Before Flag Day, Hamas warns tensions turning more religious

Hamas says the current Israeli leadership is turning the conflict into a religious one that is more difficult to resolve.

Palestinians run from sound bombs thrown by Israeli police in front of the Dome of the Rock shrine at al-Aqsa mosque complex in Jerusalem
Palestinians run from sound bombs thrown by Israeli police in front of the Dome of the Rock shrine at al-Aqsa mosque complex in Jerusalem [File: Mahmoud Illean/AP]

Even before the death of Khader Adnan sparked a five-day exchange of Israeli air raids and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) rockets, killing 33 Palestinians and one Israeli, a war of words had reportedly begun between Israel and Hamas via intermediaries in Egypt.

The tension has come in advance of the provocative “flag day” march by far-right Israelis through the Old City of Jerusalem on Thursday evening, ostensibly to celebrate the day in 1967 when Israel captured and subsequently illegally occupied East Jerusalem.

Two years ago, Hamas – the group that governs the Gaza Strip – and the PIJ launched rockets in the direction of Jerusalem on “flag day”, which was followed by an 11-day Israeli assault on Gaza that resulted in 256 people killed in the Palestinian territory and 14 in Israel.

To better understand Hamas’s current thinking before “flag day” on Thursday, Al Jazeera spoke with Gaza-based Dr Basim Naim, former minister of health and current head of the political and foreign relations department in Hamas.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

On the flag march

“This “flag march” has been organised now for more than 50 years. I think one or two years after occupying the eastern part of Jerusalem and the announcement of the “unification” of the city until a few years ago – I think around 15, 20 years ago – there was some raising of Israeli flags in the streets and that’s it.

Recently, at the time of the increasing shift of Israeli society towards the right and the increasing power in the hands of the right[-wing] extremists in the Israeli society and leadership … They have started to make a very significant but very dangerous development, which is storming the Muslim Quarter attempting to march through Al-Aqsa Mosque … This shift was the initiating point … of the explosion in the last few years.”

Why it is so important to respond to the flag march

“Hamas is not eager to escalate. But if it is about Jerusalem, about Al-Aqsa, about [the] central pillar of the Palestinian cause … we are ready to go to the end … to sacrifice all we can.

The Israelis and the international community have left us no choice except resistance.

Therefore, when you ask why we don’t respond in the same way when it comes sometimes to the killing of people [versus the flag march], OK, we would like to have the strength to do that but [cannot] based on the constraints of the international community, which has failed to protect the victims, despite international laws and UN resolutions, still they support the oppressor.

[But] when it comes to the main pillar of the conflict, when it comes to Al-Aqsa, Jerusalem, prisoners, we are ready to invest all we can, to sacrifice all we can to prevent any more steps towards Judaisation of the city, towards taking over the [Al-Aqsa] Mosque.

And … even all the scientists they brought to find any significant proof for any Jewish existence or heritage here in the area, have failed. And all the international resolutions and international law [say] Israel has no right to change the status quo – and this is the point. What Israel is trying to do is [take] unilateral steps to change the status quo, to Judaise the Palestinian part of the city. To take over the Mosque, maybe at the beginning, to divide it. But then slowly, slowly, like in the mosque in Hebron, to take control over the Mosque.”

What has changed in Gaza in previous rounds of escalation with Israel

“I think you can see the developments in different rounds of escalations when it comes to Jerusalem, when it comes to Al-Aqsa. Most of the time we have seen clear support from all Palestinians inside and outside the country, from all Arabs, from all Muslims, from all supporters of the Palestinian cause.

I think our people have given all the chances for 75 years for a political and legal solution to the conflict. And the last 30 years, Palestinians were part of a political process and they’ve given all the chances to get their minimum rights through this peaceful process, but what was the result? A big failure.

When we study the situation before Oslo and after Oslo, the results are catastrophic.

Before Oslo, we had less than 100 [thousand] settlers. Today, we have nearly 800 [thousand] to a million. [Before Oslo,] we had less settlements … we had less checkpoints, we had less of both people killed and houses destroyed. At least Israel was, at that time, more responsible or trying to be more responsible as an occupying power.

