Gaza, Asharq Al-Awsat – Said Siyam, one of five high ranking members of Hamas who have been accused by Fatah of being behind the coup that occurred in the Gaza Strip and ended with Hamas exercising its full control on 14 June 2007.
Asharq Al-Awsat sat down with the man known as the “strongman of Hamas” for an in-depth interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] On my way to meeting you there was a march by the Dialogue and Reconciliation Committee. Are there serious efforts to achieve that reconciliation and return to the negotiation table, or is it no more than throwing the ball to the other side of the court?
[Siyam] From the first moment that followed the events we in Hamas were prepared for unconditional dialogue, and we said all matters can be discussed at the negotiation table. We do not have a veto on any matter. However, regrettably, the main obstacle is that the desire not to hold a dialogue is a US-Israeli decision. After the events, the Palestinian Authority[PA] represented by its president made its choice in favor of the Americans and the Israelis, and they became hostages of the US-Zionist decision in the matter of agreeing or not agreeing to the internal dialogue. That is the first point. The second is: There is an influential clique and a bad retinue around President Mahmud Abbas that rejects such a dialogue. The best evidence of that are the statements that are made by those figures every now and then to increase tension and to draw in many sides that are likely to deepen the discord.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] At the same time there are those on the other side who accuse Hamas figures including Said Siyam, Mahmud al-Zahhar, and others of taking a hard line and rejecting dialogue. They also accuse you of staging a coup in the Gaza Strip?
[Siyam] We are accustomed to such lies that are made by such types. When Hamas and all its institutions say Hamas is for dialogue it is no one’s business to say this or that, for ultimately Hamas is an institution. However, we are talking about names that say no to dialogue on the side of Fatah and on the part of influential figures in the presidency. Let them try. We have informed all the Arab and international sides and all the factions and quarters that contact us of our readiness to have a dialogue. Therefore the problem is not with us in Hamas.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] A few days ago Abu-Mazin [Mahmud Abbas] stated to Asharq Al-Awsat that he has no problem [with having a dialogue] and that he contacted several Arab sides, and he is prepared to have a dialogue with Hamas for it is a main faction if Hamas hands over the institutions to the PA. Is Hamas prepared to hand over the institutions and what are its conditions in order to do that?
[Siyam] I want to make it clear that sometimes there are conflicting statements that need to be understood. Abu-Mazin also informed Arab sides to work first on persuading the United States, and that means the matter does not depend on his person. The story is not that Hamas is an obstacle. When we talk about institutions we ask do they belong to the PA or to Fatah. Isn’t Hamas part of the PA? After the elections Hamas became no. 1in the Palestinian political system. Therefore the institutions he is talking about are a trust that is with us, we in Hamas in the Gaza Strip. However, it is not his right to have them handed over to him as a trustee over them, because we are part of the political system and part of the social fabric and part of the government, and consequently we are part of the PA. We are not talking about parts; we are talking about a number of issues that must be raised. Yet despite that we said we do not have a problem in having those institutions — particularly the security services — handed over to the apparatuses that will be reformed on professional and national bases. Moreover, there are institutions in which we do not have a presence other than protecting and guarding them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why does not Hamas undertake a goodwill initiative, contact Abu-Mazin and say to him: Mr. President, come to Gaza and take over Al-Muntada (the presidential headquarters) and the Hospitality Palace. Those are matters that concern the presidency. As for the other institutions they belong to everyone and can be discussed at the dialogue table.
[Siyam] First, where is the authority that will hand them over? In the Gaza Strip all the security services have been dissolved, so to whom do we hand over those bodies?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] I am not talking about institutions, but I mean the Al-Muntada (the presidency) and the Hospitality Palace.
[Siyam] Even the Al-Muntada. Who will take over the Al-Muntada from us?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Abu-Mazin in his capacity as president will takeover. And you recognize him as president.
[Siyam] Will Abu-Mazin come to Gaza to be handed over the Al-Muntada?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] I am saying that Hamas takes the initiative and invite him. And let him refuse.
