was widely regarded as the most senior figure in the Islamist resistance movement Hamas when, on 21 May 2008, Huw Spanner spent three hours with him at his house in Damascus. The interpreter was Dr Azzam Tamimi, director of the London-based Institute of Islamic Political Thought.
Rosemary Hollis, then director of research at Chatham House, described the interview as ‘timely’, but it was ignored completely by the rest of the media.
Photography: Andrew Firth
We have a saying in English, ‘The child is father to the man.’ Could you tell us a little about your childhood, and especially the people and the experiences that, looking back, you feel have made you the man you are today?
Like any Palestinian child, I was influenced by a great many factors, at the level of the immediate family, the village or the [refugee] camp, and the society and the conflict it has witnessed for long decades. I was influenced deeply by my mother, a devout woman who cares very much for her children, and a close family, praise God. My father was a member of the Palestinian resistance in the Thirties and Forties. I learnt the spirit of resistance and struggle from him, and I learnt integrity from him and my mother and my family in general.
The village of Silwad, where I was born, was conservative and devout. There, I loved life. I loved nature – I loved the land, the trees, the seasons. This made my commitment to life at the same time profound and simple, and this simple life fostered in me the values of honesty, manliness, courage, straightforwardness and a concern for other people’s welfare.
In my childhood, without question, the Arab-Israeli conflict started to have an impact on our experience of life early on. The media then were limited, especially in the village, but nevertheless we grew up with the conflict. The event that changed the course of my life was the [Six-Day War] in 1967. It forced me to leave my homeland and migrate to Jordan and then to Kuwait. It was also a turning point in my thinking – despite my young age – about the conflict and the Palestinian cause.
Before 1967, I was like any child living in a normal – or almost normal – society. My studies were the main interest in my life, especially as, praise God, I excelled at them – I was top in my school. But after 1967 I became a different person. The suffering of our people, half of whom now lived under occupation and half in a diaspora, became the main focus of my life. I had witnessed the Palestinian tragedy myself. I had seen the effect of the war on the part of the West Bank where I lived. I had seen the defeat of the Arab armies. I had seen tens of thousands of my people leaving their homeland and travelling east across the [Allenby] Bridge. Subsequently, I shared the Palestinian experience of exile.
So, these events left a lasting impression on my life. And they caused me to grow up quickly, like all of my people, both inside and outside Palestine.
Your brothers and sisters had the same experience. What has become of them?
I have five brothers and five sisters. Today, they are all married and living in various countries, Arab and non-Arab. Their homelessness is typical of Palestinian life.
Would people who knew you as a boy be surprised to see what you have become – a leader of your people, and a leader of the resistance?
The village where I was born was conservative and devout. This simple life fostered in me values of honesty, courage and a concern for other people’s welfare
I don’t know of anyone who finds it surprising. I stood out among my peers academically, socially and at sport. In all those areas, praise God, I was distinguished at an early age. And when I became a committed Muslim, when I was 14 years old, in that, too, I stood out among my peers. We formed a religious society in my secondary school in Kuwait and I was its head. And when we started thinking about how our people could resist the occupation, I took a lead in that.
Some people will say that the Arabs started the Six-Day War and therefore what happened to the Palestinians is their fault. Is there another point of view?
The way Israel waged the war suggests that they had a hidden agenda and already wanted, and had planned, to expand.
Why did you choose to study physics at university?
I have always been interested in many different things, which made it hard for me to choose what to study. I loved science, and especially physics, but I also loved studying literature and history, Arabic, poetry – and my interest in Islamic studies had also been growing. But I decided to specialise in physics. I wanted to study it more deeply – I saw myself becoming a physicist – but in the end I found that there are more urgent priorities in the cause I am fighting for.
You have lived in Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and now Syria. Many people in the West would say: There are so many Arab countries where Palestinians can live, they don’t need a homeland. Can you explain why it is so important to you to go back to that little patch of country?
