|Hamas “Foreign Minister” Usama Hamdan Talks About National Reconciliation, Arafat, Reform, and Hamas's Presence in Lebanon|
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Usama Hamdan, since mid-2010 in charge of Hamas’s international relations (in effect, its foreign minister), was born in al-Bureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip in 1965. After earning his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1986 from Jordan’s Yarmouk University, where he was active in the Islamic Student Movement, he worked in private industry in Kuwait until the first Gulf war. Appointed Hamas representative to Iran in 1992, he held that post until 1998, when he was named Hamas representative to Lebanon. Since taking charge of the movement’s foreign affairs portfolio, Hamdan commutes between Beirut and Damascus.
Hamdan agreed to meet a small group from the Institute for Palestine Studies at his Beirut office, and when directions for reaching it became complicated, he offered to send a driver. How necessary this was became obvious as the car threaded its way through the narrow labyrinthine streets of Dahiya, the poor Shi‘i suburb south of Beirut, festooned with banners and laundry and posters of Hizballah leader Shaykh Hasan Nasrallah. The building where Hamas had its offices was modest and nondescript, not unlike the other apartment buildings on the unpaved but clean street, quiet but for a group of children kicking a ball.
The reception room where Hamdan met us was spare: a laminated coffee table, a couch, chairs lining the walls, a few small tables. Large black-and-white portraits of Shaykh Ahmad Yasin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi, both killed in targeted Israeli airstrikes in Gaza in 2004, adorned one wall. There were also large photographs of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock and Haram al-Sharif, and a colored poster, almost like a chart, of Hamas leaders assassinated by Israel over the years.
Hamdan, casually dressed and relaxed, served the coffee and tea himself, spooning the sugar while chatting in fluid English before the tape recorder was turned on. The interview, conducted jointly by the Journal of Palestine Studies (JPS) and the Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniya (MDF), JPS’s sister publication, took place on 13 December 2010. The following are excerpts of the two-hour interview.
JPS: These days, reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah seems increasingly urgent. Do you think that the fact that almost everyone recognizes the failure of the negotiating process could increase the chances that it can be achieved?
UH: For a limited time, yes. But it’s important to emphasize that the division between Hamas and Fatah began long before their overt split in 2007, and in fact political divisions within the Palestinian movement began even before the establishment of Hamas and basically go back to the PLO’s political program of 1974.1 The outbreak of the first intifada in 1988 offered an excellent opportunity to get rid of that division by creating a new kind of political process internally—one that could reform the PLO and its political program. Unfortunately, Abu Ammar [Yasir Arafat] did not act to eliminate the division. In fact, he thought he could use the intifada to implement the 1974 program, and that was the gist of the talks held in Tunisia starting in 1989 between Robert Pelletreau, who was the U.S. ambassador at the time, and the PLO.
When the Palestinian Authority came into the occupied territories in 1994 under the Oslo agreement, our decision in Hamas was not to fight the PA—despite the suggestions from some Palestinian factions that we impose our position by force. Our decision was to deal with the PA as our own people. Some of our members even formed a political party to facilitate dealings with the PA. But it did not work as we hoped. Abu Ammar promised the Americans and the Israelis that he had full control over the Palestinians and tried to prevent us by force from continuing the resistance against the occupation. And in fact Arafat did control the situation up to 2000, but never even tried to have a political dialogue among Palestinians concerning a future course. He did not even consider the idea of such a discussion.
Arafat, whether or not you agreed with him, was one of the most important Palestinian leaders. But he was not a strategic leader. Always his tactics pushed him from his goals, and in order to correct the resulting situation, instead of correcting his actions he changed the goals. This was his vital mistake. When he came back from Camp David in 2000 after the breakdown of the talks, he knew that it was over. He saw there was no possibility of a peace with the Israelis that the Palestinians could accept. But for a while he thought that if he could create some kind of resistance—a controlled resistance— it might change the political environment so he could achieve some of his political goals, like a Palestinian state, not on all the occupied lands, but maybe on part of them, and some solution for Jerusalem.
But it didn’t work. He couldn’t manage or control the intifada as he hoped—I think he didn’t realize that after seven years of the Palestinian Authority, a new generation had been created that was more tied to their benefits as part of the PA than to the Palestinian cause and their own people. But there was also the generation that had lived the first intifada and still had those ideals—people like Marwan Barghouti, one of the strongest supporters of the peace process but who also believed that we might be able to improve our situation in that process by our resistance. And I believe these people were really ready to resist the Israelis—because the resistance was not only Hamas but also part of Fatah.
Of course Arafat had not counted on the Likud victory and Ariel Sharon’s becoming prime minister a couple of months after the second intifada began. He was faced with an entirely new political situation: the Labor party had used the PA to do the dirty work of the occupation, but Sharon decided to keep everything in his own hands even if it meant destroying the PA. He invaded and reoccupied the West Bank in 2002 and put Arafat under siege for two years, and everyone knows now what he meant by the reference he reportedly made to George W. Bush with regard to the need for “regime change” in Palestine— something to the effect that there were ways that the angel of death could be assisted in the matter. Of course it also seems that some of those around Arafat had a hand and betrayed him. I can’t say directly, but I believe that some worked against him who understood that the time of change was coming. And they learned this from the Americans, not from their own people.