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Ismail Haniyeh interview: Full transcript

Hamas's leader talks to MEE about Arab normalisation with Israel, the Gaza siege, Palestinian politics and the US elections
Ismail Haniyeh, 58, is the chairman of the political bureau of the Palestinian movement Hamas, and the de facto ruler of the besieged Gaza Strip (AFP)
By David Hearst in Istanbul

Editor's note: David Hearst, editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye, met Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh in Istanbul in October 2020. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

David Hearst: You have called Arab leaders deluded for thinking they can achieve legitimacy by getting the support of the US and Israel, but Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) and Mohamed bin Zayed (MBZ) are not interested in elections, or democracy. They do not care what their people think. They are chasing power and money. Do you not fear their power and money will crush the Palestinian cause?

Ismail Haniyeh: I would like to give you some background about these normalisation steps. In my assessment, Donald Trump had a strategy that is based on three elements. The first element is to work for the liquidation of the Palestinian cause; the second is to form the regional alliance between Israel and a number of regimes in the region; the third is the division of the region into two camps: friends and foes. 

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Regrettably, normalisation between Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Israel falls within that strategy, and indeed, with regard to the question of legitimacy, some people in the region believe that as a result of the crises they have, their relations with the Israelis and Americans might strengthen their regimes, hence their willingness to sacrifice the Palestinian cause. That is why I continue to believe they are deluded, because legitimacy cannot be derived from outside. It has to be derived from within, from democracy and from adhering to the principles of the Palestinian cause, and not compromising the Arab consensus.

DH: Which other Arab states could join this coalition?

IH: I do not wish for any additional Arab states to normalise. A few states such as Oman and Saudi Arabia [could join the coalition], this is what the Americans and Israelis have been talking about. But I believe there are obstacles which prevent them. This is not an easy path. Even [in] Sudan which is said to have a desire, there is no consensus on taking this step. There are sharp disputes in the local media. In Saudi Arabia, its traditional position might act as a hindrance.

The US may not be successful in embroiling more Arab countries in normalisation. Even the UAE ’s experience with normalisation with Israel has not been encouraging. Netanyahu was quick to announce that he did not give up on annexation in exchange for signing the deal. At the same time he expressed opposition to the F35 sale. All he said was that this was peace for peace and that it happens out of a position of strength. So my hope is that no more states will follow. There are many difficulties for them to do so.

DH: This deal represents the collapse of Oslo. Does Hamas feel vindicated in its opposition to Oslo?

IH: Oslo, since it was announced, bore the seeds of its own failure. I remember that when we were in Marj Al-Zuhur camp in Lebanon, we had deep discussions about this and our position in the movement was that it was very unlikely to succeed, and we realised early on that the objective of the agreement was to liquidate the Palestinian cause and to end resistance and turn Palestinians against each other. From that moment on, we took the decision that resistance should continue and that we should keep tackling our internal differences through dialogue and avoid confrontation. 

Oslo was a failure from day one because it was a security agreement, not a political one. Oslo died when [Yitzhak] Rabin was assassinated. Later on [Yasser] Arafat was poisoned. Therefore what we see today is the formation of an Israeli position that started in the 1990s. Abu Mazen himself, who engineered Oslo, has announced abandoning Oslo and therefore yes we feel vindicated. We could have saved time had the Palestinian Authority (PA) recognised this disaster earlier. Had it been overturned early on, we would have saved our people the miseries they endured. But better late than never.

DH: You called for three things in Beirut: a committee to reform the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and renounce Oslo; common leadership and the formation of a group of countries to oppose Zionism. Which countries were you thinking of?

IH: Whoever rejects normalisation can be a member of this coalition. There are some states as well as civil society institutions. In addition to Turkey, Iran, Qatar and the Palestinian resistance groups, there are some other states, such as Pakistan, who has announced their objection, and also Algeria.

When I talk about building a solid coalition I don’t mean for it to be limited to within the region or that it should be a closed camp. We adopt an open door policy to maintain dialogue, but what I want to make sure is that it is a cohesive bloc that represents the Palestinian position against normalisation.

Haniyeh Erdogan
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Ismail Haniyeh, 14 December 2019 (AFP)

DH: Is it significant that Turkey is hosting talks between Hamas and Fatah and not Egypt? 

IH: We are pleased to see any country hosting the Palestinian dialogue. We thank the brothers in Turkey for providing the venue but this is hosting rather than patronage. They are not providing mediation. The meetings took place in the Palestinian consulate. The Turks did not intervene in the details of the discussion. Turkey has always urged Hamas and Fatah to achieve reconciliation. This was the discussion we had with [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan. In the meetings with him Palestinian reconciliation was a major issue.

Also in Beirut the meetings took place in the Palestinian consulate. Egypt has played a major role in Palestinian reconciliation. After Turkey, the Fatah delegation visited Cairo. We also made contacts with the Egyptian leadership, and it’s expected that a meeting will be held sometime soon in Cairo. Also, our brothers in Qatar support reconciliation and in the discussion we had with the emir we talked about this and they welcomed it. 

DH: Realistically how far will this process lead?

