Hamas Leader Speaks on Violence, Negotiations and Peace

Moussa Abu Marzook, the deputy leader of the radical Palestinian movement, in an interview, says that he's ready to accept a Palestinian state - but still won't recognize Israel

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Nasser Nasser / AP

Moussa Abu Marzook attends a press conference in Cairo, Oct. 8, 2008.

Soft-spoken, smiling and polite, the 61-year-old Gaza-born Moussa Abu Marzook doesn’t fit the hard-man stereotype of a leader of the militant Palestinian organization, Hamas, whose name is the Arabic acronym for Movement for Islamic Resistance. But in an interview from his new headquarters in Cairo, Marzook — the deputy leader who is a strong contender to replace outgoing politburo chairman Khaled Meshaal — offered both the resolute language of “armed resistance” characteristic of a group branded a terrorist organization by Western countries, and the ambiguous peace formulations of a hardline movement forced to reckon with the limits of Palestinian power. 

Sitting among gilded mock-Louis XIV chairs in an upscale Cairo villa, the U.S.-educated engineer proclaimed his movement’s “victory” in last month’s eight-day Gaza clash with the Israelis, but acknowledged that it had taken Hamas by surprise. “We expected someday this kind of war,” he says, “but we thought it’s going to be after two or three years.” Still, he took pride in Hamas’ military performance, having fired more than 1,500 rockets, launching its final volley just as the cease-fire took effect. “We didn’t hurry to stop [the fighting],” Marzook says. “We negotiated with relaxation.” And, he claims, Hamas had kept in reserve rockets of even longer-range capability than those that landed close to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, expecting a longer war. (For a video of the interview, see here.)

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Hamas will rearm, Marzook says, proclaiming it “our right”, and dismissing suggestions that Egypt would stop weapons being smuggled into Gaza. On the question of whether Iran would halt weapons supplies to Hamas because Hamas had abandoned Tehran’s main Arab ally, Syria, Marzook seemed indifferent. “This [decision] belongs to [Iran],” he says. “If they decide to support us we welcome that. But if they stop supplying Hamas, also it’s okay with me.”

The visits to Gaza during the conflict by officials from Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia, among other foreign ministers from Islamic countries, as well as a recent trip by the Emir of Qatar, highlights the gains made by Hamas amid changing regional dynamics. It certainly has diplomatic alternatives, today, to being pigeonholed in Iran’s “Axis of Resistance.” Marzook says Hamas welcomed the democratic wave that has spread across the Arab world, because it would produce governments that “are going to listen to their people, and we are sure their people are with us.”

While Hamas would continue to gird for the next round of fighting, Marzook also says that he expects at least a year of calm in Gaza, possibly more, “as long as Israel accepts the [ceasefire] agreement and does not make any aggression against the Palestinians.” And one of Hamas’ priorities in that time would be reconciling with its longtime Palestinian rival, the Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas, which controls the West Bank but not Gaza. Acknowledging mistakes by both sides, Marzook notes that Israel and the U.S. had opposed reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, and that the split between Gaza and the West Bank is used to undermine Abbas’ negotiating position. “If they are serious, they should stop [objecting to] reconciliation and help Mahmoud Abbas to make the West Bank and Gaza Strip one unit,” Marzook says.

But what about the fact that Abbas is negotiating for a two-state solution, an outcome traditionally rejected by Hamas? “Let me talk about our right before talk about Israel,” he answers. “Our right to establish our state, our right to return to our villages and our cities – this is our right.”

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The right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes from which they fled or were evicted in 1948 remains the movement’s central demand — a demand anathema to the Israelis because it would end the Jewish demographic majority in Israel, and with it the very principle of Israel as a Jewish state.

“Of course,” says Marzook.  “There is no future for Jewish state. [There] should be maybe a Palestinian state for everybody …  Maybe they can live among the Palestinians and the Palestinians live with them, this is maybe a solution but I don’t know. After we have accomplished our aim, I guess there is a lot of things we can talk about.”

Returning the refugees would make Palestinians the majority, he says. Either Jews could stay and live among them, or they could “return to their countries”.

Pressed on the Hamas founding charter with its anti-Semitic caricatures, refusal to recognize Israel and rejection of any compromise on the goal of recovering all of Palestine, Marzook simply says the Charter should be viewed as a historic document, capable of being ignored in parts ­just as, he said, the U.S. Constitution remains intact but no longer deems black people as lesser human beings.

On the question of whether Hamas could accept the two-state solution being pursued by President Abbas, Marzook gives ambiguous answers. First, he says, “the Israelis refuse to go forward to accomplish the two-state solution… all of their planning now is to have new land and make new settlers in West Bank. And to take the Palestinian land in West Bank.”

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Still, he says, despite Hamas’ history of rejecting a two-state solution, “I accept to have a Palestinian state and Jerusalem as its capital.” But lest that be mistaken for complete reversal, he adds  a second condition:  ” — [but] without recognizing Israel.”

Asked whether that implied Palestinian statehood was simply a step towards dismantling the Jewish State, Marzook dodges the question: “I don’t know, don’t talk me about that long future, but I’m talking about the situation right now.”

These matters remain contested within Hamas. Still, Marzook does not rule out eventual negotiation with Israel. “The good solution for both sides and for ourselves now [is] to let the Palestinian state grow and let the Palestinian state take Jerusalem as the capital. And [while this is being done] there is a hudna [a long-term truce], there is a calm.  Any kind of relationship with the other side we can talk about later on.”

But the imbalance of power between the two sides means now is not the time to open such negotiations, he argues. Nor is there a consensus in Hamas on the issue. Following the recent clash with Israel, Gaza-based Hamas hardliner, Dr. Mahmoud Zahar, urged Fatah members to give up  the currently stalled negotiations and instead resume armed struggle. “Come to the program of resistance and stop wasting time and efforts [talking to Israel],” Zahar said at a ceremony on Dec. 3 honoring the victims of the recent conflict. “Let’s put our hands together and carry the gun.”

Hamas certainly has every intention of keeping its weapons at hand, as Marzook made clear. But his comments also suggest that some important voices in its leadership prefer to leave the door for a nonviolent longer-term ‘solution’ slightly ajar.

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(Paul Martin is editor-in-chief of ConflictZones.tv)