He is also head of the Islamic Salvation party. The party was formed in the mid-1990s and is considered the unofficial political wing of Hamas, made up of members with a more pragmatic view than the Hamas rank and file.
The newspaper has been closed repeatedly by the Palestinian Authority (PA) for its criticism of Yasir Arafat and the Oslo peace process, and was the target of an Israeli gunship attack in the spring of 2004.
Hamad was imprisoned by Israel from 1989 until 1994 and several times by the PA throughout the nineties.
Aljazeera’s Laila El-Haddad spoke to him at his home in the besieged southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah about Palestinian elections, Israeli disengagement and the turmoil in Gaza.
Aljazeera.net: Let us talk about Palestinian elections. During the Oslo years (1994-2000), the PA resisted popular demands for local and municipal elections for fear that the anti-Oslo Islamic factions might win. Now voter registration has begun throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip in preparation for possible general and local elections next year, with Hamas heavily promoting them. How important are elections and can they succeed amid ongoing Israeli aggression?
Ghazi Hamad: So far there has been a very low turnout in the voter registration drive. Something like 5% of Gaza residents have registered. People have become frustrated. Their daily reality is incursions, killings, house demolitions – not elections. They are also afraid that no clean candidates will run for office.
Having said that, I feel people really want to change things. They want someone who can return peace and security and law and order, and they look to local elections as the first step.
For Hamas, it is a test to see if they can run things or not.
As for Arafat, he has expired. I wrote an article a few weeks ago in Al-Risala titled “Arafat, You Have to Go”.
The majority will not vote for Arafat. But the problem is in Fatah. Arafat is the only one who can control them and, if he is lost, there is no alternative. The number two man does not exist in Arab regimes.
If Hamas runs, it will take the majority, according to recent polls. They are not accused of corruption like the PA and that is what people are looking for now – to end the corruption and to restore law and order. At the same time, Hamas does not believe it can be a part of the authority, so the situation is difficult.
Has Hamas decided whether it will participate in elections?
I think so. Yes. You have now to give a new model for people, a model of elections and reform. Hamas is still undecided about their participation in parliamentary elections – they are waiting to see if they are democratic and unconditional – but I think they will run by some other means at the very least, through people known to belong to Hamas but in an unofficial way.
If the Israelis withdraw from Gaza as Sharon intends to do, and there are new elections, will Hamas change its strategy? Will it take the Hizb Allah route?
Sometimes the most difficult thing here is imagination. I think Hamas has become more pragmatic than in the past and is now ready to deal with the Palestinian Authority.
“Sharon is a pure military man – he is interested in escalation. He is like an elephant in a glass shop”
They are ready to stop military action against Israel if Israel stops targeting them. But they are not willing to negotiate. It is also expensive for Sharon to sit on the negotiating table with Hamas. You have to remember, Sharon is a pure military man – he is interested in escalation. He is like an elephant in a glass shop.
Hamas has long said it will not be bound by the Oslo process. Now they are ready to take part in political life. Now all the factions believe that without Hamas they cannot do anything.
Hamas can influence the political discourse of the PA but sometimes I think Arafat only listens to himself, and Hamas is suffering because of this. So far, the PA has not succeeded in getting all the factions under one umbrella.
Hamas is willing to accept a state in the West Bank and Gaza. Many times Hamas gave the signal for a ceasefire, such as when Abu Mazin was in power, but Sharon disregarded it or broke it.
Hamas has said frankly in the past we will accept the 1967 borders but it is not easy to convince people, especially with Israeli actions on the ground. Israel, until now, has not recognised a Palestinian state – just an entity.
In August 2002, 13 Palestinian national and Islamic factions met to reach a unified national agenda and discuss the aims and means of al-Aqsa Intifada. The resulting document, known as the August document, stipulated guidelines for the reorganisation of the Palestinian civil structure and outlined agreed-upon goals of the armed uprising and still serves as the basis for factional deliberations today. The talks broke down and Hamas was blamed. Is Hamas ready to consider the document again?
Hamas has said they can accept discussing the document again. The talks broke down over the question of borders. Ismail Abu Shanab, may God have mercy on his soul, signed the document and Hamas reprimanded him for it and then reneged on the agreement. But I can guarantee you they will not reject it again.
Hamas is a strong player in the existing situation and Egypt has begun to take notice of this.
Who is running Hamas now?
This is an important question without easy answers. Right now, there is an underground leadership. But I believe Israel will not leave Gaza before clearing it of Hamas. For the past year they have focused solely on Hamas.
There is a debate within Hamas about strategy. They are asking themselves: Should we intensify the operations so Sharon can leave Gaza under fire – that is, should we bleed him or let him go out on his own?
The inside leadership is for keeping the resistance going, but the outside leadership is not.
Has the position of Hamas leaders on the outside, Khalid Mishal and Musa Abu Marzuk, been strengthened as a result?
Yes. It is not easy to compensate for the losses of Rantisi and Yasin, so the outside leadership is gaining strength.
Is there a young guard and an old guard in Hamas as in Fatah that could cause internal problems in the absence of a strong central leadership?
The problem with Fatah is not between generations; it is about power. But Hamas, unlike Fatah, has succeeded in keeping itself one organisation. Fatah is divided into the authority and the organisation. When people are angry, they say because of your failures as an authority, we suffer as an organisation.
The past few months have been marked by widespread lawlessness in Gaza and factional fighting. The security lapses and ensuing chaos is thought to be the result of a power struggle between Muhammad Dahlan and Yasir Arafat. How would you assess the situation?
Arafat is a ghost – no one can touch him. And Dahlan is a student in the school of Arafat. He says Arafat has expired – but cannot speak loudly about this. Arafat is very mercurial in his temperament and conniving in his manner. And I believe if [Marwan] Barghuthi is outside [of prison], he would pose the same threat to Arafat as Dahlan.
Dahlan is trying to control Fatah. He depends on support from Fatah and his good relationship with the Untied States and Israel. The problem is no one can remove Arafat, and he knows that. So he is moving slowly. There is a cold war between the two. But Arafat is very strong; he controls everything.
Dahlan is a big question mark for Hamas, and for the people in Gaza in general. Some people say he is strong and he has money and influence; others say he’s an American project.
How do you foresee the situation in Gaza following the proposed Israeli withdrawal next year?
We will be more frustrated if the PA does not change and if the factions do not reach an agreement.
While I am sure there will be no civil war, if the PA reimposes the same regime [as in the post-Oslo years], people will be disappointed and we will face many troubles. We will see more lawlessness and ultimately we will suffer.