Let me give you some images that express how I feel about my land. Although I lived in a village for only 11 years, it still has a powerful influence on my life. Those years are to me as the roots are to a tree. My greatest delight is to open the window and see the trees, and the sun as it rises or sets. My greatest delight is to go to the park and sit on the ground, and as I sit on the earth I recall the smell of the soil of Palestine, the soil of Silwad. My greatest delight is to eat fruit, not from a package but from the tree, because for 11 years I used to eat grapes and figs, and all the fruit that grow in Palestine, straight from the tree.
When I was at university I returned to Silwad, in the summer of 1975. My village is on a high hill and as soon as I saw it [in the distance] I started to cry, and I did not stop crying until I reached it. This feeling of belonging to one’s homeland, I believe, comes naturally to every human being. What is unnatural is when a person is cut off from that sense of belonging. And that is how I now live – and so do millions of Palestinians.
But your brothers and sisters have settled overseas…
It was not their choice. We were all forced to leave and are not allowed to return to our homeland.
And there is another dimension to this. Your belonging to the land is also a belonging to your history. As the proverb says, ‘He who has no past has no present.’ Where are your roots? What do you belong to? What is your identity? If you lose this, you become just a cog in a machine, or a grain of dust in the wind, without value.
And so you find that today, whether they were born in Palestine or outside it, whether they live in harsh conditions or have a comfortable life – perhaps in an Arab country, or in Europe or Australia or Canada or America – no Palestinian considers anything a substitute for the land of Palestine. They see their lives abroad as temporary while they wait to go back to their homeland. Some Arab satellite channels, for the 60th anniversary of the Naqba,1The Catastrophe – the events of 1948, when the state of Israel was established on Arab soil interviewed some who lead lives that are happy and affluent, and some are wealthy, and yet they all said the same thing: there is no alternative to the homeland. And they are sure they will go back, though some of them are 70 or 80 years old.
I believe in the One God who is just, wise, strong, gentle and merciful. He will judge everyone for what they have done in this world, and the judgement will be exact and fair
There is so much wrong with the world when a person needs to bring proof to convince other people that he cannot live without his homeland, though this is a natural need. You don’t ask someone: ‘Why do you need food? Isn’t air or water enough?’ Even though, they say, we live in a global village and there is unprecedented communication between societies, there is no substitute for one’s land. We have a poem that says: ‘No matter how many times you fall in love, the real love is the first one. How many places a young man loves! Yet he longs only for his first home.’
Unfortunately, although politicians know how important [this sense of belonging] is for people, in an age of big multinationals and mass media they want globalisation to override these unchanging human values, which are common to both East and West.
You spoke of how much is wrong with the world. Do you ever find yourself doubting the justice of God?
Absolutely not. I believe in the One God who is just, wise, strong, gentle and merciful to his subjects. That is the main reason. But I want to offer two pieces of evidence that prove to me and to anyone who believes in God that he does not wrong anyone. First, it is true that there are injustices in this world, and God sees them; but this is not because he likes injustice, or accepts it, but because he has given us – unlike the plants and the animals – freedom of choice.
The second thing is that justice will be done in the afterlife. God will judge everyone for what they have done in this world, and the judgement will be exact and fair. Whoever has been oppressed will receive justice at his hand, and oppressors will be punished. So, there is no injustice with God – it is something utterly foreign to him. If people are oppressed, either they will get justice before they die or God will compensate them in the hereafter. Either way, their rights will not be forgotten.
Nelson Mandela famously said, ‘The struggle is my life,’ and for many people that sums up the heroism of the man. It occurs to me that if he had been speaking Arabic, he would have used the word jihad. Can you explain what jihad means to Hamas, and in particular to you?
I would like first to explain how the people of this region feel and think, because the distorted stereotype of Palestinians, or Muslims, or Hamas, that is presented in the West prevents you from seeing the reality. We have two states of mind that go together: they may seem contradictory but they complement each other, and both are very human. One is a state of compassion and love towards people who are not hostile or aggressive towards us – to all people, including the poor and those of a different religion or race. The other is of strength and steadfastness, courage and defiance in facing those that attack us. This is part of what it means to be human – a normal person is obdurate towards those who are hostile and merciful towards those who live peacefully.
