LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty ImagesNot an extremist? Khaled Meshaal says Hamas is a moderate movement.
Foreign Policy: What is your opinion of the Annapolis peace process?
Khaled Meshaal: We were hoping there would be American seriousness in achieving peace in the region. But I regret to say that the behavior of the American administration does not reflect that there is seriousness. Even right after Annapolis, [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert expanded the settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. The American reaction to that was very weak. Olmert is taking the same path that [former Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon took previously, which was defined by the Four Nos: no to Jerusalem; no to the right of return; no to the borders of 1967; and no to dismantling the settlements. This path will lead to neither peace nor security in the region, nor to a Palestinian state.
FP: How do you see the situation in Gaza now? Is there a possibility of a cease-fire?
KM: You need to address that question to the Israelis. Who is it who is undertaking aggression and war against the Palestinian people? And its not just in Gaza; its also in the West Bank. So therefore, whom should you ask to cease their fire? It should be Israel. You know, in the past, we held our fire for quite some timein 2003, 2005, and 2006. But the Israelis did not reciprocate. Israel wants us to stop while they retain the freedom to do what they want.
FP: Lets move to the idea of a hudna, or broad cease-fire. If the Israelis withdraw to the 1967 borders and fulfill all Palestinian demands about the right of return, Jerusalem, and everything else, would you be prepared to have a hudna of 50 or 100 years?
KM: Why not? We do not talk about the number of years. [Deceased Hamas spiritual leader] Sheikh Ahmed Yassin spoke about 10 years. We now say that Hamas is prepared to offer a hudna to Israel if it withdraws from the lands occupied in 1967 and respects all the Palestinian rights.
It is true that today the balance of power is in Israels favor. Israel has military superiority. But that doesnt mean the Palestinian people will surrender. It doesnt mean that the Israelis can ignore the Palestinian people completely without paying any price. Things will not continue in that way. The powerful do not remain powerful. And the weak do not stay weak. The more Israel continues with its inflexibility, the more it will lose.
FP: Should the American people, who remember what Hamas did in the 1990s with suicide bombers and who read reports about the Qassam rockets, be scared of Hamas?
KM: I want to explain this from three points of view. The first one is that Hamas does not undertake resistance outside Palestine. The second point is the issue of making a connection between terrorism and Islam, and claiming that, because Hamas is a movement born of Islam, therefore it is a terrorist or extremist movement. Hamas is not extremist. It is not hard-line. Hamas is a moderate movement. It is not religiously dogmatic. We are Muslims because we are from a Muslim environment, just as you and others are from a Christian environment. We accept religious pluralism and, likewise, political pluralism. And we have open relations with Christians. And third, the martyrdom operations are part of the response to the Israeli massacres. So why do the people in America, or the West, or the world in general, criticize what is being done by Hamas, or the Palestinian people, but they do not criticize Israels behavior? Israel is extremely heavily armed and the strongest state in the region, while we are isolated. Our rockets are extremely primitive, while Israel has American rockets, Apache [helicopter gunships], and laser-guided missiles.
FP: Does Hamas have much support in the Arab world?
KM: First, the power of Hamas is in the rallying of the Palestinian people around it. [Also] Hamass power is in the support of the peoples of the Arab and Muslim worlds. This is our true power. As for the Arab governments, you know that they are subject to American pressures. But even with that, we are in constant contact with the Arab governments.
[The telephone rings, and Meshaal chats with the caller for five minutes. He says it is Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, calling to express concern about the situation in Gaza.]
FP: Have you watched the U.S. presidential campaign? Do you see any reason to prefer one candidate over another?
KM: Of course, there are some differences between the parties and the candidates. But unfortunately, regarding the Arab-Israeli issue, the differences are small and only cosmetic because everybody is biased toward Israel. There are differences regarding internal issues, and regarding other international issues. But regarding the Palestinian issue, the differences are very small.
FP: If the present policy of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas fails, what will happen?
KM: When Abbass policy fails, and the policy of liquidating [the Palestinian problem] fails, and the negotiations failbecause of the Israelis rigidity, Americas one-sidedness, and the absence of any international desire to press Israel to end its occupationthe strong message of the Palestinian people will be that they have no alternative but to resist.
Interview conducted on Jan. 16 by Helena Cobban in Damascus. The questions were posed in English. Generally, Meshaal replied in Arabic, and one of his assistants provided immediate interpretation. Additional refinements to the translation were made from the recording by Cobban, and the interview was condensed by FP. Cobban is a freelance journalist and a Friend in Washington with the Friends Committee on National Legislation. She blogs at JustWorldNews.org.