Gaza, Asharq Al-Awsat- The meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister-Designate Ismail Haniyeh implies for now that change has indeed occurred in Palestine, for it was nothing like our last meeting several months ago during one of the Hamas Movement’s electoral activities in the Al-Maghazi refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip. After numerous attempts on our part and declinations on the part of those running his office given his constant engagements, the interview was finally granted.
When we arrived to interview him at his makeshift office in a building in the Al-Rimal al-Janubi neighborhood in the southern parts of Gaza City, we could clearly see the security measures that were put in place: A sharply dressed guard stands at the building’s entrance and does not allow anyone in before confirming that they have an appointment with Haniyeh ‘s office.
Inside the office, it was surprising to see that its entire staff consisted of young men aged between 22 and 25, who were all wearing elegant suits and neckties, and some of whom were busy preparing cutouts from newspapers and internet sites for Haniyeh to read. The office secretary was busy answering the unrelenting telephone in different languages as some Hamas deputies and young leadership figures were diligently heading for the room Haniyeh was in, with security men all the while stealing glances at those seated in the office, and those entering and exiting.
After a 30-minute wait, we walked in on Haniyeh, who welcomed us with the same humbleness that distinguishes the way he treats others. He wasted no time and asked that we start the interview, throughout which he was careful not to say anything that would awaken the fears of any Palestinian side, especially the Fatah Movement. He refused to say whether or not Hamas is planning to hold presidential elections in case President Mahmud Abbas (Abu-Mazen) resigns, and sufficed with saying: “We will cross that bridge when we get to it.”
Haniyeh, who is known for his composure and civility, made it clear that wisdom, dialogue, and the law would be the basis on which all issues and problems facing the Hamas government are dealt with, and said that setting the Palestinian house in order, dealing with the negligence (lawlessness), guaranteeing citizens their security, and strengthening the law and judiciary are at the top of his government’s priorities.
Answering a question on the ministerial appointments made by the Fatah Movement following the elections, Haniyeh said that his government would not take a single step that could confuse the Palestinian institution, and added, “We will deal with matters wisely and patiently.” Haniyeh refused to go into the details of the government formation, and sufficed with saying that contacts are under way with all factions and parliament blocs, including Fatah, which, according to him, still has not announced its refusal to participate. He said that the government formation is supposed to be announced on Monday at the latest according to the legal timeframe, but noted that he might ask the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) for a few more days.
On the identity of the interior minister in light of the rumors that Hamas is searching for a military person with an impeccable record, he said: “We want an interior minister who enjoys several traits: He has to be tactful when dealing with the factions, familiar with the security services, and must have strong political presence.”
During the course of the interview, he revealed that one of his personal hobbies is soccer, and said that he was a pioneer in the sport and the head of the Palestinian sports delegation to the 15th Arab Volleyball Games in Riyadh. Asked if his government would prioritize sports, his reply was: “Definitely.”
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What has come of the contacts over the formation of the future government?
(Haniyeh) We are conducting shuttle contacts with all the factions represented in the Palestinian parliament, be they the Fatah Movement, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Independent Palestine, or the Third Way. I will be meeting with a number of independent figures in order to finalize consultations at the national level. For our part, we have finalized the government’s political platform on the basis of the common denominators that we hope everyone agrees on. We are on the verge of fulfilling our constitutional duty of forming the government, and we hope that all consultations vis-à-vis the government’s formation are finalized within the coming 48 hours.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) When will you announce the government formation?
(Haniyeh) We are supposed to announce it next Monday, but we might extend this period by a couple of days if we find ourselves compelled to do so through our consultations with the other blocs, but generally speaking, we are keen on finalizing the government formation by Monday at the latest.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Are you consulting President Abu-Mazen on the government’s formation?