[Siyam] Why does not Abu-Mazin take the initiative by stopping the arrests of Hamas leaders and elements in the West Bank? Why does not Abu-Mazin take the initiative of reopening the charity societies and organizations that were closed down? Why does not Abu-Mazin take the initiative and stop the arrests and actions that aim to dismantle and fragment Hamas? Why the crocodile tears over buildings that are deserted and yet there are no tears for a movement, a resistance, institutions providing services, and the arrest of hundreds of leading figures and personages in the West Bank who are being tortured in the West Bank?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Such a step could put the ball in Abu-Mazin’s court?
[Siyam] Allow me to say that I view such an argument as oversimplification of the problem. I fully realize that the problem is not in the Al-Muntada or the Hospitality Palace which we are protecting and caring for more than we protect and care for our homes. The issue is bigger than that. We do not want to taken in on the pretext of good intentions or goodwill initiatives. We have experience. We have taken the initiative [in the past]. When he met with Abu-Mazin after the Mecca Agreement, brother Abu al Abd (Ismail Haniyeh), the Prime Minister, surprised everyone by tendering his resignation as a gesture of good intention. That initiative was misunderstood, and none of the clauses of the Mecca Agreement were implemented except the clause on forming a national unity government.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How was that resignation construed?
[Siyam] In the March 2005 Cairo Agreement we had another experience. The PA and Fatah agreed to a number of conditions in order to have one of the conditions implemented before they disavowed the other conditions. For instance, the 2005 truce agreement was adopted but none of the other clauses of the Cairo Agreement were implemented. In the Mecca Agreement, the clause on forming the unity government was implemented while none of the other clauses were adopted. We have a series of calamities. I am not here to throw the ball or to put the president in a corner. I am talking very clearly. We are prepared to discuss matters here or in any Arab or Muslim country and to have all the points raised for discussion. We don’t have a veto on any issue. I do not want to jump in the air with a proposal or take a futile step. Who will take over those institutions or that palace o that house while I am ruling the Gaza Strip now? I have been transferred to the national security service which is originally a presidency apparatus. Abu-Mazin’s house and also the house of Umm-Jihad (Intisar al-Wazir, Khalil al-Wazir’s wife [widow and a former minister] – the house is adjoining to Abu-Mazin’s house in Gaza) as well as the Hospitality Palace are now under the command of the Palestinian National Security [service], which is a presidential security establishment that is open to all visitors, bodies, and establishments. You yourself asked to visit those places and we allowed you.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] We are not oversimplifying matters. However there is a real dilemma and split in the Palestinian arena. There is a complete blockade of the Gaza Strip and you I think reject it, and we are trying to get rid of it. The blockade must end. He who takes the initiative to rid the Palestinian people of this dilemma may win a round against the other side.
[Siyam] We took the initiative and said yes to dialogue. Their initiative was to say no to dialogue. We said: Unconditional dialogue. They said: A dialogue on such and such conditions. If anyone must apologize it is Abu-Mazin who should apologize to the Palestinian people, not Hamas. That is because it is Abu-Mazin who backed those leaders and elements, although we warned him, and many others including leaders from within Fatah have also warned him. We placed the facts before him and he did not lift a finger. Despite that, we did not place any conditions, and for us everything is open.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The present situation leads to distancing Hamas from the Palestinian people, particularly as we are about to have a conference that could be fateful for the Palestine cause, the Annapolis conference.
[Siyam] Hamas is in the government but it does not rule. When we were in the 10th government (the Hamas government that preceded the unity government), the president did not participate with us in any meeting or visit on any level for a whole year. He worked separately from us. The reality in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank is not new, because complications have been in a state of ebb and flow with regard to the complications and the suffering that is increasing. Here I would like to put on record that the suffering or part of the suffering in the Gaza Strip is the result of a Palestinian decision – the decision of Abu-Mazin and the Ramallah government.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What proof do you have of that?
