”Boycott does not promote democracy”

Aftonbladets ledarsida är oberoende socialdemokratisk.
EXCLUSIVE Helle Klein, Aftonbladet's political editor-in-chief, met with Hamas leader Khaled Masháal in Syria's capital Damaskus.

The boycott of the Hamas government by the US and the EU has led to great hardship for the Palestinian people. Desperation is on the rise. In Gaza the Fatah faction and the Hamas faction are shooting at each other.

At the same time the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, has been given the go-ahead by the US to his one-sided so called withdrawal. In practice new borders are being established. The Wall is being built contrary to international law. Israel’s occupation continues unrestrained.

This is the environment within which the newly elected Hamas government are forced to govern.

“We went to the polls on a platform of social and economic reforms but for now we have to wait with our programs. The acute problem is to give people food for the day,” says Ali Barakeh, the Hamas leader responsible for political relations in Lebanon.

I am in Beirut to interview Hamas’ political leaders.

My prejudices against ”the terrorists” are soon proven wrong. These are not trigger happy old men dressed in military uniforms but rather young, well-educated, well-spoken men in handsome suits that speak perfect English.

The leader, Khaled Masháal, a Palestinian refugee from a village outside of Ramallah, is a physicist from the University of Kuwait. His right hand official, Usamah Hamdan, from Gaza, is a chemical engineer. Ali Barakeh was born in a refugee camp in southern Lebanon and has a university degree in history. They are all married and have many children.

Clearly embittered

There is apparent bitterness about the boycott by the US and the EU. These high-ranking Hamas leaders are seriously concerned about how people are going to be able to believe in democracy when the US and the EU keep punishing them for their choice of government.

It becomes more and more clear to me that there are two ongoing conflicts. One is about Palestinian domestic politics, where Fatah has not quite understood that they lost the election and are trying to sabotage the efforts of the newly elected government. (?with the kind assistance of the EU and the US.) The other concerns the conflict with Israel. The differences between the political parties are not as great in this area.

Recently a document was drafted by some Palestinian prisoners, among them Marwan Barghouti, that mentions a two-state solution.

”We see this as an excellent basis for further discussions. All the political factions in Palestine agree about this. The prisoners themselves see this as a starting point, not as a final manifesto,” says Usamah Hamdan, one of Hamas’ most brilliant political analysts.

Democratic traditions

“What surprised us the most was that Abu Mazen from the start said: ‘Accept this or else I will call for a referendum.’ That is not democratic. Furthermore, he is violating the constitution, because it is not the president but rather the government that calls for a referendum,” Hamdan continues.

Hamas can accept 90 percent of the document but they are unable to go along with the texts concerning domestic political relations-such as giving the president the power to negotiate with Israel. As the chairman of the PLO Abu Mazen can negotiate, but every proposal has to be approved by the Palestinian parliament, according to Hamas.

“We have strong democratic traditions. We, the leaders of Hamas, have all been chosen by our members. Even those who were elected to the parliament had previously been appointed by Hamas’ Congress,” Usamah Hamdan explains and sounds like a typical Swedish Social Democrat.

As early as 1989, Hamas suggested to Arafat that the members of the Palestinian National Congress should be elected by the people.

“At that time we would have only received 10-15 percent of the votes. But we wanted a true democracy,” he says. ”This is something that Arafat could never understand. The US, the EU and Israel negotiated with him in spite of this.”

Usamah Hamdan is afraid that the position of the EU and the US will lead to a lack of faith in democracy by the Palestinians.

“There is a risk that the people who do not believe in democracy and dialogue will take over,” he says, distancing himself from Al-Qaeda and similar extremist groups.

”You, yourselves, have used violence for a long time and have not chosen the political path,” I remind him and exemplify with the atrocious suicide bombers.

”We regard these as a reaction to the Israeli occupation. They are a way for people who have nothing, to defend themselves. Israel uses all of its military power. Palestinians do not have any armored tanks or fighter helicopters. They are forced to bear weapons on their own bodies,” he says.

Usamah Hamdan emphasizes that Hamas’ goal is not to kill Israelis. It is for Palestinians to regain their rights.

“We are fighting against the occupation, not against the Jewish people.”

”The families of the innocent Israelis that were brutally killed cannot possibly understand this,” I object.

“During the Intifada we initiated an agreement with the Israelis to avoid attacking civilians. Egypt mediated and we were extremely close to a solution. However, in the end Israel and the US refused to comply,” Hamdan replies.

One-sided “hudna”

For a year and a half Hamas has maintained a one-sided “hudna”, ceasefire, despite the fact that Israel has attacked Palestinians regularly.

During my discussions in Beirut it becomes apparent that Hamas does not seem to have any problems supporting a two-state solution, as long as the Palestinian rights are respected. This is the same picture I have gotten from articles where various Hamas representatives expressed their views.

I press this issue with Khaled Masháal, the leader of Hamas. He is in their headquarters in Damascus. He took over when Shejk Yassin and Rantissi were murdered by Israelis.

“The US and the EU know that they can never force Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders. We accept the 1967 borders but, does Israel? Does the US?”

“They want us to agree to discussions about the 1967 borders. They do not want to confirm that these are the borders that exist. We are unable to accept this. Neither Olmert’s plan nor the road map is based on these borders. Completely new borders have been established. So it really doesn’t matter if we say we accept the 1967 borders,” Masháal replies.

”Have never said that!”

He is appealing to the international community to consider its position. Every time Israel brings up new conditions they are accepted even if they lead to increased chaos in the region.

”Hamas wants to destroy the State of Israel,” I object.

“We have never said that! We have said that we want the occupation to end. We have proposed a ten year truce with Israel if they withdraw to the 1967 borders. We adhere to our rights. There will never be peace as long as the occupation continues. We have never carried out any operations outside of the occupied areas,” he says.

Khaled Masháal was subjected to an assassination attempt by poison by the Israelis in Jordan in 1997.

Every time a Hamas leader has advocated peace he has been murdered.

Khaled Masháal points at the large painting with all the faces of the murdered Hamas leaders.

“When I see their pictures I become more committed to continuing the struggle for a free Palestine and a peace that is built on justice. The occupation will end one day, history has taught us,” he says.

This article in Swedish

Exclusive meeting in Damascus Helle Klein, Political Editor-in-Chief of Aftonbladet, interviews Khaled Masháal, the leader of Hamas as well as other high-ranking Hamas officers.

Helle Klein