Khaled Meshal: Warrior at rest
As both sides pause to catch their breath, one is smiling, the other isn't
Profile by Amira Howeidy
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"We are a national liberation movement and the land of Palestine is not an endowment. Why does every Arab country have the right to want every inch of its land: Lebanon, Syria and also Egypt, who suffered from Israeli occupation? Why are the Palestinians always expected to be the most generous?"
The Arab summit ended last month with the usual inter-Arab bickering and Israel's flat rejection of a "reactivated" Arab peace initiative. The summit, said a top Israeli official from the prime minister's office, proved "out of touch with reality in a delicate situation regarding developments in the Arab world". He was referring to progress made on the normalisation of relations with both Egypt and Jordan, and to the growing warmth between Tel Aviv and a large number of Arab capitals.
Reality includes new developments back home as Israel prepares for the much anticipated withdrawal from Gaza, however. When the exit is complete, it will be the second, humiliating Israeli departure from occupied Arab land since the withdrawal from south Lebanon five years ago.
And in the same way as it took Hizbullah's armed guerrillas to drive the Israeli army out of Lebanon (effectively consolidating the organisation's influence and popularity as a result), it took Hamas and Jihad's suicide bombings and military operations -- among other acts of resistance -- to pressure Israel out of Gaza.
But Tel Aviv would not withdraw without incurring a price -- causing as much damage as possible; hence the assassination of Hamas's (paralysed) founder and spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in March 2004, followed less than a month later by that of Abdul-Aziz Al- Rantisi, one of the organisation's principal political leaders. And the next obvious name on Israel's hit list was Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshal, the icon of the movement's leadership in exile, who narrowly survived a 1997 assassination attempt by Mossad agents in Jordan. Yet the assassination has not happened, either because Tel Aviv could not or did not want to accomplish it -- yet. Its priority has been to leave Gaza, which, humiliating as it may be, must be accomplished with a minimum of shame. In other words, Palestinian resistance groups were expected to observe an unconditional unilateral ceasefire to help face-save the Israeli army's exit. But this was a favour neither Hamas nor Jihad were willing to do Israel.
A year later, while it snubbed the Arab Summit initiative, Israel was accepting the terms Hamas and Jihad were offering for withdrawal from Gaza -- the Cairo Declaration, a communiqué issued on 17 March by 13 Palestinian factions and the Palestinian president that was also endorsed by Egypt. It announced a condition of "calm", not a "ceasefire", which resistance groups were free to break in case Israel violated the agreement. It also affirmed the Palestinian consensus on the right to "resistance" with the legitimate object of "ending the occupation", and guaranteed, yet again, the "right of return" of five million Palestinian refugees to their homes and properties. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), in addition, was to be developed and reformed to make room for the two Islamist resistance factions, Hamas and Jihad.
Although these ceasefire negotiations were conducted over two years in Cairo, they were unofficially endorsed not only by Washington but by Tel Aviv, which had no other means to communicate with Palestinians after declaring that it had "no partner for peace". While no one expected Israel to approve the Palestinian "constants" listed in the declaration, it had no option but to hail it as a "positive step".
This is no minor detail. It is a significant moment that captures a new dynamic in the Arab- Israeli conflict. For the first time in 12 unsuccessful years of Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Israel concedes that it is dealing with something more than a "weak or corrupt" Palestinian Authority (PA). It is dealing, rather, with representatives who refuse to recognise those peace agreements that compromise Palestinian rights -- people with power, influence and a grassroots support base that they are capable of using. Unlike the PA, Hamas and Jihad will hurt Israel if it hurts them.
Three months from now, Hamas will contest legislative elections for the first time and is considering representation in the PA. It is also preparing, along with Jihad, to join the PLO, to help put the tattered Palestinian house in order.
At the centre of all this is 49-year-old Meshal (aka Abul-Waleed), Hamas's best-known face since the assassination of Yassin and AL- Rantisi. His is a face well-liked by the Arab media -- the noticeably thick eyelashes adding a charm to his inborn charisma that was lacking in Yassin and Al-Rantisi despite their popularity and influence.
Meshal's public star rocketed in 1997 when he survived the Mossad's failed attempt on his life in Jordan. His profile came to the fore once again when he led the Hamas delegation during the first Cairo ceasefire talks, which began in November 2002, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. It was the first indication of Hamas's political weight and importance in Palestinian decision-making.
From the day it was formed in 1987 (with the first Intifada), Hamas was viewed by Yasser Arafat and most Arab leaders as part of Palestinian chaos -- an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which neither Egypt nor Arafat had any desire to deal with; and they did not. Until 2002, Hamas and Jihad activists were left to State Security Investigations. Meshal's meeting with the Egyptian Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman in November 2002 was thus the first official Arab recognition of its newly accepted status. When the first round of talks among Palestinian factions opened in February 2003, Meshal met with Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazin), the then second man in the PLO, for the first time in the history of the organisation.
