On the 17th of October this year, I interviewed Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in his offices in Damascus, Syria on a wide range of topics. I did the interview as part of a launch effort for a new political blog, The Palestine Note, which is releasing the interview today.
The questions I asked Meshal to reflect on were:
1. How had Meshal’s father influenced his course given that his father recently passed away? I linked this discussion of Meshal and his father’s vision to Barack Obama’s own revelations about his father and his goals in Obama’s first powerful memoir, Dreams From My Father.
2. I asked Meshal to articulate his vision for a united Palestine, particularly after the occupation.
3. What would life under a Hamas-led government would look like. What are the views on diversity, heterodoxy, secularism? Some people fear that a Hamas-led government hasn’t shown the ability to handle diversity and accept people that are different. What is Meshal’s answer to those who think that minority rights will be abused? I discussed concerns about the shuttering of private schools in Gaza, forcing women to wear the hijab, and prohibitions on swimming unless wearing prescribed clothing.
4. What are Hamas’ views on the Goldstone Report and whether the criticism of Mahmoud Abbas on his stumbles on Goldstone reflected a willingness by Hamas to abide by international law covenants, particularly about targeting innocent civilians. (I found Meshal’s response quite interesting but should have pushed him on the subject of suicide bombers which I was unable to at the time.)
5. Is Khaled Meshal a Palestinian patriot or a Muslim patriot? I asked him to differentiate Hamas from other Islamic fundamentalist and Salafist groups, including al Qaeda.
6. Could Hamas be an active and constructive player in peace negotiations with Israel in a way that does not totally violate Hamas’ basic charter?
7. Finally, what advice did Meshal have for President Obama as he approaches the next steps of the Middle East peace challenge?
The “transcript” of the entire exchange — my full questions and Khaled Meshal’s responses appears after the break. . .
STEVEN CLEMONS INTERVIEW WITH KHALED MESHAL
17 OCTOBER 2009 – DAMASCUS, SYRIA
Steve Clemons directs the foreign policy program at the New America Foundation and conducted this interview for “The Palestine Note.” He also publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note.
Clemons: Hi, I’m Steve Clemons. I direct the foreign policy programs at the New America Foundation in Washington, and I’m helping a special project for a new blog, called the Palestine Note. And we’re here with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal who has been kind enough to invite me in to have a discussion today about his vision and views for Palestine.
Clemons: Thank you so much for meeting with me. It’s great to be with you.
Clemons: Let me start with kind of an emotional question. Unfortunately I know and I want to express my condolences that your father passed away recently, and I’m sorry for that.
Barack Obama once wrote a book when he was young, called “Dreams from My Father.” Of course, his father was from Kenya and had dreams of a better world and a more just world, a world that you know where racism was less of it. It’s a very compelling book, and it just made me think that maybe you might have some visions if your very interesting father in the life he live may have shaped how you look at Palestine. Do you have any thoughts, or have you thought about this connection to Obama and his dad and what your father was like?
Meshal: In the Name of Allah. Welcome to you and the respectful viewers.
There is no doubt that every human being is related to his father’s experience emotionally and socially. The relationship between the father and his son is spontaneous, in addition to the total experience as the human being learns from his father from the first day, and from his small family. The human being is an extension of his father’s experience, ambition and dreams. My father, may God have mercy on him, was a struggler. He fought against the British mandate and the Zionist settlers who came to Palestine.
My father was carrying the ambitions of his people. He was looking forward for the freedom and ridding of the occupation. I acquired this spirit from my father before I read about it in all of the books. I consider myself an extension to my father’s experience. And I’m one of the Palestinians whose generation that is an extension to the previous generations, which carried our national concerns and goal.
Now, our generation and the next one are carrying the experience and go on with it and inherit it. This is part of the ingenuity of the Palestinian people. It’s a people whose experience is extended: the fathers, the children, the grandchildren and so on until our national goal is achieved. So there is no doubt that president Obama had his experience with his father’s dreams. I also have my experience, not only with my father’s dreams but also with my father’s struggle and his experience. I carry this experience and take it to my sons and then to my grandsons until we get rid of the occupation and achieve our national goal, by God’s will.
