There are few figures in the Middle East more controversial than Khaled Meshaal, the 54-year old leader of Hamas. To many Palestinians, Meshaal is the symbol of nationalism and resistance to occupation. Many Israelis, on the other hand, see him as the architect of numerous bloody suicide bombings and rocket attacks. But even his detractors will acknowledge that Meshaal is a force to be reckoned with in the cutthroat politics of the Middle East. He rose in the ranks of Hamas after surviving an assassination attempt (Mossad agents squirted poison in his ear.) in Amman in 1997. Meshaal now calls the shots for Hamas, which is the dominant party in Gaza, from his perch in Damascus. That still hasn’t earned him an invitation to the recent Israeli and Palestinian talks, which have stalled over the issue of settlements. Meshaal met with NEWSWEEK’s Babak Dehghanpisheh and Ranya Kadri in Damascus:
What is your view about [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas’s negotiations with the Israeli leadership?
From the start, there is no future and no horizon for the negotiations. The Palestinian negotiator is going into the negotiations without any strong cards to pressure the Israelis. What is going to force [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu to give the Palestinian negotiator what he’s asking for?
If Mr. Abbas somehow manages to get an agreement for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, is that something you would accept?
I can answer your theoretical question but this is not even expected to happen. There is a position and program that all Palestinians share. To accept a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as the capital. With the right of return. And this state would have real sovereignty on the land and on the borders. And with no settlements.
What is Hamas’s role?
We are looking at how to build on the bitter experience of negotiations. The lesson of negotiation is that without real pressure on the Israelis they will not withdraw to the 1967 borders. Therefore, the resistance option is the real option. Yes, we are with diplomacy and politics. But we should have resistance- the basis is resistance- and having the pressure cards and tools on the Israelis.
On the first day these negotiations were announced, Hamas fighters killed four people in Hebron. Were you trying to send a message?
No. This was not based on giving a message against the negotiations. It was expressing a reality. There is an illegal occupation and there are illegal settlements. And the Israeli soldiers and the Israeli settlers who are armed are attacking Palestinians. [They are] attacking Palestinian people, the olive trees, the children, the women. Therefore the Palestinians have the right to defend themselves. Not every resistance action is connected to the negotiations. This is connected to reality. It’s very clear, not every resistance is sending a message.
So you weren’t trying to make a point that these negotiations won’t get anywhere without Hamas?
We don’t need to send that message. Because all the parties know…it’s not about Hamas only; it’s about respecting Palestinian rights.
Under what conditions or terms would you stop using violence?
I’m a physicist. And I believe in the equations of physics and mathematics. Therefore I respect the laws of math and physics because they’re direct. Very simply, there is occupation and it calls for resistance. When does resistance stop? When the occupation is finished.
Don’t you think the violence and attacks that go along with this policy of resistance create a cycle? That it’s not productive to go back and forth with attacks and counterattacks?
Who took the first step? The occupier. It’s not a vicious cycle with no beginning and no end. It started with the occupation and will end with the end of occupation. The resistance definitely has its victims and it’s a painful, steep price. But people don’t have another option. Nobody looks for pain. Why is resistance called violence in Palestine? When the French resisted Hitler and the Nazi occupation it was called resistance. When the Americans fought the British it was called the Independence War. This is not violence. Violence is using weapons illegally. Hamas has no military activities outside of Palestine. It contained all of its military operations inside Palestine. Hamas has never targeted any other country in the world except the Israeli occupation. The occupation is illegal, therefore resisting it is legal.
How much of this conflict is personal? Thirteen years ago when you were a victim of an assassination attempt you were in a senior position in Hamas and Netanyahu was in a senior position in Israel. Here you are thirteen years later- you’re still in a very senior position and he’s back as prime minister.