This is where the concept of struggle, of jihad, of resistance comes in. This is not our attitude to everyone; we engage in struggle, jihad, resistance against the enemy who steals our land and destroys our houses, commits sacrilegious acts against our holy places, assaults children and women and kills people. It is our normal, natural right to resist, to struggle against them. All the laws given by God,2That is, in the Bible and the Qur’an and international law, give us this right. So, jihad is a response to aggression; it does not itself initiate aggression.
Sometimes in Islamic culture the term jihad is applied to any exertion aimed at achieving good, in resisting the devil, in resisting evil desires, in resisting the enemy that attacks the land. It should not be directed at peaceful peoples – such aggression is not permitted in Islam. Islam does not permit the use of force to resolve political disputes within society, or between societies; but when someone uses force against you, you use force to resist them. There is no ambiguity about this.
Your enemies try to bracket Hamas with al-Qa’ida and say you are all the same. Can you clarify whether you see what al-Qai’da does as jihad, and do you welcome it when Osama bin Laden expresses support for the Palestinians?
I don’t want to talk about others, but if anyone is in doubt about Hamas, they need only ask the questions: Has Hamas ever fought outside Palestine? And has it ever resisted anyone other than the Israeli occupation? Any fair-minded person will see the difference.
In March this year, after Israel’s operation ‘Hot Winter’ had killed scores of people in the Gaza Strip, al-Aqsa TV reported: ‘Mr Mish’al expresses his wish to be in Gaza at this tense and painful moment, noting that he also wishes his four sons could be there and fight … and be martyred just like the other Palestinians.’
I think that people in the West can understand you wanting your sons to fight, but wanting them to die is something we can’t understand and it makes you seem inhuman to us. Can you explain this mentality to us?
First of all, I must set an example to others and commit myself and my family to the same principle I call others to follow. This is the duty of a leader. He should not sacrifice others while he does not sacrifice himself and his children. Also, if I was living in Palestine, my children would naturally be fighting, like all the children of our people. But I don’t require them to do so. I encourage them, but I don’t make them. Jihad is a choice, not an obligation to be imposed on someone.
The third thing is that the Palestinians, like Nelson Mandela, feel that their life is struggle and resistance. When you live every day under occupation, your natural behaviour — This is what people in the West should understand: every day, we suffer aggression, killing and siege, with houses destroyed and families homeless. We have 11,600 people held in Israeli prisons, some of them children and women, some of them elderly – a thousand of them sick. When someone sees his life destroyed and sees that the world cannot help — We see that the United Nations can do nothing. There is no international will to force the Israelis to leave our land as it forced Saddam Hussein to leave Kuwait.
In these circumstances, you are obliged to resist if you want to live with dignity. If you don’t, you’re not behaving normally. It’s just like if a person is sitting at home and suddenly a fire breaks out in the house. The natural response is to get some water and pour it on the fire. When you live in an occupied land, it’s natural to take up arms to resist.
And this becomes a matter of pride for a dignified person. You feel proud that you are doing your duty, just like a person who puts a fire out – or when someone goes to rescue someone who is drowning, it is his duty but he feels proud to be doing it. So, you find that Palestinians are proud of their struggle even though it is forced upon them. We feel that this is what it means to be a man, this is what it means to do the right thing.
When Third Way interviewed Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi,3bit.ly/1RAHBnT he said: ‘The enemies of the Palestinians are more interested in life than in sacrifice.’ Does that mean that you are more interested in sacrifice than in life?
This is surely a rather sophisticated concept that needs clarification. We, like all human beings, love life, but we love life with dignity. We do not like to live in humiliation, under oppression. Perhaps – and this is what the sheikh probably means – there are people who do not care how they live, they want just to live – even if it is in humiliation. People in this region – Arabs in general, and Muslims – do not want to live like that.
But when we say, as Palestinians, as Arabs, as Muslims, that in order to free our people from injustice and occupation we are ready to die, we say this not because we hate life, no, but because we want to die so that the rest of our people can live in freedom and dignity. It is a matter of some people sacrificing themselves so that the rest of the people may live. It is because we have a responsibility – not a hatred of life, or a death wish.
