Inside the mind of Hamas leader Khalid Mishal

Australian journalist Paul McGeough travels to Doha, Qatar for Fairfax Media to interview the Hamas head. What follows is a fascinating discussion about the future of Palestine. Read the whole thing. What remains deeply concerning is the apparent desire of Hamas to embrace the failed two-state equation that will never happen in reality with any justice:

The Hamas leader doesn’t like the term, but in coming to that edge, Mishal has been burning bridges. Incredibly, Hamas has quit Damascus. The Syrian capital became the movement’s headquarters in exile after Jordan’s naive new king, Abdullah II, cast out the Hamas gang in 1999. As an Islamist organisation rooted in the then sinister-sounding Muslim Brotherhood, the movement was alert to the possibility that Damascus could turn on it – the Assad regime had done so brutally in 1982, virtually flattening the city of Hama to choke a brotherhood uprising.

But Hamas had nowhere else to go. And locked in its own conflict with Israel, the ruling Assad family saw strategic good sense in giving shelter to what were called the ”rejectionist” Palestinian factions – those who refused to buy in to the Washington-backed peace process.

This Assad-Hamas relationship was a pact between a minority, Shiite-aligned dictatorship and a Sunni resistance movement. It endured despite the re-emergence of the Sunni-Shiite schism in the Muslim world, but it could not survive the Arab Spring, which has embroiled Syria in sectarian chaos, with an estimated 70,000 civilians dying.

As the Hamas leader tells it, even before the first protests erupted in Syria in March 2011, he had urged the mercurial Bashar al-Assad to opt for reforms that might head off any revolt by his own people. ”I alerted him to the likelihood of the Arab Spring coming to Syria,” Mishal says, adding by way of a rebuke to the translator: ”I did not warn him.”

Hamas hung in for another 10 months. But that encounter in which Mishal urged Assad to act pre-emptively, was their last. Over the years, they had met regularly, enjoying each other’s company. ”There were no more meetings,” says Mishal. ”It was clear that we differed in our opinions on what would happen. We wished they would meet the aspirations of their people – regrettably, the Syrian leadership took the other option.

”That made it impossible for us to maintain a presence there – with such brutality and bloodshed. And once we felt our presence was being sought after as a justification for what was happening, we had to leave. [Syrian officials] were demanding that we openly support their policy – they wanted to know why we did not [publicly] express solidarity. We were left with no choice.”

This was bigger than merely offending an embattled dictator, because other powerful parties would take deep offence at Hamas abandoning Assad. Guardedly, Mishal lifts the veil, ever so slightly: ”Our assessment of Syria was a source of disagreement with a number of people.”

Hamas’ abandonment of Syria ”soured” the movement’s relations with Tehran, he confirms. There were ”areas of agreement and disagreement” with Moscow and ”it had an impact on our relations with [the Lebanese Shiite militia] Hezbollah, because our stand on Syria was different to theirs”.

After reports that Tehran had punished Hamas by chopping a funding deal worth an estimated $25 million a month, a movement spokesman in Gaza said Hamas would not do the bidding of the Iranians in any military conflict between Iran and Israel: ”If there’s a war between two powers, Hamas will not be part of such a war.”

During more than six hours of interviews with Fairfax Media in Doha, Mishal sets out the departure from Syria only in terms of needing to be on the right side of history: ”We had to stand with the people, to support their calls for freedom and economic reform … we would never support bloodshed and brutality when the people rise peacefully to demand change.”

Mishal has announced he is quitting as supreme leader of Hamas – his replacement could be confirmed by a vote of the Hamas shura, or top council, any day now. But Fairfax Media was assured, too, that Mishal aspires to a bigger brief, as leader for all Palestinians.
By coincidence, the 74-year-old Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas says he will not seek re-election as head of the Palestinian Authority – although it’s not clear if he also intends to relinquish his posts as head of Fatah and of the PLO. There is speculation – read that as hope – in some Palestinian circles and in Israel and Washington that Abbas, jaded as he is, might not follow through on quitting the PA.

Unlike Mishal, Abbas is seen as a moderate, a staunch advocate of non-violent negotiation with Israel who only recently has revealed himself capable of independent or determined action – such as his bid for Palestinian membership of the UN and his faction’s in-principle agreement to join Hamas in a new unity government.

Historically, Hamas has spurned the PLO because of the latter’s renunciation of armed struggle and its recognition of the state of Israel. Hamas and Fatah fought a bloody civil war in 2007 – when a Fatah force failed dismally in a bid to dislodge Hamas from the Gaza Strip, despite arms, funding and co-operation from the US and Israel. Under Israeli occupation, in the case of Fatah in the West Bank, and locked in by Israeli forces, in the case of Hamas in Gaza, the factions have been at daggers-drawn since. But in renewed unity talks sponsored by the new Cairo regime, they have agreed in principle that Hamas will join the PLO.

PLO membership for Hamas would serve as a launch pad for Mishal to seek to head the PLO. Given the enmity between the factions, it comes as no surprise that the latest round of unity negotiations, in Cairo in mid-February, is deadlocked on the issue of election rules that would determine the degree of difficulty for Mishal to take leadership of the PLO.

There’s a question here, too: if Hamas folds itself into the PLO and Mishal makes a bid for the top seat, how does the movement stick to its refusal to abide by previous deals between the PLO and the international community? Some Arab-language media reports speculate that Qatar and others have hit on installing Mishal as leader of the PLO precisely because such an appointment would back him in behind those deals.

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