Meshal was born into a middle-class Palestinian family in the village of Slowan, Ramallah, in 1956. In 1967 His family moved to Kuwait, where his father was the imam of a local mosque. He joined the Muslim Brotherhood in his teens and led the Islamic Palestinian student movement in Kuwait University, where he graduated with a BA in physics. Contrary to its present-day atmosphere, Kuwait in the 1970s seethed with Arab nationalism, pro-Palestine sentiments and activities. By 1987 Hamas was already formed; Meshal had contributed to founding it at the age of 31. Until he left Kuwait to Jordan following the second Gulf War in 1990, Meshal worked as a physics teacher. In Amman, he joined Hamas's politburo and was elected as its head in 1996. Meshal's increased popularity following the 1997 attempt on his life proved embarrassing for the Jordanian authorities in their growing friendship with Israel and he was promptly forced to leave Amman, along with other Hamas leaders. He landed in Qatar, where he resumed his activities until he finally moved to Damascus, his base most of the time, leaving his family of eight behind in Doha.
Since the release of the Cairo Declaration on 17 March, the Egyptian media has adopted a particular interest in Meshal. He became the first Hamas leader to be given the opportunity of appearing on both state-run and private Egyptian channels -- with all the incumbent associations of status and canonisation.
He was also the first Hamas leader to enter Al-Ahram newspaper's building for a roundtable discussion on 19 March. Confronted with a string of questions reflecting the fear of a mini-Islamic Hamas state in Gaza -- a likely development in light of the Israeli withdrawal, which could lead to Hamas monopolising the PLO à la Fatah (Arafat's faction took over the organisation in 1968, excluding others from decision making) -- for three uninterrupted hours Meshal listened to his interlocutors patiently and politely, often exchanging political jokes with them. Extremely assertive if never antagonising, serious without being boring, he was very convincing.
Tell him the Intifada is over, and he will respond, "Observe the popular mood among Palestinians. If people do not want resistance, there will be no resistance." But the Intifada does not start or end "at the click of a button": "It was a cumulative process. The people were fed up, they had to move." Palestinian cities were invaded by Israeli Occupation Forces and an Apartheid Wall was constructed, it is true, "but we also heated things up to steer negotiations".
As a result Israel is pulling out of Gaza and Hamas is working to "consolidate" as many gains as possible. This will include pressures to free 8,000 political prisoners and a focus on Hamas's integration into the Palestinian political process (parliamentary elections, government and the PLO), but also a chance to catch one's breath -- "a warrior's rest", as Meshal eloquently describes it.
Since the start of the second Intifada in September 2000, Meshal recaps, approximately 4,500 Palestinian houses were demolished, 4,000 Palestinians were killed, 28,000 detained and eight Hamas leaders assassinated. On the other hand, approximately 919 Israelis were killed, no more than one quarter of the Palestinian death toll but, in Israeli terms, a huge figure. The climate of fear and sharp economic decline is also adding to the damage the Intifada has inflicted on Israel -- "resistance and killing is not an objective in and of itself", Meshal says in the same breath: "Human blood is sacred. But we only want our rights. We are forced to fight. Does any occupation end without pressure?" Meshal cites the 1967 War memoirs of Israeli defence minister Moshe Dyan: "The man wrote that Egypt was no longer important to Israel after its defeat in 1967, but that completely changed after its victory over Israel in 1973." He pauses for a brief smile: "Without a balance of power, you can't make an honourable peace."
But the discussion would keep returning to Hamas's controversial suicide operations, questioning the morality of targeting civilians at war. "Suicide operations began after the massacre perpetrated by the Israelis in the Ibrahimi Mosque [in Hebron] in 1994," Meshal points out assertively. "Escalation of the Intifada is always in response to escalation on the Israeli side. Let them shoot at a peaceful demonstration, and the next thing you know the Intifada is militarised."
Now that Hamas is entering the political arena, Meshal is repeatedly asked the same questions: will Hamas accept what the PA and PLO recognise as Israel's 1967 borders? He flashes another knowing smile, always ready with a reply: "We are a national liberation movement and the land of Palestine is not an endowment. Why does every Arab country have the right to want every inch of its land: Lebanon, Syria and also Egypt, who suffered from Israeli occupation? Why are the Palestinians always expected to be the most generous?" At this point everyone, including Meshal, breaks into laughter. But he quickly restores the gravity of the moment: "Who has the right to deprive the son of Bir Sheeba or Jaffa of his right to his birthplace? No one has that right -- but we are pragmatic. The balance of power at the moment will not allow for the 1967 borders, or even half of that. The Israelis won't even commit to Oslo. But whoever said I am betting on the current balance of power anyway? For how long? Don't look at Palestine alone. Look, too, at Israel -- it's in conflict with itself."
Peace agreements, especially Arab performances, have proved appalling. "The Arabs made so many free concessions they've become meaningless." Confronted with "fears" of Hamas's "Islamism" and all the undesirable political connotations of the word, Meshal is un-phased: "Well, we don't fight the Jews because they're Jews, but because they are occupiers. If the Arabs occupied us, we'll fight them too. But why," he asks with another smile, "is everybody so worried about our religiosity anyway?" Israel has always referred to ancient biblical texts to justify its existence. "If an Arab official for example wore an Islamic looking turban, he would be sending wrong signals. But when Israeli and American officials don the Jewish kipot (skull cap), that's not a problem, no body is worried about religiosity." Laughter again.
Meshal goes on: "We talk to the world in a language it understands, but we won't pretend to be something we're not. Yes, suicide operations in the Green Line anger international public opinion, but you must observe the Palestinian popular mood. We live under occupation and we don't have the traditional tools of warfare. At the same time, we repeatedly demanded that Israel does not target Palestinian civilians. We repeatedly made that call, but Israel never listened."
And it is now, while both sides put down their guns for a while, preparing for the next round of battling, that Meshal insists Hamas will "never give up".