Interview with former Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar

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Mahmoud al-Zahar. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Mohammed Fouad

Published Wednesday, September 17, 2014

On the ruins of his home destroyed in the last war on Gaza, we sat with Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar to discuss a variety of issues after the war. We talked about direct negotiations with the occupation; Hamas’ position regarding the reconciliation with Fatah; participating in the upcoming elections and last but not least, Hamas’ position on the conflicting regional axes.

Mahmoud al-Zahar is a leading figure in Hamas even though he was left out in the last internal election for the movement’s political bureau. His son Houssam was martyred during the second Intifada. Those close to him describe him as the head of the hawkish wing and a champion of Hamas’ policy of armed struggle. He was foreign minister in Ismail Haniya’s 2006 government.

Al-Akhbar: What is your position regarding what was said by a member of the movement’s political bureau about direct negotiations with Israel and the possibility of Hamas engaging in them in the future?

Mahmoud al-Zahar: This is a hoax that the media used and it is not true. We do not negotiate directly with Israel even though there is no religious or political deterrent that would prevent us from doing so. But we are opposed to the idea. The person who did that is Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas). He helped us negotiate indirectly with the Israeli occupation during the ceasefire talks in Cairo but we did not authorize him to negotiate with Israel on a political program or the 1967 borders or anything else. Abbas was negotiating to lift the siege and for humanitarian issues such as bringing goods and products into Gaza.

To be clear, we told Abbas negotiate as you like, so that no one would accuse us of putting a spoke in the wheel of his project. But he does not speak in our name and we have not agreed to his project.

AA: Then what did Mousa Abu Marzouk mean by talking about direct negotiations?

MZ: He meant that if Abu Mazen does not play his role to the fullest in the negotiations around humanitarian issues, we will look for another mediator to negotiate with Israel directly. We could ask an Arab or international party such as the United Nations to negotiate with Israel on humanitarian and not political issues.

The proof is that during the Gilad Shalit deal, the Irish negotiated with Israel directly and Egypt and Germany interfered too and negotiated with Israel directly but we do not sit with Israel. We, however, insist on our right to choose certain parties rather than others to negotiate.

Fatah’s leadership was angry with Abu Marzouk’s statement because they believe that their organization is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people even though Fatah lost its electoral and popular legitimacy.

AA: How do you respond to the fact that Abu Mazen accuses you of monopolizing the war and peace decision and of having a shadow government in Gaza?

MZ: Fatah took the decision to make peace in 1992 without consulting anyone. In the latest war, Israel was the one that decided to go to war. Are we supposed to consult him on the decision to defend ourselves? Before him Abu Ammar (Yasser Arafat) also did not consult anyone about peace. This means that we are not the ones making the war and peace decision.

Regarding the shadow government, Abbas makes up terms to cover up for the failure of the current government. He should tell us who are the shadow ministers and who is heading it? We gave him the reconciliation government and he insisted on making most of its members from Fatah, not to mention that he wanted Hamas to pay the salaries in Gaza and this is the result.

AA: What are the alternatives?

MZ: If the failure of the government continues then we must have an alternative. The Palestinian factions should sit together and discuss their options. The Popular and the Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine called for a national unity government and recognized the weakness of this government. Until then, we shall study this option.

AA: But you agreed that Abbas would be a consensus president of the people?

MZ: Mahmoud Abbas is neither a consensus nor a legitimate president, he is a de facto president. We dealt with him as a president who was elected a year before us and we gave him half of the government in the Mecca Agreement in 2006. But he turned against us and called for our killing. That is why he has lost his legitimacy since 2005 and why he does not represent us politically. It is enough that his 22-year-old project has failed and his political “bazaar” is bankrupt so he is attacking others. Hamas, on the other hand, succeeded in confronting Israeli aggression in the years since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and achieved victories in these confrontations.

They might say that we (Hamas) lost our legitimacy too that is why we are always ready for elections and we do not fear them. An election is supposed to take place six months after establishing the government but Abbas is refusing. Our information indicates that he does not want to have the election because he is afraid of its outcome.

AA: In light of the crisis of legitimacy, why has the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) not been strengthened and activated to become a frame of reference for all political forces?

MZ: The PLO’s agenda is not our agenda. We want to preserve it as a political framework but if we join it then we will change the agenda. The issue for us is not joining the PLO but changing its program because of the Oslo Accords which the organization adopted as a “political free-for-all.” Hamas turned into a resistance project.