(Haniyeh) Yes I am. I constantly update him on the results of our consultations with the remaining factions, and I will be informing him of the general outline of the government’s agenda, and of the results of the Hamas delegation’s Moscow trip. I will also be discussing with him the nature of the coordination between the presidency and the government on means of responding to the Israeli escalation against the Palestinian people.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) When the president tasked you with forming the government, his letter of designation included certain conditions, the most important of which being your observance of the PA’s obligations. How does your government’s political platform measure against Abu-Mazen’s well-established vision on all matters pertaining to the recognition of Israel, the adherence to treaties, and other issues?
(Haniyeh) First, we wish to emphasize that the letter of designation did not include any conditions…
(Asharq Al-Awsat) But the designation letter itself contains clear-cut conditions.
(Haniyeh) No, it does not. What happened was that the president spoke of the main aspects of his political vision. He did not set any conditions whatsoever for the Palestinian government to meet. We took all the issues Abu-Mazen spoke of into account when we were discussing the government’s political platform and tried to identify possible common denominators between our platform and brother Abu-Mazen ‘s vision. I believe we were very sincere in our efforts to do so but I do not wish to disclose the matter in which the government’s consensual platform deals with this issue because the matter is still being discussed with the other factions.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Does this mean that the government will not be adopting Hamas’s electoral platform?
(Haniyeh) It will stem from it, but we are searching for the greatest common denominator between ourselves and our brothers in the factions, and we will not abandon any means of doing so because our Arabic language is rich with terms that can be used to overcome differences in a manner that leaves all parties feeling that they got what they wanted, and that fulfills their political vision within the government, meaning a government platform that reflects the visions of the political factions.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Which of the parties have definitely agreed to participate in the government?
(Haniyeh) The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, but we are still making contacts.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What will become of your relations with the Fatah Movement if it decides not to participate in the government in light of the dispute that erupted following Hamas’s annulment of the previous PLC’s decisions?
(Haniyeh) First of all, what happened in the parliament reflects this new parliament’s exuberance in considering that the new PLC differs from the old one. We were therefore determined to make sure that what happened in parliament does not affect consultations over the government formation, relations with the brothers in Fatah, or the national scene in general, and we therefore held direct contacts with the Fatah bloc. I wish to tell you that Fatah is yet to say its final word on its participation in the government — its Revolutionary Council is yet to decide on the matter. We honestly want Fatah to participate because it is a large and widely influential faction in the Palestinian arena, and one that is strongly present in PA institutions. Furthermore, national interest demands joint efforts that benefit the public affairs. On the other hand, if Fatah chooses not to participate in the government, then even this decision will not undermine our relations with it.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Some of your PLC deputies said that you might include leading Fatah figures in your government without the approval of the Fatah leadership and its institutions, is this true?
(Haniyeh) We look upon the Fatah Movement as an organization. All we hope is that its official position be in favor of government participation, but if this is not the case, then we have no problem with venturing onto the Palestinian scene and searching for qualified individuals whose involvement we believe would enrich and expand the government’s work.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Are you preparing for possible presidential elections considering that Abu-Mazen might resign at any moment?
(Haniyeh) We respect President Abu-Mazen’s status and jurisdiction, and ask that everyone respect the jurisdiction of the government and prime minister. We are not anticipating the moment when Abu-Mazen resigns so that we may present ourselves as his alternative. We look forward to presenting a new model in active cooperation between the president and the government.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What if he resigns, will Hamas compete for the presidency?
(Haniyeh) We will cross that bridge when we come to it.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The names of several prospective ministers have been leaked; can you let us in on your government’s makeup?
(Haniyeh) I am aware of some of these leaks but I do not wish to comment on them because I am yet to form the government.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) It was revealed, among other things, that the United States and Israel are planning to besiege the coming government by redirecting aid toward civil and international organizations in order to reduce the government’s margin of maneuverability and expose its frailty to the Palestinian public. How are you dealing with the Israeli and US moves to besiege you, especially when considering the foreign and domestic moves aimed at persuading Abu-Mazen to revoke the future government’s powers?