When Mossad tried to assassinate you in 1997, how did that affect you? Did it change your outlook on life?
It did not change my course, but it made me more positive about life. I became more courageous in the face of death. My faith became stronger that a man does not die until his time comes. That is, I will die when God decides, not when Mossad decides. It also made me more resolute in fulfilling my responsibilities.
In our experience, Israeli threats have one of two effects: some people are intimidated, but others become more defiant and determined. I am one of the latter.
In Hamas, no one becomes a leader without being elected, and all are accountable. I practise democracy daily inside the movement, and it is natural to practise it in Palestinian society
We have talked to other people involved in conflict, and some have said, ‘There is no peace without justice’ and others, ‘There is no peace without compromise.’ Can you have compromise and justice, or do you have to choose?
You may find my answer surprising, but in our case the Israelis refuse both. They want neither a peace based on justice nor a peace based on compromise. They want to keep the land, they want security for themselves and they want to be the masters of the whole region, without recognising the rights of Palestinians. Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas tried to pursue a compromise. Did they achieve peace with the Israelis? So, the obstacle to peace in the region is Israel – and American bias.
Hamas has shown a strong commitment to democracy. You were elected yourself; the cabinet was elected by your members in 2006; and in his first speech as prime minister Ismail Haniya told the Palestinian parliament: ‘Hamas will adhere to the democratic choice, protecting Palestinian democracy and the peaceful rotation of power.’
Are you really such enthusiasts for democracy? Isn’t it essentially a Western idea, and isn’t Hamas opposed to the Westernisation of Palestinian society?
‘Democracy’ may be a Western term, but as a conception of how to order the political life of a society, there are many Islamic elements in it. We practise a version that may differ from Western democracy in some details, but the essential principles of freedom, choice and the rejection of despotism – these are all Islamic concepts.
In Hamas, no one becomes a leader without being elected, and all are accountable. I practise democracy daily inside the movement, and it is natural to practise it in Palestinian society.
Also, I would like to add that I don’t have a problem with making use of a Western idea if it is good.
Isn’t there a tension, though, between democracy and true religion? Democracy requires you to do what the majority of the people want, but religion tells you that very often what most people want is not God’s will.
A good question! Look, in any country democracy is always a product of the social, cultural, historical and religious environment. So, we are not afraid of democracy – but we fear it when it is imposed on us, or dictated to us, with a foreign agenda. If the Arab and Muslim societies in the region are allowed to make free choices without pressure or influence, we in Hamas do not fear their choices, we respect them. The important thing is that there is no interference from America or others.
And you must understand that even piety is a choice, not an obligation you impose. You cannot compel people to be devout – you can compel them to submit, but not to have faith.
Another principle of democracy, as far as the West is concerned, is that everyone is of equal value, and so are their interests and even, in a sense, their opinions. Many people in the West have the impression that Islam does not set the same value on women and their interests and opinions as on men and theirs. Likewise, it makes distinctions between Muslims and non-Muslims. Is that a misunderstanding of Islam – or is it a problem between your faith and your commitment to democracy?
Look, there has been a misrepresentation of Islamic thinking on these issues. In Islamic culture, all human beings are equal in value. What God has said is: ‘The more honoured in the eyes of God are those who are more pious.’ Between men and women there is a general equality, in terms of rights and duties, the right to own property, the right to be religious, the right to choose and so on.
But there are differences, because of the difference in nature between men and women. This is natural. Even the West observes this. Let me give you an example from sport. Do you have in the West a boxing match between a man and a woman? Or a game of tennis? Why not? Because in the West you recognise that there are differences in strength and ability. Men and women have the same right to do the sport, and so in a sport such as athletics there are records for men and records for women – because there are differences between them.
When it comes to Muslims and non-Muslims in our societies, we share our homeland in spite of our difference in religion. We did not have a problem with Christian minorities in our countries, or with Jewish minorities. The Jewish ‘problem’ arose in Europe. So, your understanding of Islamic culture is not right. There may be some extremism among some individuals and groups, but then extremism exists in both the East and the West.
