Gaza, Asharq Al-Awsat – Hamas strongman Mahmoud al-Zahar broke ranks last week to criticize Hamas leader Khalid Mishal on his handling of the inter-Palestinian reconciliation talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The inter-Palestinian reconciliation saw Mishal accept a Palestinian State within the 1967 borders, as well as the provision of another time-limit period for negotiations with Israel, something that al-Zahar strongly spoke out against. Reports claim that the outspoken Hamas Political Bureau member was reprimanded in an extraordinary communique, and that he is facing a collection of disciplinary measures, including being dropped from the Palestinian national reconciliation file. Other reports claim that these disciplinary measures go so far as to freeze al-Zahar’s membership to the Hamas Political Bureau.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Mahmoud al-Zahar about his comments and position on the inter-Palestinian reconciliation, his vision for the future of the Palestinian Islamist movement and the Palestinian state, as well as the future of the region following the Arab Spring.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the future of the inter-Palestinian reconciliation following the Abbas – Mishal meeting?
[Al-Zahar] The reconciliation will not take place, because all that Abbas is concerned about is postponing this, rather than achieving it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What proof do you have of this?
[Al-Zahar] Abbas is not serious [about reconciliation] because he is calling for the organization of legislative and presidential elections in May, in the knowledge that the government is supposed to be formed in January or February. So how can this government be able to organize such elections and provide the required security for this? Also, what about the fate of other reconciliation files, particularly as these are difficult issues? There will be no reconciliation because Abbas is still not prepared to meet the requirements for reconciliation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Hamas and Fatah officials are talking about turning over a new page and a new beginning for relations between the two sides. Do you think this is just empty rhetoric?
[Al-Zahar] What new page? The operation of political arrests is on-going, whilst security cooperation is at its highest, pursuing resistance figures and preventing them from moving against the [Israeli] occupation, in addition to certain parties stubbornly clinging to prior positions. After all of this, can there be talk about turning over a new page?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, what are the obstacles standing in the way of inter-Palestinian reconciliation?
[Al-Zahar] The main obstacle is Abbas gambling on the US – Israeli axis; the connection with the US in this regard makes it difficult for Abbas to move in a serious and sincere manner towards reconciliation. There is a US – Israeli veto on [inter-Palestinian] reconciliation, therefore there will be more excuses to evade ending the state of internal [Palestinian] division.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about those who say that relations have worsened between Israel and Abbas lately?
[Al-Zahar] In that case why did Netanyahu back down from his decision to freeze [Palestinian] tax revenue? This is because there is agreement between the two sides on many issues. Israel is very comfortable regarding what the Palestinian Authority and its security apparatus is doing, and therefore the noise that is being made in some cases is nothing more than a deception to cover up the reality of the situation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there any connection between your criticism of the inter-Palestinian reconciliation and the claims – by some media outlets – that your political duties and position has been “frozen”?
[Al-Zahar] This is completely untrue. This is pure lies, this has absolutely not happened! I am carrying out my [political] operational work as usual. I have my own view about what is happening, this is natural, there will not necessarily always be agreement in viewpoints between all people. My comments were due to serious controversy created by objective motives rather than personal motives. Unfortunately, one of the journalists’ whose telephone calls I refused to respond to fabricated this news and attributed it to unreliable sources, that’s all there is to it. I was and will remain a member of the Hamas Political Bureau, and that is normal.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will you participate in the forthcoming inter-Palestinian reconciliation dialogue session?
[Al-Zahar] It is possible that I will participate with this after I have seen the agenda of the meetings, and if this is serious then I will participate. In any case, I will continue to express my opinion in an advisory manner within the Hamas movement.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When will inter-Palestinian reconciliation be achieved?
[Al-Zahar] The Arab world is witnessing significant changes, and these changes unveil an unmistakable scene, and the new reality will convince those who are gambling on influencing Israel and the US that their bets are misplaced. The [inter-Palestinian] division did not explode because of regulatory disputes [between Hamas and Fatah] but rather because of differences in political programs. What is happening in the Arab world strengthens the position of all those who are committed to the resistance and the perseverance of our rights. Therefore, this inter-Palestinian division will disappear with the rise of the resistance forces in the Arab world.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you mean that the successes and achievements made by Islamist political parties in Arab Spring countries will serve to strengthen the position of Hamas in the Palestinian arena?
[Al-Zahar] Not precisely, for Hamas is not the only party that will be strengthened by this, but rather all parties that adhere to the framework of the [Muslim] ummah and its right for freedom, and escape from western subordination. What is happening in the Arab world is a natural development, not an abnormal one. This region has witnessed 1,400 years in the light of Islam, and then successive rulers holding different ideas appeared, and these forces were given all the time in the world for their programs to be put to the test, but they failed miserably, therefore it is natural for people to return to the option of Islam, in order to ensure their dignity and end a dark period in our history. What is happening now is a correction in our historical course and it has taken place in a natural manner. The time has come to get rid of the parasites that have weakened the body of this [Muslim] ummah, and this is reflected in people returning to their original choice [Islam].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Tel Aviv is afraid that Islamist electoral victories in Arab countries may create a so-called “Sunni ring” around Israel. What is your opinion of this?
[Al-Zahar] Confronting Israel is not restricted to the Sunnis, but is something that all people of this region are contributing to regardless of their religious, sectarian, or ethnic background. Muslims, Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, Arabs, Kurds, Turks, and Berbers…are participating in this confrontation [of Israel]. They confront Israel because it represents the occupier and the rapist. Focusing on one sectarian or doctrinal affiliation serves Israeli propaganda which aims to create division, and this is something that we must be careful about. In any case, Israel has the right to be concerned because the Arabs will not surrender in this regard, and will put an end to this issue.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your assessment of the international opinion towards Hamas, five years after it came to power in the Gaza Strip?
[Al-Zahar] There is real progress in the position of some European countries, and they are in contact with Hamas and with other Islamist groups because they are realistic countries who are trying to serve their interests by dealing with the party that has popular support [in Gaza]. However some European countries have linked their position to the US compass, and we are certain that in time everybody will be forced to recognize the clear Arab and Islamic reality.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How will the Palestinians benefit from the Arab Spring?
[Al-Zahar] It is enough to pay attention to what happened in the wake of the Eliat attack [resulting in the death of a number of Israelis] when Israel decided to carry out a war campaign against the Gaza Strip, but it went back on this at the last minute following the response of the Egyptian street, which broke into the Israeli embassy in Cairo. This event in particular sent a clear message to the Zionists that it is no longer possible for them to dictate to the Palestinian people and its resistance. There are Arab forces that will back the Palestinian resistance and defend it, and this is what the Zionist leadership has realized. This is the reason behind the Israeli sensitivity towards the Arab Spring, for the Zionists are aware that their ability to continue to repress the Palestinians has been affected to a large extent, therefore they are experiencing a clear state of confusion. The most important development that the Palestinians and Arabs will benefit from is the erosion of the US position.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you truly believe that the Arab Spring will lead to the weakening of the US status internationally?
[Al-Zahar] Certainly, the Arab Spring will result in the decline and reversal of the concept of imperialism as a whole. Note that Iraq was invaded and Afghanistan occupied in order for the US to protect itself, but it is now close to withdrawing its forces leaving behind countries more hostile to America and its interests than before. Whilst America’s so-called war against terrorism has led to the deterioration of its relations with Pakistan. The US occupied Iraq as a means to help realize its interests, and now we see Iraq becoming an enemy of the US and its interests, therefore it is clear that the US is experiencing a period of decline.