The two are radically different – the position of the democratically elected Hamas is about land, not religion, creed or race
By Anas Altikriti
The exiled Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, speaking at a press conference in Damascus in 2008. Photograph: Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty
The New Statesman’s interview with Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader, was one of the most significant interviews with the leading figure in a movement that has been demonised and excommunicated by most of the western world and its media. The fact that Meshal realises that his words will be scrutinised by his allies and supporters as closely as his adversaries confirms that he speaks of the official position of Hamas on a number of crucial issues which the pro-Israel propaganda apparatus has managed to manipulate for so long.
Arguably, the most important assertion made in the interview, conducted by Ken Livingstone, is that in which Meshal clearly stated that the Palestinian struggle was anything but a conflict between Muslims and the Jewish people. He insisted that the Palestinians were fighting against the occupier who had dispossessed them of their homes and lands, regardless of religion, creed or race. He also went on to confirm that the concept of coexistence was largely present in the Palestinian psyche, and that genocide, as suffered by Jews in Europe (and which he described as "horrible and criminal") was alien not only to the Palestinians but to the inhabitants of the region as a whole.
His statement that Jews, Muslims and Christians had for centuries lived side by side – implying there was nothing intrinsic to prevent this happening again in the future – is crucial. This mirrors Ismail Haniyeh's response, after he became prime minister in 2006, to the question of whether the Palestinians wished to throw the Jews into the sea: "Does a besieged people that is waiting breathlessly for a ship to come from the sea want to throw the Jews into the ocean? Our conflict is not with the Jews, our problem is with the occupation."This unequivocal stand is one that ought to be welcomed by Jewish communities around the world. Rather than the fear-mongering tactics of the Israeli media machine, particularly during the Gaza attack earlier this year, warning Jews of imminent attacks against them and their facilities, Meshal was sending a clear message of assurance that the Palestinian struggle was political rather than religious and about real political grievances and not against the Jewish people per se. This comes after Meshal had himself publicly rejected any attack committed anywhere in the world which exploited the premise of the Palestinian struggle.His comments on democracy were equally enlightening. He explained that since the Palestinian people included the entire political, religious and ideological spectrums, Hamas would abide by the outcome of their vote, respect the rights of different faiths and political views, and refrain from imposing Islamic law against the wishes of the people. This position has been condemned by al-Qaida and the leading Salafi-jihadi theologian Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi who stated that they and Hamas shared "neither ideology nor doctrine".Meshal's interview was denounced by Foreign Office minister Ivan Lewis on grounds that would equally exclude the government from talking to Israel were it not for the double standards applied to Palestine and the Middle East. Indeed, the very fact that Ivan Lewis should be made a minister with responsibility for the Middle East, given his clear bias as a former deputy leader of the Labour Friends of Israel, is a sad indication of how little interest it displays in convincing people of any kind of fairness in its approach to this part of the world.The British government led the way in proscribing Hamas when the Islamic movement won the majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament in January 2006. More recently it is reported that the British government has been heavily involved in training and supporting the security forces of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which have been accused of imprisoning, torturing and physically abusing members of Hamas and other political factions. While finding time to condemn an interview in a weekly magazine, neither Ivan Lewis nor the British government as a whole has accepted the finding of the authoritative UN report on Gaza authored by a committee led by a South African judge well known for his support for Israel, which condemned Israel for war crimes and possibly even crimes against humanity in Gaza.A few weeks ago in Oxford, the foreign secretary, David Miliband, spoke promisingly on the Palestinian issue, making clear that al-Qaida and Hamas were quite different. On that he was right. When the Twin Towers were attacked in September 2001, the Palestinian intifada was at its peak and people around the world were gripped by the resolve and tenacity of the Palestinian people. Visiting South Africa at the time, I found most universities had unions supporting the Palestinian struggle and comparing it to their own successful struggle against apartheid.However, one immediate reaction to the collapse of the towers and the death of almost 3,000 Americans was the mobilisation of the Israeli propaganda machine which claimed that the fight it was engaged in on the streets of Palestinian towns and villages was the same as that which the US and its people had horrifically come face to face with. The message was that Hamas, which was in the forefront of the Palestinian struggle, was one and the same as al-Qaida, and that their persecution of Hamas was simply part of the global war on terror. The radical different policies and methods of Hamas and al-Qaida, not least the refusal of Hamas to take up arms outside Palestine, were dismissed.Even the most superficial examination exposes these lies. Al-Qaida has four main features: it has called for a "global war on the Crusaders and Jews"; it sees any target anywhere around the world that serves its cause as legitimate; it dismisses democracy as an affront to Islam and a satanic system of rule; and it believes in enforcing Sharia law in all Muslim countries, if not beyond.As Gideon Levy, a columnist for the popular Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, explains in the New Statesman, Hamas is totally different. In fact, Hamas supports democracy, is the democratically elected majority representative of the Palestinian people and takes up arms solely within Palestine because there is no alternative against an illegal occupying power that confiscates its people's lands and destroys their livelihoods. In similar circumstances, as Israeli leaders have themselves admitted, any people in the world would do the same.It is high time that we act assertively to resolve the 61-year Palestinian tragedy and end the ongoing crisis. It is time for the British government to stop discrediting itself by blatant double standards and to listen to many, including the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, and to recognise and speak directly to those whom the Palestinian people have chosen to represent them: Hamas.
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