Clemons: Your country today and your government is divided. There is Gaza. There is the West Bank. There is Fatah. There is Hamas. There are independents, I understand. Can you share with our audience what your vision is if you were to help govern a united Palestine. What is the vision for a united Palestine, particularly after the occupation? Is there a positive, constructive vision for Palestine that someone like you in leadership can see and talk about that exists beyond the darker side of the Israeli occupation?
Meshal: Certainly. We are a movement that carries the concerns of its people.
We work hard to end the Palestinian division first so we become one Palestinian side, one authority, one Palestinian leadership, we have one political vision which we work together to achieve. We are going through sad reality. We look forward for a better reality.
Between the current and future reality there is a gap that we seek to fill through struggle and determination. Our goal is to get rid of the occupation: our people live away from occupation, killings, and arrests and the region lives without bloodshed and to have a real peace in the region, a just peace that is fair to our people that provides it with real independence and the complete right of determining the fate so that we live like how the world’s peoples live, with no occupation on our land and with real sovereignty and in an independent state with real sovereignty, like all world countries.
That’s what we seek. We seek this goal through struggle and cooperation with the international community and the regional surrounding. We want the bloodshed to stop. We want to not have wars in the region, but after our people get their rights. This is the normal situation. Our people look forward to achieve this goal through any peaceful means, but unfortunately our people were affected or let down by many of its surroundings. That’s why they sought the struggle through resistance, which is a means not a need. If they found a peaceful ways to get their rights, they will deal with it seriously. In brief, our people seek the freedom and the right of determining the fate.
Clemons: So you are going to Cairo, your people are going to Cairo?
Meshal: No, I will send a delegation.
Clemons: Some people fear that a Hamas-led government hasn’t shown the ability to handle diversity, to handle settlements, to handle people that are different. What is your answer to those who think that the code that comes not just the fact that you are less corrupt than Fatah or there is more competence or you have vision in a sense, but there are other parts that certain people fear. Can you govern in what we call a heterodox way where minorities have rights? And the reason that I raise this is that there has been some concern in Gaza that could there be private schools? You know, the women in the hijab, the incidents on the beach without swimming and on. But do you have any response for those who fear on the cultural life style side? What would living under Hamas regime look like?
Meshal: First, Hamas does not seek to run the government individually. Hamas seeks to liberate its land and to restore its people’s rights with the help of the other Palestinian political powers. After achieving this goal, we will be partners in ruling the homeland and the forthcoming Palestinian state, by the will of God. So Hamas is not with the individuality, that’s first.
Secondly, our vision is to give our people the freedom to choose, like they choose their leaderships through polling boxes, they can choose the freedom of their ruling regime, and their intellectual and social programs. In the essence, we give our people the freedom and our people are aware and know what to choose.
We respect our people’s choices and you know freedom is the basis in people’s lives. What we are suffering from is the absence of freedom. Consequently our demand is to provide the people with the freedom. And through the history of Palestine and the fact that it’s the land of religions and prophets, and this Palestine had all prophets and that’s why in it lived the Muslims, the Christians and some Jews and there was a big deal of tolerance and coexistence.
The problem is when Zionism came to invade the land and impose its power by force, but there was no problem to have the Muslim, the Christian and the Jew live together for fourteenth centuries peacefully in Palestine and the other Arab countries. So this diversity is the main component of the social, intellectual and political life in Palestine. We respect that and we will preserve that. Some of what was said about Gaza that there is the subject of Hijab and so on, these are individual practices that we do not order and we do not allow anyone to impose what to eat and wear.
These are people’s liberties and we respect the people’s choices, and the people have the right to have his own religion or ideology or belongingness. The important thing is that there is democracy we depend on, a general law that protects everyone, there is law and freedom, there is diversity and peaceful leadership of the power. These are the values we believe in. but unfortunately, when Hamas won in 2006 it has not been given the chance to practice its experience in normal conditions. It was subjected to embargo and pressure. Some of the wrong behaviors happen because of the difficult conditions: the embargo, the pressure and starvation like what is happening the Gaza Strip.
