Hamas leader: ‘Israelis are playing games’

Senior Hamas leader Osama Hamdan says that any ceasefire with Israel must include lifting the siege on Gaza.

'We are ready to defend our people until we achieve what we are asking for,' the Hamas leader told Al Jazeera [AFP]

Doha, Qatar     As Israel’s assault on Gaza enters its third week, the latest round of diplomatic efforts has yielded a 12-hour truce  which both Israel and Palestinian resistance factions agreed to commit to. US Secretary of State John Kerry has said that he hopes the break in fighting will be extended to a seven-day ceasefire.

More than 980 Palestinians have been killed since the war in Gaza began, while protests and more clashes have now spread to the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

But many questions remain over whether a long-term ceasefire is on the horizon. Israel has said it wants a fully demilitarised Gaza Strip, while the leadership of Palestinian faction Hamas is asking for the Israeli-Egyptian siege of the territory to be lifted and for Palestinian prisoners to be released.

Al Jazeera sat down with Osama Hamdan, one of Hamas’ senior leaders and head of foreign relations, to discuss the Israeli military offensive in Gaza, what the group has achieved militarily and diplomatically, and what the future prospects of a long-term solution are.

Al Jazeera: Kerry has announced a plan for a two-front initiative, a humanitarian truce followed by a ceasefire. What is the minimum Hamas is willing to accept for either to happen?

Osama Hamdan: We , the Palestinian resistance factions, have declared as a resistance [movement] that the ceasefire is supposed to not only be a truce but also has to result in lifting the siege on Gaza, opening the border crossings, and [for Palestinians in Gaza] to have free access to the world. We are also talking about a port and an airport.

[Our demands] also included the release of a number of Palestinians Israel arrested in the West Bank after Israel violated the 2012 ceasefire. 

Arrests included Palestinian parliament speaker and [Hamas member Aziz Dweik] as well as at least 60 Palestinians who were released from prison based on the prisoners swap agreement which both parties agreed to. [Israel released hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in return for the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who had been captured by Hamas in 2006.]

This was meant to happen together. We are ready to talk about the schedule and the timings but we are not ready to ignore any of those demands.

I think Kerry understands more than anyone how the Israelis are playing games. They say yes and then they do nothing.

by - Osama Hamdan, s enior Hamas leader and head of foreign relations

AJ: So there is no delineation between a truce and ceasefire for Hamas at this point?

Hamdan: If the  [ceasefire] initiative includes what we are asking for, then we will deal with it positively and we may go to the ceasefire directly. 

I think Kerry  understands more than anyone how the Israelis are playing games. They say yes and then they do nothing. 

So he has to be clear with them, and he also has to give guarantees that the Israeli side will deliver what will be asked of them.

AJ: There is international pressure to immediately accept a humanitarian truce, rather than waiting for a long-term ceasefire that specifically requests that the siege be lifted. What is your response?

Hamdan: Accepting an immediate truce will not solve the problem. If they are talking about a humanitarian ceasefire, part of that will have to do with lifting the siege. 

We cannot talk about a humanitarian solution while there is a blockade on Gaza, where we do not have medicine, essential needs, and reconstruction materials entering Gaza.

You cannot put Palestinians in a jail and tell them to live quietly.

RELATED: Hamas rejects Gaza truce unless blockade ends

AJ: Earlier this year, Egypt blacklisted Hamas for its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. With that in consideration, do you think Egypt has any political power to broker a ceasefire today?

Hamdan: Well it is clear now that no one can avoid having Hamas and the [other Palestinian resistance factions] at the table. Even Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] himself told the Egyptians that they have to bring Hamas, as well as the other Islamist movements, to the negotiating table.

This means that any efforts to have a solution without talking directly to the resistance on the ground are going to be a waste of time.

Hamas does not have any negative positions towards Egypt and will welcome any Egyptian efforts. 

But we said that we have the right to say no to any proposals that we believe do not give the Palestinians their rights.

There were agreements in 2012 and 2009 supervised by the Egyptians as well. There was the prisoners exchange deal in 2011; all those agreements were violated by the Israelis. So the problem is that Israel believes that no one is questioning anything they are doing.

If Kerry wants to achieve a real ceasefire, he has to find a way to pressure Israel to stop its occupation.