The conflict with Netanyahu is not personal. Our calculation is a national issue. Netanyahu, the guy who tried to kill me, his crime is not bigger than [former prime minister Ariel] Sharon, who killed Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, [Abdul Aziz] Rantissi [Hamas co-founders] and Yasser Arafat. I’ve gone beyond these issues. What’s enough for me is that I have a just cause. Netanyahu represents the cause of occupation and oppression.
Do you think Netanyahu will try to kill you again?
Him, those who came before him and those who will come after him will try to kill me and others.
Do you see a day when you would sit across a table from Netanyahu in negotiations?
[laughs] What I’m interested in is a result. For the Palestinian people to reach freedom, to get their rights, to get rid of the Israeli occupation and the settlements and to live freely in a sovereign land with self-determination.
Since 2006, there’s been a lot of violence among Palestinian groups. How do you see that cycle of violence breaking off? Do you see improved relations between Hamas and Fatah any time in the near future?
We want to ask the question- why did this internal struggle happen? It happened because the American administration, the international community and, unfortunately, regional countries refused to recognize the result [of the 2006 elections]. And those parties refused to deal with Hamas, the winners that the people voted for. They punished those who were participating in democracy. This is the opposite of the principles of America and the West. The message that the Palestinian people and Arab people got was – does America really want democracy in the area? Or do they do it only according to their interests?
Was there any discussion within Hamas about the effects of the Palestinian-on-Palestinian violence and how that would look to the international community?
Definitely we realize that this division and this internal dispute hurts Hamas and the whole Palestinian cause. And gives a bad image. We know this. We were not the ones who chose this. It was forced on us. Hamas has a decision at all levels to end the dispute and the internal conflict.
There are reports out of Gaza that Hamas is losing popularity. Is this something you’re trying to address, to maintain your popularity?
With any authority in the world there are segments of public opinion that opposes them. The question should not be the popularity going up or down. The question is how could our one and a half million people put up with four years of siege and still be pro-Hamas.
What is the health condition of Gilad Shalit [the Israeli soldier abducted by Hamas in a 2006 cross-border raid]?
The Israelis know that he’s in good condition. And that’s enough.
How do they know?
They know. Because they know that Hamas is giving the soldier Gilad Shalit good treatment. At the same time, Israel is giving 8,000 male and female prisoners very bad treatment in their prisons. They have children and old men and the sick. No one ever asks about the health of our prisoners in Israeli prisons and how they’re suffering. This contradiction is very painful to me. Yes, Gilad Shalit is a human being. But 8,000 Palestinian prisoners are human beings, too. Gilad Shalit has a family. Those 8,000 prisoners have families, too. Yes, Gilad Shalit has a right to be free and we are conscientious of giving him this freedom and to release him. But we have thousands of our captives who have a right to be liberated and be free.
Is it true that there have been new negotiations to swap Shalit for Palestinian prisoners?
Nothing really new. And it’s because of Netanyahu. He’s responsible. Netanyahu lies to the Israeli people. And he refuses to respond to our requests that will give Gilad Shalit his freedom.
Is it true that you have sent a direct message to Mr. Obama recently?
The government of Gaza sent a message to the Americans a while ago and that was reported [in the media]. We get many American and European delegations, including former president [Jimmy] Carter. Definitely what they hear from us goes directly or indirectly to the responsible people in the American administration.
So you’re confident that your views are heard by senior officials in Washington?
But this is not enough. The American administration should hear from us directly.
So you’re hoping that there will be American officials who will talk to you directly?
Not hope. One day they will not have any other alternative except to hear from Hamas and listen to Hamas.
Do you receive money, weapons and military training from Iran?
With regard to weapons, this is a question for the military wing. With regard to the money, Hamas welcomes any financial support from any party in the world as long as it’s unconditional. Hamas will never take conditional support.
Is the money that comes from the Iranian government without conditions?
Of course. There’s money from other parties in the world also without conditions.
If there is a two-state solution, what position do you see for yourself?
[laughs] I don’t seek positions. And I can’t guarantee that I’ll be alive then. What’s important is for my people to have their freedom.