[Siyam] The best proof of that is what happened at the United Nations where Palestine was represented by the international community on the basis that Hamas is an outlaw and is treated as being outside international law. A good proof of that are the (closed) crossings and the sick people who die there, the dearth in supplies, the cutting off of all operational material, and preventing pilgrims from traveling. It is not a secret, and you the media know the truth even though you may not have material evidence or a legal instrument but there is a consensus over it. The Gaza Strip is also blockaded by Palestinians. However, although four months have passed and there were wagers that Hamas will not persevere and stand fast, I say we stood fast and we are prepared to stand fast for long months and provide the people with what we can. Ultimately we are confident that by the resilience and steadfastness of the Gaza Strip and our good administration the siege will break down and the Gaza Strip will triumph over the besiegers.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you not fear the possibility that there will be an eruption of anger against Hamas in the Gaza Strip?
[Siyam] You are in Gaza; have you felt any signs of an eruption? There are no such signs, and if there is anything it is the rallying of the masses around Hamas and around the government and its distinguished performance. Matters are heading positively toward correcting all the mistakes and transgressions of the past. Even the friction and the practices that were planned by some sides in Fatah have failed to provoke the public. The minimum [needs] are available to the people. There is suffering, that is true, but the Palestinian people have been accustomed to such suffering for about 60 years. In the West Bank the occupying forces are – alongside the Palestinian Authority forces – arresting the strugglers and that is a mark of disgrace in the history of the PA.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are fears that Hamas will dominate the West Bank, and some people say had it not been for Israel’s presence Hamas would have been able to do so?
[Siyam] It is not on Hamas’s agenda nor is it in its culture to dominate the Gaza Strip. We were truthful when we said that what happened was merely that security had deteriorated to the state we know. As the Prime Minister (Haniyeh) said, the Gaza Strip is a trust and we had a choice: either we allow it to head toward destruction or we shoulder our responsibility inputting the house in order and institutionalize it. What annoyed them is that Hamas was able to re-institutionalize work in the Gaza Strip in all fields, including the security services, the judiciary, the courts, and other institutions. They promote such rumors in the West Bank in order to find justification for the ferocious campaign that is being waged against Hamas. We did not come on the back of tanks. The weapons we possessed two years ago are the same weapons that are with us at present. Those weapons were not used to bring us to power, for we came to power through the ballot box. If we wanted to stage a coup we would have done so during the campaign against us in 1996, a campaign that involved pursuit, arrests, assassinations, dismantling of institutions, and so on. The people may be patient with such excesses – as brother Haniyeh said – but they will not remain patient indefinitely.
However, we repeat that it is not a matter of domination. We basically are a resistance movement under occupation. The PA is not a real state or a real authority or a real government. All those political meanings are for us in Hamas part of the philosophy of resistance. However, if matters remain as they are, no one will be able to stand in the way of an explosion in the West Bank. America with all its power and vigor was unable to maintain security in Iraq, because the Iraqi people do not embrace the occupiers, they embrace the resistance.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] At the same time there are those who say that after halting its operations Hamas is now seeking to cut off the wings of the Resistance, through its confrontations with Islamic Jihad and by destroying its rocket factories. Not only that, but under the cover of resistance, Hamas is meeting with the Israelis. Abu-Mazin has reaffirmed that to Asharq Al-Awsat.
