those concerned with Palestine.