We need our people to be granted full freedom by choosing its governing system, its democracy, its parliament representatives and leaders. I’m sure the Palestinian people that includes Hamas, Fatah and all the powers will behave the good way.
Clemons: You have been, Khaeld Meshal, very critical of your partner in government now, Mahmoud Abbas and his position on the Goldstone report and America’s position on the Goldstone report and here you have a critique by a very well-known jurist, human rights jurist who found war crimes issues in Israel and Hamas related to the Gaza incursion and Gaza crisis in the beginning of last year.
And one of the questions that I have is that your criticism is so profound and many people have heard it and felt it that Mahmoud Abbas is waffling has made you look like more a champion of Palestinian broader interest, but it raised a really interesting legal question about whether Hamas sees itself as a binding bi-systems of transnational international law, and thinking, one of the concerns of the Goldstone report was the targeting, the purposeful targeting by Israel of civilian infrastructure. How do you think this relates to Hamas and how it’s evolving and thinking about international law, you know innocent civilians and what, obviously I’m talking about rockets and how they fit? Is your own thinking evolving because of the Goldstone report?
Meshal: First, we criticized Mahmoud Abbas because he fell for the American pressures and others to withdraw the Goldstone report. This is opposite to the benefits of the Palestinian people. There was a chance to condemn Israel for its crimes in Gaza. That’s the reason behind Hamas’s anger and the Palestinian people’s anger and you realized that. Then he had to re present the report to the human rights committee in Geneva. This is an important correction of the mistake.
When the report was issued yesterday, we welcomed the human rights committee in Geneva reading it. When Hamas deals seriously with the Goldstone report, with some reservations on it, this is evidence that Hamas respects the international law and is ready to cooperate with this law. If the report or any other side has any reservations on Hamas’ actions, we are ready to explain them and we will form an honest and neutral investigative committee in Gaza to give Goldstone and its committee and the international community the facts.
Hamas does not aim to kill civilians. Hamas does not want to target the civilians. Hamas defends itself, but because it has simple abilities and its rockets are inaccurate in targeting, so it reaches the civilians, but we do not intend to do that. That cannot be compared. We are the victims. Hamas, the resistance powers and the Palestinian people in Gaza and West Bank, we are the victims. When the victim defends itself, even if some unintentional mistakes happen, this cannot be compared with crime Israel is committing.
It is the occupying and attacking state which possesses a huge military arsenal and has the most modern weapons which it can target away from civilians. But Israel is intends, just like what happened during the Gaza war, killing the civilians, the women and children. Third of the victims in Gaza war or half of them were civilians. It destroys the schools, mosques and universities.
This is a very dangerous issue. Consequently there is no comparison between Hamas and Israel. Hamas and the Palestinian people are the victims and Israel is the hangman, the occupier and the attacker. As a result, Goldstone’s report is important because for the first time the Palestinian people felt there is an international side that was fair to the Palestinians and accused who should be accused, which is Israel.
Clemons: Mr. Meshal, one question people have is Khaled Meshal is a Palestinian patriot or a Muslim patriot and when of the things that happened recently is we saw in Gaza Hamas take action against other Salafist groups that were creating difficulty and I think it will be very interesting for the people to know how you see Hamas characterized by in the media and how it’s differentiated from other Islamic radical and Salafist groups out there. And obviously from an American perspective too many Americans look at all those groups, Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbullah, Hamas and they say it’s all al-Qaeda, which I find, I know it’s wrong but I would like to hear how you characterize this.
Meshal: First, We, Hamas is a movement of national liberation. Its program is based on resisting the occupier and achieving the national goals of the Palestinian people. Yes, we carry Islamic culture. We adopt the Islamic thought, because we are part of this nation, this region, the region that is Arab and Muslim. This is a normal thing, just like when there is a movement in Europe it is Christian. This is not strange. We are a liberation movement but we are an Islamic movement too because we are part of this region naturally.
In our Islamic thought, we adopt the moderate Islam, the in-between Islam, that is far from extremism. We are against extremism in the Islamic thought. We support the moderation, and this is the real Islam as we see it. We carry out the resistance but we do not practice violence. We do not open general violence. We carry out legitimate resistance against the occupier. We do not carry out these abroad, but we carry it out in Palestine against the Israeli occupier. This part of the reality of Hamas and its moderation. We are also not against any other Islamic group that opposes our thought, be it Salafist or any other movement.
