EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH HAMAS FOREIGN MINISTER DR AHMED YOUSSEF

Hamas will no longer be dictated to by Israel. If Israel doesn’t abide by ceasefire conditions including lifting the siege on Gaza, Hamas will not feel obliged to control the more militant groups in the strip, Hamas Foreign Minister Dr Ahmed Youssef, told The Middle East magazine in an exclusive Q & A interview in Gaza, conducted by Mel Frykberg, following the recently declared ceasefire.

TME: Many analysts claim the latest round of violence between Israel and Hamas has achieved nothing and the situation is at a stalemate. How are the results of this war different from the last military confrontation with Israel during Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 to January 2009?

AY: “We believe the Palestinian position is much stronger than before. There have been concrete steps taken towards unity between the major Palestinian factions. The Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership in the West Bank has supported us verbally with several senior government officials travelling to Gaza to rally the public and address their supporters here, asking them to stand with Hamas. Previously they actively undermined us. Supporters from all the Palestinian factions, including Fatah and Hamas have taken to the streets in Gaza and in big demonstrations in the West Bank, flying their flags and calling for unity, without interference from the Palestinian security forces as happened before. There is a strong sense of solidarity and a new spirit of reconciliation in the air. It is now hard to differentiate between various Palestinian media groups as they are taking a similar editorial line about the conflict. Previously pro-Fatah media outlets attacked us.

TME: Do you believe Hamas has come out of the latest confrontation strengthened?

AY: Israel has failed to defeat us. Militarily we still have a substantial arsenal. Furthermore, we are stronger politically with increasing regional support. Palestinians feel more confident about their demands and are not afraid of another war with Israel.

TME: Has Israel achieved its goals?

AY: No. We still have the ability to fight back militarily. We can apply the policy of deterrence to Israel as well. Our rockets can reach Tel Aviv. If there is no justice for Palestinians there will also be no peace for Israelis. The occupation can no longer be excluded from the equation. Prior to this round of fighting Israel’s conditions for a truce were more demanding than what will now emerge.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was trying to strengthen his hand politically in light of the upcoming Israeli elections in January. He is now losing support from his constituency with many Israelis believing he has caved in and buckled under pressure. I believe he will lose the coming elections.

TME: Has Hamas achieved its goals?

AY: Yes. We are in a stronger position to force the lifting of the blockade. The policy of mutual deterrence has been established. We reserve the right to shoot back if any of our people are targeted. This is no longer a cakewalk for the Israelis. They understand we mean business and that we are not going to disappear.

TME: Has the Arab Spring benefited Hamas?

AY: We are getting stronger support from the entire Arab world and it’s more than just verbal as in the past. Several days ago senior government officials from many Arab and Muslim countries travelled to Gaza as part of a delegation. They met with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and pledged support in a number of ways. Haniya is now respected as a major regional player and taken more seriously. Efforts by western countries to write him off as an irrelevant “terrorist leader” will not succeed. Countries with political clout including Qatar, Turkey and Egypt back us. Simultaneously, Israel’s relationships with Turkey and Egypt have deteriorated.

TME: How is this ceasefire different from the last one following operation cast lead?

AY: This time the guarantees from the Egyptians are different, we are dealing with a new Egypt which is more sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians. Egyptian President Muhammed Morsi is not former president Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptians will pressure the Israelis and they will advocate on our behalf with the Americans.

TME: What are the conditions of the ceasefire?

AY: The exact details are still to be hammered out. At present the truce calls for a cessation of violence. But for us the lifting of the blockade on Gaza is imperative. We need to be able to import construction material, and other essential items, to rebuild the damaged infrastructure, a condition understood by major western countries. The targeted assassinations have to stop. We want our fishermen to be able to go further out to sea, beyond the current 3km limitation imposed by the Israelis. We will also not accept the continued killing and wounding of Gazan farmers trying to reach their agricultural land.

TME: What are Israel’s demands?

AY: They want us to prevent the smaller militant groups from firing on Israel. They want the buffer zones within Gaza enlarged and they want the smuggling of weapons into Gaza to cease. We will not be obliged to negotiate with the leaders of the smaller armed factions if Israel starts shooting again by targeting our farmers and fishermen or anybody else. We don’t agree to increasing the buffer zone as already these areas have confiscated more than a kilometre of Gaza’s most fertile land along the border and Gaza is already tiny and overcrowded. And why should we stop bringing weapons into Gaza to defend ourselves when Israel is continually given superior weaponry, military support and financial assistance by the Americans and others?

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