The first ever visit of Khalid Mesha’al, Chairman of Hamas’ Political Bureau, to Gaza was a historic moment eliciting high emotion not only for the man himself, but also for the hundreds of thousands who flooded into Gaza City’s Katiba Square to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Hamas. This was their chance to see up-close-and-personal a person of stature who represents their interests on the world stage — his latest coup being the brokering of a ceasefire with Israel that was poised to launch a ground invasion. He is also celebrated among Palestinians for being instrumental in negotiating a prisoner swap that saw 1,000 Palestinians being permitted to return home in exchange for Gilad Shalit.
Mesha’al is arguably the Palestinians’ most charismatic figure with the possible exception of Fatah’s Marwan Barghouti, currently serving three life sentences in an Israeli prison. Mesha’al is someone with substantial influence with a towering personality that makes Palestinian National Authority (PNA) President Mahmoud Abbas appear bland by comparison. It goes without saying that there is no love lost between Mesha’al and the Israeli leadership, following Mossad’s unsuccessful attempt on his life in September, 1997, on the orders of Benjamin Netanyahu. He was poisoned by Israeli agents who had entered Jordan on fake Canadian passports and if it were not for the intervention of Jordan’s King Hussain, who insisted Israel must hand over the antidote, Mesha’al would not be around today. Nevertheless, in recent times, he has eschewed extreme hard line positions for pragmatism.
During a recent interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Mesha’al was asked whether he was still committed to Palestine from Jordan to the sea. “Palestine, from the river to the sea, from the north to the south, it is my land. And the land of my fathers and grandfathers, inhabited by the Palestinians from a long time ago ...” he answered. “But because of the circumstances of the region, because of the keenness to stop the bloodshed, the Palestinians today, and in the past, and Hamas, have agreed about a programme that accepts the 1967 borders. However, the Israelis do not accept that. So it is all about — up to the Israelis. And the international community is failing to do us justice.” He concluded the interview with fine sentiments, summing up his ultimate ambition. “Peace, the kind of peace that precludes occupation and bloodshed. Our Islam, all religions, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, true Judaism, given this is revealed by God, does not allow the killing of any innocents in the world.”
Mesha’al’s reasoned response fitted seamlessly into the current international climate that has witnessed a shift of global sympathy towards the Palestinians, evidenced by an overwhelming UN General Assembly vote to upgrade Palestine’s UN status to that of non-member observer state. It has come at a time when Israel is generally perceived as a land-grabbing belligerent, fatally hobbling a two-state solution with plans to link occupied East Jerusalem, slated as Palestine’s capital, to the mega Jewish colony of Ma’ale Adumim, with the construction of thousands of new Jewish homes. He confirmed what the international community has come to understand: It’s not the Palestinians who are obstructing the peace process, it is Netanyahu’s obstinacy. Further, it came when the Arab world has warmed to Hamas, opening doors to its leadership. It is significant that representatives from a number of Arab states and Turkey travelled to Gaza to participate in anniversary celebrations.
Mesha’al’s positions during the CNN interview appeared to bring Hamas closer to the stance of the PNA from which it is estranged. Mesha’al makes no secret of the fact that he would like the rift between Hamas and Fatah to be breached enabling the Palestinians to have one, unified authority, which had temporarily put him at odds with Hamas leader Esmail Haniyah. Mesha’al had debunked claims by Israel’s propaganda machine that Hamas was out to throw Jews into the sea and so long as Palestinians were divided, Israel did not have a partner for peace.
And then, no doubt overcome with emotion while in Gaza, he goes and spoils it all.
His speech to rapturous crowds attending the anniversary rally recently was nothing short of incendiary. “We will never recognise the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation and therefore there is no legitimacy for Israel, no matter how long it will take,” adding “No Palestinian leader has the authority to relinquish one inch of Gaza or the West Bank. We will press ahead with reconciliation [with Fatah] to end divisions and to stand united against the Zionist occupation,” he pledged. “Today is Gaza. Tomorrow will be Ramallah and after that [occupied] Jerusalem then Haifa and Jaffa.”
That defiant message may have played well with some Palestinians, but it has reaffirmed Israel’s assertion that Hamas wants nothing less than the Jewish state’s destruction. Moreover, his promotion of a course of action that is not doable, given Israel’s military superiority, keeps an unrealistic dream alive. His stance is in sharp contrast to that of President Abbas, who believes violence is not the answer. If Mesha’al believed his speech would terrorise his enemies, he was mistaken. Its salient points will have been received like milk and honey in the Netanyahu camp and will be quoted again and again by Israeli spokespersons on western TV channels to emphasize that, like the leopard, Hamas “a terrorist organisation” will never change its spots.
Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at email@example.com