This is part of diversity and freedom. However, some of the groups that became against the law and carried out violence internally against the innocent and the civilians inside Palestine because they oppose this group, here it was necessary to put an end to this group, but we do not fight everyone who opposes us. No. this is freedom available to everybody. So, this is the philosophy of Hamas. Hamas is a national liberation movement that carries the Islamic thought; the moderate thought that deals with tolerance and openness with all of the Palestinian and regional components. And we are also open to the world and we work with tolerance and openness and we believe in dialogue between civilizations and not through the clash of civilizations. We are part of this greater village in the world and we cooperate with everybody, but we want everybody to respect the other and not to attack its rights.
With the end of the occupation and the wars, the people will get the chance to live in peace and cooperate for the sake of humanity prosperity and achieving the goodness for it.
Our Islam which we adopt is moderate and we believe that Islam is moderate
Clemons: Khaled, in the …
Meshal: This is the last question?
Clemons: Yes, this is the last question, a very big question. One is, can Hamas, without denying its character, without denying its basic DNA, can it be part of a unity government, a combined government in Palestine that if the United States and Europe and the Arab League and other states that can be involved in more responsible ways that can be more effective than they are right now, from my own point of view, can Hamas be an active and constructive player in peace negotiations or even equilibrium negotiations with Israel, in a way, or does that undo your basic charter.
And let me add the second part of the question: the question is if you were to give smart council to president Obama and his team on how to reach this region in a more effective way, a way that generates more results that are fair a long some of the lines that you shared with us today. What would be some of the things that you would share with the president?
Meshal: The first part: Hamas, we had announced, that is ready to cooperate with the law and with any international or regional effort or Arab, certainly to reach real peace in the region. We and all the Palestinians and Arabs accepted the borders of June 4, 1967. The problem is not with the Palestinians, Hamas, Fatah or the Arab.
The problem is with Israel. The problem is not whether we accept or not, but the question is does the Obama administration and the international community has the will, the desire and the ability to pressure Israel to force her to accept that? We have a big question mark. The Obama administration tried to force Netanyahu to freeze the settlements in order to start the negotiations, but he refused. So if neither the Obama administration nor the international community were able to freeze the settlements for a period of one year, how will they force him to withdraw from the 1967 borders? Whether with the Palestinians or with Syria, how are they going to force him to recognize the Palestinian rights in Jerusalem and the right to return and the land? As a matter of fact, the problem is with Israel and the problem is there should be an international will, led by the Obama administration to force Israel not to rebel against the international law.
What I advice the Obama administration to do is that president Obama and his administration to better know the region, the psychology of this region, the history, and the roots of the problem that was initiated in Palestine because knowing the history is important to create the present and the future. That’s what’s important. Secondly, they should realize that the entry to change the current scene in the region- to take the region from wars and struggle to peace- is not by pressuring the Arabs and Palestinians again.
The successive American administrations have pressured the Arabs and Palestinians a lot and the result they could not achieve peace because the problem is not here. Thus, the strategy must change, which is pressuring the right entry, which is Israel. Israel is the obstacle. Pressuring Israel is what will change the scene.
Here’s the starting point, and if the Arabs and the Palestinians found seriousness from the American administration in pressuring Israel to withdraw to 1967 borders, and recognize the Palestinian and Arab rights and stops its occupation and aggression, I’m telling you that the Arabs and Palestinians will cooperate with the American administration and there will be peace in the region. Without that, the struggle will remain and all the American and international attempts will fail because in brief they’re not moving in the right direction. This is my advice if the American administration wanted to see different results than those resulted by the Bush administration and the ones before it.
To achieve new results, you should have, we need, another approach, different approach.
Clemons: We are out of time. I want to thank you so much for giving the opportunity to the Palestine Note and the readers of the blog an opportunity to spend some time with you. Thank you so much.
Meshal: Welcome. I am happy to see you. Thank you very much. And see you later, Inshallah.
— Steve Clemons