(Haniyeh) First of all, there is no doubt in my mind that these parties were caught off guard by the success of the Palestinian elections and the Hamas Movement. This is why we find that they have lost their balance when dealing with developments on the Palestinian scene, and it is why we see them adopting conflicting positions now that they lost their compass. Aside from being an attempt to sabotage the national project and democratic experience, these steps seek to revoke the future government’s powers, turn it into a bodiless head, and place obstacles in its way. I believe President Abu-Mazen will refuse to go along with these pressures. He personally assured me that the future government will enjoy all the powers of its predecessor, and told me on several occasions that “I (Abbas) will not deprive you of any of the things I used to ask President Arafat for when I was prime minister.”
(Asharq Al-Awsat) But it seems the economic siege will be the greatest challenge facing the coming government, how will you handle it?
(Haniyeh) Certain international parties have assured us that they will continue to extend aid to the Palestinian people. Japan, for example, contacted us and informed us that it would continue to support the Palestinian Government and extend aid to the Palestinian people. When the government is formed on the basis of a political and economic program and a vision of the nature of the relationship with our regional and international surroundings, and when the international parties observe the government’s conduct in reinforcing the rule of law, guaranteeing public liberties, and adopting elections in all Palestinian institutions, I think they will find themselves faced with a reality that forces itself upon them because it is the result of elections and is the people’s choice. We have asked everyone to respect the Palestinian people’s choice and free will.
Despite all the threats here and there, I am very optimistic regarding our ability to convince the world to cooperate with this government. To put it briefly, we will all be surprised by our success, God willing.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Several Hamas spokesmen have said that, during the transitional phase, certain PA ministries appointed thousands of people to nonexistent positions; furthermore, there is talk of structural flaws in PA ministries. How will you deal with these issues?
(Haniyeh) We understand that these appointments are meant to financially strain the government, but the government is expected to deal with this matter in a mature manner that protects people’s rights and guarantees citizens a dignified living, all while not deliberately straining the government as is being planned.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Some say that Fatah set up its own ministries within the ministries, making it difficult for ministries to function after Hamas forms its government. How will you deal with this matter?
(Haniyeh) We will observe the law when dealing with all these matters, and we will study all ministerial structural levels. Contrary to what you have said, there are many inside the ministries who have expressed their willingness to facilitate the work of the new ministers. I am particularly comfortable in this regard.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) It has been rumored that ministry employees inform you of plenty of cases of corruption in their ministries.
(Haniyeh) We have not assumed the government yet, but when we do, we will get to the bottom of these cases and will try to keep the promises of reform and change we made to the Palestinian public, this is what will happen, God willing. However, following up on these cases is subject to certain guidelines, the most important of which is that it be conducted according to the law, and that the reform process be a gradual one. We will not take a single step that confuses the Palestinian institution, and we will deal with all these matters wisely and patiently. Even Abu-Mazen told me during our last meeting that he knows of corruption cases that need to be addressed, and said that some have already been referred to the prosecutor general. He also expressed his support for anticorruption efforts. We as a government will support the president, and we will embark on putting an end to this reality.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Some feel that the government will face a great challenge when dealing with the security services, whose commanders, and the overwhelming majority of cadres, are Fatah affiliates, despite Abu-Mazen ‘s insistence that these services will be under the government’s supervision. Do you have any fears in this regard?
(Haniyeh) The brothers in Fatah ran in the elections just like we did. These are the results of the elections and they are present within the PA. I am confident that the relationship between the security agencies and the government will be trouble free, especially with the Foreign Ministry. There will be no confusion in this relationship because, after all, this is our country and home, and everybody will be keen on protecting it so that we may complete the liberation project.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) This is why you are specifically looking for an interior minister who has a military background and is not from Hamas, is it not?
(Haniyeh) We want an interior minister who exhibits several traits: He has to be tactful when it comes to factional ties, he has to be well informed on all the security services, and he has to have a strong political presence.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Israel has stepped up its threats against your movement, and Israeli Defense Minister Sha’ul Mofaz threatened to liquidate you personally. Taking into account Israel’s announcement that it is doing all it can to render the coming government a failure, how will you confront this Israeli movement against you when considering that Israel fully controls the West Bank and surrounds the Gaza Strip?