AJ: Is Hamas merely buying time while the death toll mounts? Are the decisions taken by Hamas costing lives in Gaza right now?

Hamdan:  We are not buying time, the people being killed are our families. No one buys time in exchange for the blood of their own people.

The war crimes are committed against the Palestinians side, so they want to turn it around and blame it on the victims.

Our leadership is in the field. The leaders of the al-Qassam Brigades are in the field in Gaza. They are known, their houses were bombed from day one. Their families and neighbours were killed but they are still in the field.

Even a major part of our political leadership is in Gaza.

AJ: The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) recently reported discovering rockets in two unused schools in Gaza. Does Hamas store weapons in UN buildings used as sanctuaries for civilians?

Hamdan:  Gaza is an open area, we have hundreds of journalists who represent most media outlets in the world. Whenever Israel bombs any place, journalists can and do go to inspect, nobody has said that they have seen our bombs and rockets or even our fighters there.

Any international investigation will find that the Israelis are lying.

AJ: Hamas is firing unguided rockets at Israel, which have killed three civilians so far in the conflict. What is Hamas targeting?

Hamdan:  The Israelis talk about civilians casualties, but don’t talk about the military targets that were hit by the rockets; the military bases, the airports.

In 2012, we avoided Ben Gurion [Airport in Tel Aviv]; this time there were rockets because the Israeli air force used the airport to target Palestinian land.

If Hamas planned to attack civilians, there are very simple targets like schools, cinemas, and stadiums but we avoid them.

Let’s talk about the numbers, the Israelis say 37 were killed; 34 militants [soldiers] and 3 civilians. When it comes to the Palestinians, 980 were killed, 80 percent are civilians, most of them women and children.

AJ: Indeed, the Israeli military has reported that at least 34 soldiers have been killed during fighting in Gaza so far. What has changed since previous conflicts?

Hamdan:  We studied well what had happened in the previous two attacks and our military wing evaluated and analysed their performance.

We continuously evaluate everything we do, on the security, military, and political levels, and we are now seeing the results.

There was an effort in manufacturing the rockets, in equipping the al-Qassam Brigades, their training and planning throughout the last few years.

RELATED: UN to investigate Israel’s Gaza offensive

AJ: One of Kerry’s proposals for a ceasefire is disarming Hamas of its rockets. Can you clarify whether Hamas, under any circumstances, will get rid of them?

Hamdan:  This is a silly idea, to be honest. Let me be very clear on this, we have been hearing this for more than 12 years and we have always been clear. We are a resistance movement against an occupation.

Disarming the Palestinians is supposed to be the second step while the first is to disarm Israel and end the occupation. If those two things were to happen then we would not need weapons.

This is our fight for freedom and we will resist until our national goals are achieved. That includes liberating our lands, establishing our independence as a state with Jerusalem as its capital, and the right of return for refugees.

AJ: With the  consensus government  that was formed this year, and the meeting this week between [Hamas leader] Khaled Meshaal and Abbas in Doha, you’ve said that Hamas wants to unify the Palestinian stance on the conflict. Can you elaborate on that meeting?

Hamdan:  Well in this meeting there were talks about three points, the current situation and how we can achieve a solution. We talked openly and frankly with Abu Mazen about having to unite as Palestinians and coordinate our moves. There must be one language. We told him we have a unified position adopted by all resistance factions and now it is up to him to unify the political one.

When Abu Mazen went to Ramallah, it was clear that his speech was in that direction, which is a positive development.

No one can avoid talking about the lifting of the siege and the ceasefire without talking about the rearrest of prisoners who were released in the Shalit deal.

We also talked about the relations with Egypt. We were clear in our position that we do not interfere in Egyptian internal issues, but we will not accept any proposal from their side that is not of benefit to the Palestinians.

We welcome Turkey and Qatar’s efforts that support the Palestinian demands. If the Egyptians also work towards that direction, their efforts will be accepted.

AJ: What can we expect from Hamas in the next few days with regard to a possible ceasefire or truce?

Hamdan:  If there is a ceasefire, which gives the Palestinian people their demands, we will accept that. If there is not, we are ready to defend our people until we achieve what we are asking for.

Follow Shafik Mandhai on Twitter: @ShafikFM

Source: Al Jazeera