Khaled Meshaal, the political leader-in-exile of Hamas, in Damascus.
May 5, 2009
Addressing U.S., Hamas Says It Grounded Rockets
By TAGHREED EL-KHODARY and ETHAN BRONNER
DAMASCUS, Syria — The leader of the militant Palestinian group Hamas said Monday that its fighters had stopped firing rockets at Israel for now. He also reached out in a limited way to the Obama administration and others in the West, saying the movement was seeking a state only in the areas Israel won in 1967.
“I promise the American administration and the international community that we will be part of the solution, period,” the leader, Khaled Meshal, said during a five-hour interview with The New York Times spread over two days in his home office here in the Syrian capital.
Speaking in Arabic in a house heavily guarded by Syrian and Palestinian security agents, Mr. Meshal, 53, gave off an air of serene self-confidence, having been re-elected a fourth time to a four-year term as the leader of the Hamas political bureau, the top position in the movement. His conciliation went only so far, however. He repeated that he would not recognize Israel, saying to fellow Arab leaders, “There is only one enemy in the region, and that is Israel.”
But he urged outsiders to ignore the Hamas charter, which calls for the obliteration of Israel through jihad and cites as fact the infamous anti-Semitic forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Mr. Meshal did not offer to revoke the charter, but said it was 20 years old, adding, “We are shaped by our experiences.”
He explained why he was giving the interview, his first to an American news organization in a year, by saying: “To understand Hamas is to listen to its vision directly. Hamas is delighted when people want to hear from its leaders directly, not about the movement through others.”
That also seemed aimed at the Obama administration, which has decided to open a dialogue with Iran and Syria, but not with Hamas until it renounces violence, recognizes Israel and accepts previous Palestinian-Israeli accords.
Regarding President Obama, Mr. Meshal said, “His language is different and positive,” but he expressed unhappiness about Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, saying hers “is a language that reflects the old administration policies.”
On the two-state solution sought by the Americans, he said: “We are with a state on the 1967 borders, based on a long-term truce. This includes East Jerusalem, the dismantling of settlements and the right of return of the Palestinian refugees.” Asked what “long-term” meant, he said 10 years.
Apart from the time restriction and the refusal to accept Israel’s existence, Mr. Meshal’s terms approximate the Arab League peace plan and what the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas says it is seeking. Israel rejects a full return to the 1967 borders, as well as a Palestinian right of return to Israel itself.
Regarding recognition of Israel, Mr. Meshal said the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and Mr. Abbas had granted such recognition, but to no avail. “Did that recognition lead to an end of the occupation? It’s just a pretext by the United States and Israel to escape dealing with the real issue and to throw the ball into the Arab and Palestinian court,” he said.
In April, only six rockets and mortar rounds were fired at Israel from Gaza, which is run by Hamas, a marked change from the previous three months, when dozens were shot, according to the Israeli military. In late December, Israel began a three-week invasion of Gaza, saying that it sought to stop the rockets, which land on its southern communities. About 1,300 Palestinians were killed in the invasion.
Mr. Meshal made an effort to show that Hamas was in control of its militants as well as those of other groups, saying: “Not firing the rockets currently is part of an evaluation from the movement which serves the Palestinians’ interest. After all, the firing is a method, not a goal. Resistance is a legitimate right, but practicing such a right comes under an evaluation by the movement’s leaders.”
He said his group was eager for a cease-fire with Israel and for a deal that would return an Israeli soldier it is holding captive, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, in exchange for many Palestinian prisoners.
Iran is a major sponsor of Hamas, and Israel and the United States worry that Gaza has become an Iranian outpost. But Mr. Meshal said: “Iran’s support to us is not conditioned. No one controls or affects our policies.”
Asked whether his movement, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist in outlook, wanted to bring strict Muslim law to Gaza and the West Bank, he said no. “The priority is ending the occupation and achieving the national project,” Mr. Meshal said. “As for the nature of the state, it’s to be determined by the people. It will never be imposed upon them.”
Mr. Meshal, one of the founders of Hamas, barely escaped assassination at the hands of Israeli agents in 1997 in Jordan. He was injected with a poison, but the agents were caught. King Hussein, furious that this was taking place in his country, obliged Israel to send an antidote. Mr. Meshal ultimately went to Damascus, the base for Hamas apart from its leaders inside Gaza.
The Israeli prime minister during that assassination attempt was Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been returned to that post. Mr. Netanyahu has said that Hamas is a tool of Iran and that Iran is the biggest danger to world peace and must be stopped.
Mr. Meshal was born in the West Bank city of Ramallah in 1956, the son of a religious leader who was a farmer, and moved with his family to Kuwait in 1967 when he was 11. He studied physics in college and taught it at school for six years. He is married with seven children, aged 13 to 27.
Asked if he feared assassination, Mr. Meshal said no, he would view it as martyrdom. Moreover, he said, since the first attempt, “death has become like drinking water.”
Taghreed El-Khodary reported from Damascus, and Ethan Bronner from Jerusalem.