If Hamas accepts the will of the majority, why before 2006 did you not accept the decision of the elected Palestinian Authority and give up the armed struggle?
Who said that [the] Oslo [Agreement] reflected the Palestinian will?
But in 1996 the PA was voted into power by the majority of the Palestinian people.
You need to distinguish between two things. When the Authority was elected [in 1996], we did not take up arms against them or stage a coup against them, even though they persecuted us and detained us and did illegal and unethical things to us. But when the Authority was first established in 1994, as a result of Oslo in 1993, how was it regarded by the Palestinian people? It was not endorsed democratically. There was no referendum. In Europe, when a state is about to join the European Union or the euro zone, you hold a referendum. We respect that. I can confirm that if the majority of Palestinians, inside and outside Palestine, made a choice in an honest, democratic way, we would respect it.
You have said many times that Hamas has ‘a high degree of pragmatism’. Do you find there is any tension between your principles as a devout and God-fearing man and the compromises that practical politics demands? Or do they come easily to you?
A good question, and I have an answer for you. I believe that pragmatism – or flexibility, in other words – is a necessity; but there is a difference between flexibility that knows no restrictions and flexibility within certain bounds and a certain philosophy. In life, if you want to be inflexible and live without give-and-take, you have to live alone. As a Muslim, I do not have a problem in being true to my values while practising flexibility in my life, both as a person and as a politician. Even in Islam, there is flexibility in our religious practice, and allowances – in prayer, in pilgrimage, in fasting and so on. The most important thing is to be committed.
It is possible when dealing with other people to find solutions that do not contradict your commitments, and in Hamas we do not feel that this is a problem. The only problem is when a particular degree or form of pragmatism is imposed on us by the will of our enemies or by foreign interference.
Surely some Muslim commitments are inflexible? For example, it is said that Palestine is a waqf and no inch of its land can be given up because it is an endowment for all Muslims until the Day of Judgement. Some people may see that as an extreme position, but from any angle it looks like a non-negotiable one.
I appreciate that it’s pointless for me to ask you anything that is properly a matter for the final negotiations, whenever they come, between you and Israel; but can you say what principles will determine the compromises Hamas can make?
We in Hamas, like most of the Palestinian factions, have accepted the idea of a state with the borders of 4 June 1967. However, we have said that we will not recognise Israel
Look, the concept of waqf may be difficult to explain in an interview like this, because it relates historically to how Muslims dealt with this land when Islam arrived here in its early days.
Let me talk instead about a concept that should not be unclear or unintelligible to any society in the world today: the concept that peoples have homelands. So, the British have a homeland, the Americans have a homeland, the French, the Chinese, the South Africans… And how does a person act towards his homeland? If someone who was born, 60 or 70 years ago, in Liverpool or Manchester or London insists on his claim to that city, is that abnormal?
Nonetheless, we in Hamas, like most of the Palestinian factions, have accepted the idea of a state with the borders of 4 June 1967.4That is, before Israel took the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the Six-Day War However, we have said that we will not recognise Israel. Why? Because the Palestinian people are convinced that this land on which Israel exists is their own land. So, while they accept a state with the borders of 1967, they do not want to give legitimacy to those who occupied their lands 60 or 70 years ago. So, the formula is simply this: if through politics we have accepted a state with the borders of 1967, why should we be forced to renounce our beliefs and feelings and recognise Israel?
You have talked passionately about the importance of a homeland. Do you accept that the Jews are entitled to a homeland of their own?
But why should the Jews have a homeland of their own? Would you expect the Christians or the Muslims to have an exclusive homeland of their own? We Muslims never think of the Jews as a nation – to us, they are a religious community. The Jews lived alongside Muslims and Christians for many centuries, and can continue to do so if they wish to – but definitely not as a Zionist state forced upon us.
If Israel is the state for the Jews, how is it that many millions of Jews – nearly two-thirds of the Jews in the world – continue to live as citizens of other countries around the world? How is it, too, that you find so many Jews who are opposed to Zionism and the Zionist state?
