In this second installment of his interview for JPS, Khalid Mishal, Hamas politburo chief since 1996 and head of the movement since the assassination of Shaykh Ahmad Yasin in 2004, continues his discussion of Hamas’s evolution and strategy. Whereas the focus of part I was Mishal’s personal background, political formation, and the founding of the movement, here Hamas’s more recent history is foregrounded. From the unfolding conflict and troubled relations with Fatah since the mid-1990s, Mishal recounts the thinking behind the decision formally to integrate into the Palestinian political system born of Oslo by participating the 2006 legislative elections and joining the Palestinian Authority government. He also delves into the ongoing repercussions of these decisions, including the splits within the Palestinian movement culminating in Hamas’s seizure of power in the Gaza Strip in June 2007. In the course of the more than three-hour interview, Mishal’s straightforward manner is on display, as well as his willingness to be challenged on matters as sensitive as Hamas’s suicide bombings and the targeting of Israeli civilians, the utility of armed resistance, and the morality of the struggle.
Two themes underlying the interview were Mishal’s preoccupation with the need to repair the intra-Palestinian split (“our greatest priority”) and the devastating impact of the ongoing siege of the Gaza. Since our interview in early March 2008, two potentially significant developments with relevance to these concerns have taken place. On the internal Palestinian front, Mishal repeatedly emphasized the need for intra-Palestinian dialogue without preconditions, with all subjects on the table including controversial topics like early elections. A first step toward reconciliation was made on 24 March 2008, when Hamas and Fatah representatives signed the “Sana’a Declaration,” negotiated in the Yemeni capital, which outlined points of consensus on various domestic issues including security and political institutions.
Though the declaration quickly ran aground, with Fatah demanding that Hamas immediately cede control of Gaza before implementation of other aspects would be discussed, by June 2008, Hamas and Fatah were once again considering national unity talks on the basis of the Yemeni initiative. As for alleviating the extreme external pressures on the Hamas-led Gaza Strip, indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel mediated by Egypt produced a bilateral cease-fire that went into effect on 18 June. Though initially confined to Gaza, the understandings also call for a gradual reversal of the siege as well as renewed negotiations on a prisoner exchange, including the release of captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.
Hovering over both Hamas-Israel and Hamas-Fatah relations is Washington, which remains opposed to any deals through which the Palestinian Islamists can emerge from their enforced isolation. Yet whatever the ultimate success of either development, the reality is that Mishal and Hamas are increasingly central players in the intra-Palestinian, Israeli-Palestinian, and broader regional equations. Indeed, itwas Mishal, not Abbas, whose movement reached an agreement with Israel before the expiration of the Bush administration.
MOUIN RABBANI, IPS senior fellow, is an independent analyst and writer based in Amman, Jordan. He conducted this interview in Damascus on 8–9 March and translated it from Arabic into English. Part I appeared in JPS 147 and is available online at www.palestine-studies.org.