IH: The main development is the arrival of the PA policy at a dead end. Firstly, nothing is left for Abu Mazen to bet on. Secondly, Abu Mazen feels personally insulted by the Americans and the Israelis. Thirdly, there was the decision by Arab regional leaders to bypass the PLO and make peace with Israel. In other words the PA was no longer necessary as a bridge for the Israelis to make peace with the Arabs while at the time the PA started feeling it had been abandoned by its Arab brothers, both politically and financially.

These are the three factors: the failure of the political programme, personal insult and talks with the enemy. These three factors together made Abu Mazen think he needed to find a new approach. Hence his positive response to the initiative by Hamas.

DH: Is this words or is there real action?

IH: In the last few months that saw the dialogue take place, we witnessed positive changes on the ground. I do not want to sound over-optimistic and pre-empt events but there are positive things. The challenges are enormous and we are still at the beginning of the road.

What we hear from them in closed meetings we hear them stress the importance of Hamas taking part, because Hamas has a right to be involved in the day-to-day running of government.

DH: How important is Mohammed Dahlan in Gaza?

IH: He has a current within Fatah which is called the Democratic Reform Trend. He has supporters. All the members of the Palestine Legislative Council representing Fatah in Gaza, 15 or 16 of them, are Dahlan’s men. But he has never really gone through elections for the people to know how popular he is. 

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DH: Was it a mistake for Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, to meet Dahlan in Cairo in 2016, considering that Dahlan is now being touted in some American and Israeli circles as a replacement for Abu Mazen?

IH: There was only really one meeting between Yahya Sinwar and Dahlan. There was a context for that meeting, the hardship the people were enduring because of the siege. We took a different approach in the hope of ending the suffering.

The meeting with Dahlan was part of that endeavour, but regrettably we have not succeeded in achieving reconciliation. Gaza came under attack several times and every time there was a consensus for lifting the siege. Israel would usually agree to our conditions for a ceasefire but when it came to implementation they did not fulfil.

Also before 2016, the relationship between Gaza and Egypt was not good. The discussion with Dahlan focused on one main point - how to alleviate hardship in Gaza. There was no discussion whatsoever about any political issues including the form of the Palestinian cause.

I believe that some success was relatively achieved in the discussion with Dahlan with regard to alleviating hardship in Gaza. For example a relief committee was set up consisting of representatives of different factions, including Dahlan’s, and funds were made available.

There was also discussion of what is known as societal or community reconciliation as a result of the military conflict that took place in 2007, which was in broad terms between Hamas and Dahlan’s current represented then by the preventive security forces. They needed to resolve some of the remaining problems. Four hundred and fifty people were killed in that conflict. About half of them were Dahlan’s followers. So resolving this was an issue. There were still 200 cases to resolve. Each family was paid $50,000 to end retribution. Otherwise they remain honour-bound to retaliate. 

Mass rallies were held during which the families of the victims were paid. Each family signed documents testifying that the issue was resolved. All that money, totalling about $5 million, was provided by Dahlan.

Because of his warm relations with Egypt, Dahlan helped Hamas’s relations with Egypt but was this a barter for something else? No.

Hamas never promised anything in exchange. We always insisted that Palestinians should choose their leadership.

DH: The siege of Gaza has lasted for 14 years now. How and when will it end? What hope can Hamas offer the people of Gaza?

IH: The suffering in Gaza will definitely come to an end. The principal cause of this suffering is the occupation. The siege of Gaza is part and parcel of the American-Israeli strategy to lay siege to those who oppose them and to dry the springs. I believe ending the suffering in Gaza can be achieved with three things.

The first thing is to accomplish reconciliation which will lead to the formation of a national unity government. This is what we are heading towards.

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Secondly, the steadfastness and resistance of Palestinian forces to Israeli occupation. I want to remind you that the heroism of the second uprising shown by Palestinians is what forced the Israelis to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. Also the return marches [0f 2018-19] shook the American and Israeli strategy. Those return marches staged in Gaza led to whatever agreements brokered between Israel and Palestine to alleviate the situation. These were mediated through Egypt.

Qatar was also involved in concluding those deals, including: solving the problem of electricity shortages and increasing the fishing area and supporting industrial zones and setting up temporary employment centres, an increase in imports and exports and the increased number of Gazans who were allowed to travel. None of this would have happened had it not been for the confrontation that the people of Gaza showed. So steadfastness and resistance will force the occupation to end. We can see how burning balloons are causing terror in Israeli settlements.

The third factor is to do with the international community and its responsibility for ending the humanitarian crisis, taking into consideration that two-thirds of the Gazan population are refugees who happen to be the responsibility of the UN. The UN is not simply a mediator. They have responsibility to see resolutions implemented.

So there are three approaches.

Undoubtedly Egypt plays a major role in this, opening the crossing and keeping them open for longer periods, allowing movement of people and goods. Now there is a new commercial movement from Egypt to Gaza and this has provided revenue for the government in Gaza. At the moment Rafah is closed by virtue of a mutual agreement because of the coronavirus. We asked for coordination. 

DH: Is Egypt mediating a prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel?