Finally, if the West insists, out of a desire to atone for the sin of the Holocaust, that the Jews must have a country for themselves, let those who persecuted them and perpetrated the Holocaust against them give them a slice of their own country, not ours!
Many Christians in the West are afraid of Islam. Can you tell me honestly what you think of Christianity?
My answer is not a diplomatic answer: it comes from my heart and from my mind. Many people in the West do an injustice to Islam and make false accusations against it, because they misunderstand it or because they see some Muslims behaving badly and they generalise, or because they want to justify aggression, as George [W] Bush did.
Look today, who is occupying whose lands? The Zionists are occupying Palestine. Should I conclude that Judaism is an aggressive religion? Judaism is a religion revealed by God – we believe in Moses. It is not Judaism that is to blame, but those who claim to adhere to it and wrongfully occupy other people’s land in its name.
Who is occupying Iraq and Afghanistan? America. Would it be right for me to conclude that Christianity is an aggressive religion? We believe in Christ. A Muslim is not a full believer unless he believes in Moses, Jesus and Muhammad and all the prophets. We respect all revealed religions. The problem lies with those who adhere to – some of those who adhere to – Christianity and in its name, as George Bush does, attack others.
We are not afraid of Judaism or Christianity as religions. We are – I wouldn’t say ‘afraid’, but we are opposed to all who commit aggression, whether it is under the banner of religion or under a secular banner.
Do you have any personal friends who are Christians?
Of course. Of course.
Do you have any personal friends who are Jews?
No, I don’t have any Jewish friends, because I haven’t lived in the West and I’ve never lived in an area where there were Jewish people.
I will tell you a meaningful story. A few months ago, I was passing through one of the Arab airports. I was just like any other passenger, among the people. Many people came to me to greet me, shake hands with me and hug me. They expressed their love and appreciation. There were among them those who were religious and those who were not. One of them shook hands with me warmly and introduced himself, and said he was from a town called Beit Jala in the West Bank, which is known as a Christian town in Palestine. He told me that he was Christian and that he voted for Hamas, and said: ‘We are with Hamas and we support Hamas.’ This is commonplace in Palestine. Christians in Palestine support Hamas, and we have good relations with the Christians in Palestine. As you may be aware, one of our candidates in Gaza in 2006 was Kamal Taweel, who is a Christian.
And, also, from now on you are my friend.
Here is a short question —
Your questions are short but they raise big issues.
George [W] Bush has called the conflict in the Middle East a battle between good and evil. Is that how you see it?
Yes – but the other way round.
This does not apply to Palestine only. Any people that is invaded and occupied represents good and the invaders and occupiers represent evil, whoever they are.
Much of the conflict over the Middle East is fought with words, and perhaps the most powerful verbal weapon in your enemies’ arsenal is the word ‘terrorism’. It’s a word that can do a huge amount of damage, but you could say it is rather indiscriminate, because no one agrees what it means. I’d like to know what you understand by it.
First of all, we in Hamas – and Palestinians in general – do not submit to American terminology. There is something we call ‘the terrorism of terminology’ – and this word is used by America to impose its will on the world.
Put simply, terrorism is the unjust use of force or intimidation in order to oppress other people. This is – I do not say the Palestinian or the Arab definition of the term, it is the original, human definition. On that basis, America is the premier terrorist power in the world.
When you resist aggression or occupation, that is not terrorism. It is legitimate self-defence.
When we questioned Sheikh al-Qaradawi about suicide bombing, he said that ‘it is part of the justice of God that some people have a readiness to sacrifice themselves that their enemies do not possess.’
Some people would say that this weapon has done more damage to the Palestinians than to Israel. For example, the reason why so many people in the West condone the wall the Israelis are building on Palestinian land is that they accept the Israeli argument that it is legitimate self-defence against suicide bombers.