Before Oslo, Israel was responsible for everything. But today, the PA has taken over all the responsibility of the occupation … But for this, [the Palestinian people] have got nothing.”

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becoming more religious

“This fanatic [Israeli] leadership is taking the whole conflict into a religious corner … When it comes to the holy places, which are holy not only for Palestinians but for all nearly two billion Muslims, I think the conflict will be more dangerous … You will find explosions not only inside Palestine, but in a lot of other countries, and you will initiate or launch conflict in other countries.

You have millions of Muslims in Europe. Why should they keep silent when they see that the holy places are insulted or stormed by Jews? It means you are creating … a new conflict area in France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and America. Everywhere.

I have to recall that it is not a conflict between Gaza and Israel – it is a conflict between Palestinians everywhere and Israel. And if it is about the holy places, it means that you are recruiting millions and millions of Muslims to the same conflict.

And you are converting a political conflict into a religious one, which makes it very, very complicated and much more difficult to solve … There’s no negotiation, compromise or coexistence … because it is all or none.”

On the cost of war to Gaza’s civilian infrastructure

“In the end, Gaza is occupied and Israel is the occupying power and the Israelis are responsible for the two to three million Palestinians here, for everything, for electricity, water, health and education. All we are suffering is because of the siege … supported by the international community, not by the administration of Hamas.

The second point is, OK, if they believe that the problem here in Gaza is Hamas, what’s the problem in the West Bank? You have a PA who cooperates 24 hours, seven days a week, with the occupation, giving them everything they can, but what are they getting in return?

They simply storm cities, kill innocent people in their homes and leave. Settlers are vandalising, poisoning water, stealing land, cutting down trees, confiscating, and burning houses, and the PA is simply watching.

Even the economic situation – how long do you need to move from Jenin to Ramallah because of dozens of checkpoints? How dangerous to move from Jenin to Ramallah every day if you are an employee?

Israel has converted Gaza into an open-air prison or a new concentration camp, but it doesn’t mean that [because] of the PA in Ramallah, [Palestinians there] have a better life. For me, it is much more dangerous [in the West Bank]. I get a lot of visitors from Ramallah and they’re surprised how people here are free to move day and night without any limitations, without any fear [of being] arrested.”

On solving the conflict

“If the international community is really interested in calm and any chance to solve or contain the conflict, they have to oblige Israel to respect its role as an occupying power towards the people.

Look, every day in the morning we wake up to hear of two Palestinians [killed] in Nablus, three Palestinians in Jenin, five Palestinians in Jericho. More land has been taken over to build a new settlement, destroying or cutting trees or burning.

And what is part of the division today in Israel is the expected consequence of 70 years of occupation. You cannot present yourself as a defender of human rights, democracy and all these “Western” values and at the same time, a few metres away you are oppressing and killing and occupying other people. That cannot last forever. This is not sustainable.”

On the Israeli protests against proposed ‘judicial reforms’

“All those who are demonstrating in Tel Aviv believe the same ideology as Ben-Gvir, only they are smarter. They can present themselves in a better way.

But [at] the core they are the same. The government of Lapid, Bennet, they continued the same policies of settlement … The last year of the Lapid government was the most horrible year since 2005.

[The Israeli protests are] not about human rights in the universal criteria. It is about human rights, democracy and all these other values within the Jewish community, but not as a universal value for all human beings … Therefore, again, for me, those who are demonstrating in Tel Aviv or who are demonstrating or marching in Jerusalem at the core are the same.”

On Hamas and comparisons to extremist groups

“We as Muslims, as believers, as a movement driven by Islam … a moderate Islam that believes in the universal values of human rights, of civil cooperation, of democratic choices for people. For example, we are pushing for elections and we are ready to respect the results regardless of who wins the elections or who loses.

Maybe a lot of Western media try to connect Hamas and fanatical Islamic groups like Daesh [ISIL, ISIS]. But we are involved a lot of times in conflict with these groups – sometimes an armed conflict.

We don’t believe that this is the Islam we believe … We believe in justice. We believe in, again, universal human rights, and we are still trying to prevent converting this conflict into a pure political-religious conflict … [that would] be very difficult, if not impossible, to solve.”

Source: Al Jazeera