(Haniyeh) First of all, the Israeli threats are not new. They lie within the context of escalation against the Palestinian people and their leadership, which now fills official positions following the elections. This escalation will grow as the Israeli electoral battle intensifies because Palestinian blood is the fuel that drives these elections — we therefore expect more Israeli escalation. We ask the international community to intervene and stop the Israeli escalation as soon as possible, keeping in mind that this escalation will only broaden in the coming period. They want to besiege the coming government, but we have always been in a battle of wills with the occupation state. We are living under occupation, and our people will not be shaken by the plots being hatched against them.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The Palestinian citizen is suffering greatly, what steps will you take to make him feel that change has occurred?
(Haniyeh) Our top priorities will be setting the Palestinian house in order, dealing with all forms of negligence, guaranteeing Palestinian citizens their security, and working on reinforcing the stature of the law and judiciary, but let me say that the our inheritance is quite hefty, and that we will take firm steps in this regard.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Israel uses the continued firing of rockets to justify its operations against resistance movements in the Gaza Strip, and believes that it has the right to retaliate against operations launched from within the strip following the disengagement plan. Do you approve of the continued firing of rockets from the strip?
(Haniyeh) Let me start by stressing that the problem lies in the occupation and the ongoing assaults on the Palestinian people. The Palestinian factions proved through their observance of the long state of clam that they have a high sense of responsibility. Furthermore, self-defense is a legitimate right. However, the resistance should be managed in a manner that serves the Palestinian people’s interests and guarantees their safety and security. We will deliberate with our brothers in the factions in order to contain matters.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) How will you deal with rocket launchers affiliated with factions that observe no truce or calm, will you, for example, arrest them?
(Haniyeh) Through dialogue and understandings we can reach along with everyone common denominators so that we may identify the pros and cons of all matters.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) How will the Hamas government contain the lawlessness created by Fatah cadres?
(Haniyeh) First of all, there is no lawlessness — it is negligence that has manifested in a number of forms, such as armed disputes and the abduction of foreigner. The identities of those responsible for these manifestations should not be a factor when dealing with this matter, and we will rely on dialogue and the law in doing so.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What will you do if foreigners or officials are abducted?
(Haniyeh) The government will do its part just like any responsible government.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Will you be firm?
(Haniyeh) We will be wise, meaning that everything will be placed where it belongs.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Eighteen months ago, you were on the Israeli list of persons to be liquidated and you even survived some attempts on your life. You were a fugitive, and now you are about to steer the PA. Did this ever occur to you when you were living the life of a fugitive?
(Haniyeh) It did occur to me that any movement that moves as confidently as Hamas will eventually come to power. As for the personal aspect, not once did it occur to me that I might fill this post, I did not think about such matters because it is not in our upbringing or culture to focus our attention on these matters. I was delegated into this post by my people and movement. It is a matter of being delegated, not of being honored.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) How did this sudden transfer of responsibilities affect Haniyah’s personality?
(Haniyeh) I live my personal life like I always have, with my family, neighbors, and people. I am in touch with everyone, and I visit them all. God willing, we will present ourselves in the manner our people desire of their officials. There are definitely some new necessities that come with the job and the responsibilities that naturally reflect on the person’s daily agenda, for I am moving from the movement to the state, a move that definitely affects everything.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you still practice any of your hobbies following your electoral victory?
(Haniyeh) Do not forget that I am a soccer player. I played for the Al-Shati Camp Services under-16 team in 1976, and then played for the club’s youth team before playing for the Islamic Society Club, where I was the captain of the team. I was later the captain of the Islamic University’s team, and played in various games in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. I was the university team’s captain for 10 years, and I headed the sports delegation to the 15th Arab Volleyball Games in Riyadh. I am not into this hobby anymore because of my busy schedule, but I do find myself drawn to watching certain sporting events on television and elsewhere but on a very narrow scale. I recently met with the Palestinian sports family and soccer team, and I telephoned the Palestinian sport delegation in China to cheer them on.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) So your government will give special attention to sports?