In our culture, whether your neighbour is a Muslim or a Christian or a Jew, he has a right that we call ‘the right of the neighbour’. Palestine has always had a genuine culture of tolerance
Look, given the imbalance of power and the lack of weapons and support to match those of the occupiers, the Palestinian, as Sheikh Qaradawi said, feels compelled to turn himself into a human bomb as a kind of expression of resistance. Historically, martyrdom bombings came as a response to massacres, especially the massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, where [Baruch] Goldstein killed 29 people who were praying and injured scores of others.5On 25 February 1994. The first Hamas suicide bombing took place 40 days later. So, these operations were a natural response to the massacre of civilians, of people who were worshipping God.
As for their effectiveness, dear brother, any action in the world has both positive and negative results. We recognise that these operations have a negative impact, especially in terms of world public opinion, and we know that Israel takes advantage of them to justify its aggression; but the basic effect of these operations has been twofold. First, they have shaken the validity of the theory of Israeli security – and you know how important security is to the life of Israel. This is something that some people try to conceal.
And, second, what is the message that these operations deliver? The most important message is that the Palestinian people will never capitulate. If they do not find weapons, they will fight with their bodies. And this, I assure you, is what is going to cut the conflict short. This will compel Israel to recognise Palestinian rights.
Can you foresee a day when Muslims, Jews and Christians will live together in harmony between the Jordan and the sea? What will have to happen to make it possible?
That was the case in the past, and it can be so again in the future. What matters is that occupation and aggression come to an end, and the Zionist ambitions on which the Zionist movement was based. If a Muslim comes to attack me and oppress me and take away my home and my rights, I will fight him, and the same applies to Christians and Jews. We do not resist Israelis because they are Jewish, we fight them because they are occupiers.
I believe that the Qur’an, like the Jewish Bible, suggests that sometimes it is legitimate, and even proper, to hate other people. Can I ask you: Do you hate the Israelis?
No, hatred is not mentioned in the Qur’an. You judge actions, not people, and when someone changes his behaviour, you change the way you deal with him. For me myself, as for everyone in Palestine, our hatred is for the crimes the Israelis commit against us.
In our Islamic culture, whether your neighbour is a Muslim or a Christian or a Jew, you have to treat him well, and he has a right that we call ‘the right of the neighbour’. In such a culture, Muslims and Christians and Jews in this region lived without conflict. Do not forget that Palestine is the land of messengers and messages from heaven! It has always had a genuine culture of tolerance
Nevertheless, it is a general human observation that conflicts such as this one, even when they are over, leave a legacy of hatred – and often it is religious people who have done the most to deal with it. Are there concepts in Islam that will help to restore harmony in the Middle East once a political resolution has been reached?
Of course. Islam has many different remedies for hatred and conflict between people. First, it reminds people that they are children of Adam and Eve and so they are brothers and sisters in humanity. Second, it has regulations to prevent aggression and the theft of other people’s property – the behaviour that leads to hatred. Islam has rules to punish oppressors and aggressors, because when people who have been oppressed feel that the law upholds their rights, they feel comfortable and do not cherish hatred. It is when people feel they have been oppressed and no one has given them justice that hatred thrives. Punishing the oppressors is a cure for the hatred of the oppressed.
Islam sets a notable example – in two ways. The first way is justice, where you take what is due to you from the oppressor. But then there is another way, which is forgiveness: you forgive the oppressor in the hope that God will reward you. For example, if someone hits you, you can hit him back or you can forgive him in pursuit of God’s reward. However, this applies only at the individual level, not at the level of peoples and societies.
Whenever verses in the Qur’an state a rule, they usually end by reminding us of God and the Day of Judgement. When you feel that you have a Lord who will give you justice and a day will come when God will reward you, you do not become preoccupied with your problem. This is the teaching of the Qur’an, but I believe that in essence all the revealed religions have the same spirit, though the rules are different.
What one thing could Israel do to persuade you that it was serious about making peace?
Withdraw – as all the Palestinian factions have demanded – to the borders of June 4 , dismantle the settlements and recognise the Palestinians’ rights, including Jerusalem and the right of return [for the refugees of 1948]. The alternative is for Israel to continue on the path to escalation – and Israel will be the first side to lose as a result.