[Siyam] Abu-Mazin said Hamas supports Al-Qaeda in the Gaza Strip and he knows quite well that it is not true. By such words he only aims to harm Hamas. As for resistance the reality refutes his words. Hamas daily offers martyrs in the Gaza Strip, and side by side with other forces it resists Israeli incursions. Who carried out the Snake Catching [Sayd al-Afai] operation? Hamas. In the course of a few days Hamas killed four Israeli soldiers and wounded several others. Hamas has not arrested anyone for engaging in resistance. Give the name of one person from Islamic Jihad, Fatah, or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP] who was arrested because he was resisting. On the contrary, a mistake occurred a few days ago when a quantity of bullets was seized. It was thought it was destined for a family to create anarchy, but it transpired that it was for the PFLP. The bullets were returned to the PFLP whose activity in the resistance field is low. The background of the incident that occurred with Islamic Jihad in Rafah was not one of resistance but a road accident. A Jihad member ran over a pedestrian with his car and then refused to appear at the police station. The literature of the Resistance – Fatah, the PFLP, and Islamic Jihad – all say that Hamas is the spearhead of the Resistance, and any harm that befalls Hamas befalls the entire Resistance in Palestine. Who is arresting those hunted among the Izzaldin al-Qassam Brigades in the West Bank? Is it not the PA? Who is besieging the Resistance and who has signed an agreement on decommissioning the resistors’ weapons?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When I said to Abu-Mazin that he exercised authority as a faction [Fatah] against Hamas in the West Bank, he said that is not true and that he began the action against the Al-Aqsa Brigades, Fatah’s military wing, and that he is entitled to move similarly against Hamas…
[Siyam, interrupting] Can I ask a question?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Please do.
[Siyam] How many Fatah elements have been arrested by the PA in the West Bank? Very few compared to the hundreds of Hamas detainees? They are evening dismantling [Hamas’s] political organization and the Al-Da’wah [The Call], which is an administrative organization that has no connection with the Resistance. They are bargaining with the resistors over their weapons, and they are asking them to hand over their weapons in return for releasing them. That happened in Janin and Tulkarm in the northern West Bank. It is easy for a person to make any accusation in the market but it is difficult for him to prove it. As for Hamas meeting with Israelis, I will not say it is incorrect, but I will say it is a blatant lie. Hamas is a strong movement, and when it wants to meet with Israelis and others it will declare that publicly for it is its own master, and it is elected and the master of the Resistance in Palestine, and has nothing to hide. If he has the names of persons who met with Israelis let him disclose them. If Hamas itself has denied it and so has Israel, why this strange insistence? Perhaps they fear someone will compete with them in meeting with the Israelis. We say to them rest assured, let them monopolize such meetings and good luck to them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] I have heard rumors that Hamas fines anyone who sings at weddings, and especially those who sing songs for Samih al-Madhun (a Fatah member who was executed by Hamas during the operation to take control of Gaza)?
[Siyam] I hear that from you, but I have not heard before. When you leave my house you will see yellow flags (Fatah flags, and he asked his guards to show them to me). The owner of the house on which the Fatah flags are flying invited me to their wedding. I sent them a bouquet of flowers and they sang a song for Samih al-Madhun at the wedding. Those accusations are not true. We only ban the firing of gunshots [in the air] at weddings. I think any state in the world will support us in that, because the result is that victims fall and people are frightened. It is an uncivilized scene. We have succeeded to a great extent in relieving society of such practices. As for singing, they can sing whatever they want. Their press is free to say what it wants. Al-Hayah al-Jadidah as well as Al-Ayam and Al-Quds enter the Gaza Strip although those newspapers vilify us and lie about the government. Observe their press conferences that are broadcast directly from Gaza in which they call on Hamas to back down. No one touches them. Fatah leaders in the Gaza Strip meet and no one touches them or harasses them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why such importance has been given to Samih al-Madhun who is now considered a symbol of Fatah’s resistance to Hamas’s influence in the Gaza Strip? Is it because of the way in which he was killed? Did he commit ugly crimes so that he deserves such a death?
[Siyam] I will not stoop to such a level.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did he commit ugly crimes to deserve such a death?