AA: What has become of the quintet committee that Fatah established to meet with you and what are you going to agree on?

MZ: We have no information about the date or the place yet but discussions will focus on how to implement lifting the siege on Gaza.

AA: You had talked about a national committee to follow up on the issue of reconstruction.

MZ: We have not formed it yet because if we do, they will say that we are trying to circumvent the reconciliation government which should take responsibility, pay the salaries and implement the reconstruction projects.

AA: Does Hamas fear that there will be a trade-off between its arms and reconstruction?

MZ: We don’t fear that at all. The weapons of the Resistance are off the table in talks and on the ground. This is the position of all Palestinians and they all refuse any talk of disarming the Resistance.

AA: Fatah leader Azzam al-Ahmed said that not a dime will go in and the Rafah Crossing will not open unless the legitimate authority enters Gaza. What do you think of this condition?

MZ: The problem is that Fatah considers itself legitimate because international parties, mostly the US and Israel, want to give it this legitimacy and a free position instead of the government that resisted the Israeli project. Regarding the Rafah crossing, there are two decisions, one Arab from the Arab League and the other Islamic from the Organization of the Islamic Conference, that were taken in 2006, calling for lifting the siege on Gaza and opening the crossings. But political changes in Egypt at the end of 2013 led to the closing of the Rafah Crossing in violation of the law.

We said earlier, we are not against the presidential guard coming but there is some sort of political confusion. The presidential guard should guard the president and the border guard is charged with the crossings that have civil bodies like agriculture, health and others. I believe that their goal is to make money as was the case with the security forces that worked at the crossings under the late president Yasser Arafat. The problem is that they don’t know what to do with these crossings or how to deal with people who work there.

AA: What happened with the date of resuming indirect talks in Cairo?

MZ: Until now, we haven’t been told anything. But the agreement stated that we should return to Cairo in a month to consolidate the truce and discuss outstanding issues such as borders, nautical miles and reconstruction. By the way, the ceasefire has lasted and it hasn’t been a month but if the Israelis attack we will retaliate. As for the port and the airport, in my opinion, we should not take the permission of the Israelis to build them. According to Oslo, there was an airport that Israel destroyed in 2000. If we decide internally to build an airport and Israel attacks it, we will attack its airport.

Also, there is a decision to build a port, the dispute is over where to build it. It can be built anywhere in the Gaza Strip as part of a Palestinian decision. Also here, Israeli approval is of no concern to us because we paid for the airport and the port in the Oslo Accords when the PLO recognized Israel at the expense of the Palestinian people.

AAWhat is the significance of the role of the Islamic Republic of Iran in supporting the Resistance in Gaza and why did Hamas bashfully thank it?

MZ: We did not thank anyone and we did not distribute medals to anyone after the war. The people know who stood with us and who supported our agenda. Some people thanked Qatar and Turkey for their positions in the last war. But if we want to talk about the agenda of the Resistance, there are many parties that we ought to thank, first among them is Iran which provided military, political and financial support throughout the last period. I will not respond to claims that Iranian funding of Hamas stopped after the crisis in Syria because Israel will benefit. It is true there’s been a mild divergence after the events in Syria, where we maintained our neutrality. But after leaving Damascus, we should’ve went to Beirut. We could have lived in the midst of the Palestinian people there and created a framework for a real program in coordination with the parties present there. As to why we did not go to Beirut? You should ask those who went to Doha instead of Lebanon.

Nevertheless, whoever thinks that going to Qatar means that Hamas is against Iran is mistaken. Playing the axes game is destructive. That is why we should have good relations with Syria, Iran and all the countries.

AADoes this mean that you are with restoring the relationship with Damascus?

MZ: There is no enmity between us and the different components of Syria. We were guests there as part of a Resistance program sponsored by the host country. We left because we were shoved in the middle of the problems. I stress that we are opposed to any activities by Palestinians in the Yarmouk refugee camp or anywhere else because our battle is against Israel only.

AA: What about your relationship with Cairo?

MZ: We are not interested in engaging in a political or military dispute with Egypt and everything that was claimed about us is baseless. There isn’t a shred of evidence to support claims about killing Egyptian soldiers in Rafah. All the charges against us were meant to link us to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and describe them as terrorists. That is why we welcome restoring our relationship with Egypt.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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