I understand that there is a list of demands, but if peace is to come, it is going to be a process. What I am asking is: What could Israel start to do now that would persuade you that it is changing?
I learnt in physics that there is something called ‘the threshold’. Within the atom, for an electron to move to another orbit —
I think we call it a ‘quantum leap’.
Yes. Sometimes when that threshold is crossed, it leads to big changes. Sometimes it leads to a new power, a new state – both in matter and in human life. The start that is needed from Israel is to admit that it has wronged the Palestinian people, oppressed them and taken their land, and consequently to recognise their rights.
When High Profile talked to Gerry Adams in 1996, he came across as so earnest and reasonable, we felt we needed to title the interview ‘Is He Sincere?’ There are people in the West who say that you are very moderate when you talk to our media, but when you talk to your own people it’s a different matter. How do our readers know that what you have said to me today is sincere?
When I talk to Palestinian or Arab audiences, there are usually foreign journalists present. So, my language is the same, whether I am addressing Arabs or foreigners. A simple example: when I talk to the West, I say that we accept a state with the borders of 1967, and before my people I say that we accept a state with the borders of 1967 (with the qualifications that everyone knows, of course). Our discourse is the same – we are not afraid of the truth. When we are persuaded of something, we have the courage to declare our conviction in front of our people and in front of others.
One of the virtues of this movement is that it has taken some difficult steps, and though perhaps some other Palestinian factions objected to them, it was convinced about them and about their importance. Take the ‘calming’, or truce, for example. Hamas took this initiative many times. We did not have a dual discourse, talking of escalation when we spoke to our people and when we saw foreigners saying we want a truce.
Hamas is not a small movement that is not called to account for what it says. We are a big movement that faces the consequences of what we say and so we think carefully about what we say. Here is a practical example: if Hamas wanted to be duplicitous with the West, God forbid, we would not have been so candid in refusing to recognise Israel. So, our position is clear whether we are addressing the region or addressing the West.
A shorter version of this interview was originally published in the Summer 2008 issue of Third Way. Alastair Crooke quotes it extensively in his book Resistance: The essence of the Islamist revolution (Pluto Press, 2009). The translation was by Ahmad alMuhammad, with thanks to Amjad Taha.
|⇑1||The Catastrophe – the events of 1948, when the state of Israel was established on Arab soil|
|⇑2||That is, in the Bible and the Qur’an|
|⇑4||That is, before Israel took the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the Six-Day War|
|⇑5||On 25 February 1994. The first Hamas suicide bombing took place 40 days later.|
Khalid Mish’al (also spelt Khaled Meshaal) was born in 1956, in the village of Silwad near Ramallah, in what was then Jordanian territory.
After the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel took the West Bank, his family fled to Jordan proper and then migrated to Kuwait, where his father had been working. There he attended the Abdullah al-Salim Secondary School, and joined the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
He studied physics at Kuwait University, graduating in 1978. He was active in student politics and with other Islamists formed the alliance al-Haq (‘Truth’) to contest Fatah’s control of the Palestinian student union. For some time thereafter, he taught physics.
Hamas (an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al- Islamiyya, or ‘Islamic Resistance Movement’) was formed officially in 1987, after the outbreak of the first intifada. Khalid Mish’al soon became involved in its external leadership and he helped to set up its political bureau.
In 1990, after Iraq invaded Kuwait, he moved to Jordan, where he continued to work for Hamas. In 1996, he was elected head of its political bureau, becoming its most senior leader outside Palestine.
The following year, two Israeli agents attempted to kill him in the street outside his office in Amman by spraying poison into his ear. He survived after King Hussein and President Bill Clinton insisted that Israel provide the antidote.
In 1999, when Jordan expelled Hamas, he was welcomed in Qatar, but then moved to Damascus, where he currently lives.
Since the assassination by Israel of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and Dr Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi in 2004, he has been widely regarded as the most senior figure in Hamas.
He has been married since 1981 and has four sons and three daughters.
Up-to-date as at 1 June 2008