[Siyam] Let us have a neutral investigation into the crimes committed by Samih al-Madhun and his group for those crimes which included killings and indescribable torture. There is a recording of Samih al-Madhun’s voice that was broadcast by Fatah’s Youth Radio. The tape exists and you can obtain it. In it he boasts of burning civilian homes to the ground. Al-Madhun ended the interview saying: Excuse me, I have to go to continue with the burning. That is Samih al-Madhun. Can Fatah deny that? His heroism in Fatah stems from the extent of his hostility to Hamas and the crimes he committed against Hamas elements and others. He killed people just because they had grown a beard. I do not want to talk about him as though he is a national hero.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] It is also said in Ramallah that you banned hubble-bubble cafes and more than doubled the price of cigarettes: from 12 to24 shekels for a packet of cigarettes and from 4 to 40 shekels for a box of hubble-bubble tobacco. Since Hamas elements do not smoke, the action is interpreted as burdening Fatah members with the price increase.
[Siyam] So that they behave and stop smoking (he said it jokingly). Regrettably, the media focuses on issues that should not be raised because they are not the essence…
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But they are matters that are raised in the street?
[Siyam] In light of the dearth in substances that enter the Gaza Strip it is natural for prices to rise. There are commodities whose prices have risen in the world, such as wheat. The price of fuel oil has increased as a result of the rise in oil prices. Hamas does not control the prices of such commodities. We do not price goods. For instance, you can have a vendor who sells a kilo of cucumbers for one shekel while another vendor sells it for two shekels. I cannot force him to sell it for one shekel. The tax on cigarettes is deducted from the importers in favor of the Ramallah authority. However, if some people are caught attempting to smuggle a large quantity of cigarettes through the crossings Hamas levies a customs tax on them, and that is our right as a government.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Regarding financial issues, how does Hamas arrange its financial affairs and how does it pay the salaries of employees, the police, and members of the security forces? The US Congress claimed that Hamas collects from $12 million to $20 million a month in revenues.
[Siyam] That is absolutely incorrect.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Then how do you arrange your financial situation?
[Siyam] Is Hamas a shop or a movement? Hamas is a movement that has its extensions and is a political address in the world. It is courted and countries and presidential palaces are opened to it. Thus it is not a movement from nothing or a nihilist movement. We have income and revenues from inside the country and the government can secure part of the money from the aid it collects to break the blockade. The expenditure of the Gaza Strip was assessed on the basis of the financial squandering and the thefts that used to take place. The Gaza Strip does not need $50 million to $60 million a month to arrange its matters. The fact is it does not need more than $5 million to $6million a month, more than half of which comes from revenues. We pay the salaries of those whose salaries have been cut off while they pay the salaries of their people. Yet when we were in the 10th government we – and I was one of them – used to come loaded with bags full of money to feed our people. The first people we used to feed were 90% of the Fatah guys and we did not stop anyone’s salaries, not even the salaries of those who were hostile to us. However, one of the first actions of the prospective government in Ramallah was to fight people in their livelihood believing the people will turn against Hamas. However, God provides us and the people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there cooperation between Hamas and the Egyptian authorities, at least with regard to the people who have been stranded at the crossing points?
[Siyam] Contacts have not been severed. However, there have been no official visits after the [June] events.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are people who are [were] stranded at the Rafah crossing [between the Gaza Strip and Egypt]. There were Hamas leaders in Egypt and other states that were able to cross into the Gaza Strip after the border was closed as a result of what took place in Gaza. I mention in particular [MP and Hamas spokesman] Mushir al-Masri. How did they return and by which crossing?
[Siyam] Al-Masri was not the only person who returned to the Gaza Strip. All those who were stranded returned.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did that take place through the Rafah crossing?
[Siyam] Not, not through the Rafah crossing but through the Rafah border, because the Egyptian brothers did not want the opening of the Rafah crossing to be held against them if they open it. We did not enter through the crossing’s buildings but we entered from another side and through coordination. I personally returned through the Rafah crossing. When the Rafah crossing was closed I was in Damascus. Thus I was not behind the decision to resolve the situation in the Gaza Strip [on 14 June 2007] as they claim, because at that moment I was outside the Gaza Strip. I heard about the resolution of the situation on the radio like other people. To return to the issue of the Rafah crossing, many of those stranded could not get through because they were wanted by Israel. That is why the Egyptian government thankfully agreed to their crossing through the border.