IH: Yes, it is undertaking the role of a mediator and there are many other parties that are contacting Hamas on this issue. Our objective is to secure the release of all detainees and we welcome any effort in this regard. A delegation from Egypt arrived in Gaza recently and they told us they were interested, proactive and were willing to negotiate an exchange deal, if the Israelis agreed to the demands of the movement. The Egyptian delegation did convey those terms to the Israelis. We are yet to receive a clear response, the ball is in Israel’s court. There are 5,600 detainees and 40 percent of them are Hamas. When we negotiate we negotiate on behalf of all Palestinian factions. We work for securing the release of all the detainees and not just those affiliated to Hamas. 

DH: Do you expect another Israeli attack on Gaza?

IH: We always expect the worst from the occupation. Whenever there is a deep crisis in Israel, they run away from their people by waging a war either in Lebanon or in Gaza. We are fully prepared for any new attack on Gaza. We do not ask for a war but we are not afraid of it. 

But the military calculations are not that easy for Israeli decision makers. In 2014 the attack lasted for 51 days and the Israelis paid an unprecedented cost. About 71 soldiers were killed, let alone the economic, political and more losses incurred. In six years, Hamas' capabilities are a lot better and we have surprises for the enemy. So waging war is not an easy decision for Israel. It is going to be costly. It is true that they will cause damages to us but so will they be damaged as well.

DH: What would you say to Netanyahu if he was sitting in this room instead of me?

IH: Dégagé [Go away].

DH: What do you say to the national religious settlers who claim they are returning to a land their ancestors lived in 3,000 years ago.

IH: The land belonged to us long before them. We are talking about a land engraved in our history, we are talking about Jerusalem, which was the first Qibla [direction in prayers] for Muslims and was the place to which the Prophet Muhammad was taken on a nightly journey; we are talking about the Palestinians who belonged to the land long before the Zionists arrived from Europe. We will never give up our homeland or concede any part of it. We will spare no effort to liberate it, and what we cannot liberate we will leave for future generations to liberate.

Remember the political document we released in 2017 when Hamas expressed its readiness to accept a Palestinian state based on the 1967 line. We said that this would be without relinquishing the rights of Palestinians. We insist on nonrecognition and making no concessions to our national right. And that is why today we don’t make any offers to the Israelis and Americans to do with anything less than this. Even with Oslo, Israel showed it was not a country which is in pursuit of peace. The nature of the Zionist movement is to promote itself through force. It does not respect human rights or the norms of international law. Might is right for them.

DH: Do you expect anything different from Joe Biden if he wins next month's US presidential election?

IH: US foreign policy does not change with the change of the president. It is deeply entrenched in the US deep state. US foreign policy is an institutional, not an individual matter. Having said that, Trump has been the worst president the US has had. 

DH: Kushner is reported to be willing to meet Hamas. Are you willing to meet him?

IH: We have no problem in principle with meeting and having a discussion with any American. Our only reservation is having direct dialogue with the Israelis. So the decision regarding having a discussion with Americans has to do with the context in which a discussion is made and how it is linked to the rights of the Palestinian people. We have already refused to meet Kushner because of timing. The timing was not appropriate.

DH: What problems are caused to Egypt by Emirati direct relations with Israel?

IH: Egypt’s role with the Palestinian cause in general and Gaza in particular is historic. There are a number of basic considerations governing our relationship with Egypt: first of all history and geography.

A significant part of Egypt’s regional role is linked to the Palestinian cause and because Egypt is so involved with domestic Palestinian affairs it is compelled to have a relationship with Hamas. The issues of reconciliation, prisoner exchange, all of these things, Hamas is part of them, so Egypt cannot avoid Hamas. 

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There are also considerations of national security. Gaza is part of Egypt’s national security, therefore Egypt needs Gaza to be stable for its own sake and it is also good for trade. All these factors govern the relationship. Egypt is one of the central countries in the region and for that reason Hamas needs to maintain a stable relation with it. The central countries in this region are Egypt, Iran and Turkey. They are centrally positioned because of geographic and mutual interest and by virtue of the needs of security. 

We have always been keen on a good relationship with Saudi Arabia but regrettably it changed its position and we are truly sorry that some of our brothers have been detained in Saudi Arabia. Hamas maintains an open door policy for all and with whoever keeps an open door with us. 

Yes the deal between Israel and the Emiratis poses a threat to Egypt. Any deal an Arab country makes with Israel will eventually threaten that country. We know Israeli leaders better than them. We know how they think. We would like to tell our brothers in the UAE that they will lose as a result of those agreements, because Israel’s only interest is to seek a military and economic foothold in areas close to Iran. They will use your country as their doorstep. 

We don’t even want to see the UAE being used as an Israeli launchpad. The people of the UAE are our brothers. They support the Palestinian cause historically and this shift that has taken place contradicts what the Emirati people have stood for all along. We look forward to seeing the Emiratis dissociate themselves from these agreements.

The Zionist project is an expansionist project. Its objective is to create a greater Israel. We don’t want to see the Emiratis or the Bahrainis or the Sudanese being used as vehicles for this project. History will show no mercy, the people will not forget, and humanitarian law will not forgive.

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