Extended Interviews

Mahmoud Zahar

Mahmoud Zahar Mahmoud Zahar

Mahmoud Zahar, a founding member of Hamas and the newly appointed Foreign Minister. Zahar is considered one of the hardliners within the Hamas leadership. He survived an Israeli assassination attempt in September 2003, in which Israeli F-16s dropped a bomb on his house in Gaza City, killing his son and injuring his wife and one of their daughters.

“When we resorted to an armed struggled, we succeeded in pushing the Israelis at least from the Gaza area. If you have a solution to push the Israelis out of the rest of our occupied territory, then it’s the time for negotiation. But in the meantime, the Israelis use negotiation to waste our time.” --Mahmoud Zahar

Kate Seelye: What dilemmas do you face?

Mahmoud Zahar: We face a lot of dilemma. On the internal issue, we face what has been destroyed by the occupation. They’ve destroyed our economy, our houses, our geographical communication between the areas -- West Bank in particular. We have to face the corruption that was in every part of our life -- corruption on an administrative level, a financial level and also on the political issue of cooperation with Israel. We have to face many troubles inside. It is difficult, but it is possible to do it. On the other level, we have to face the American/Israeli agenda and, in some part, Europe, who consider Hamas a terrorist organization. And we have to face in particular American pressure and some Arabic countries that aim to strangulate our economy … and not give Hamas a chance to flourish in the new government.

You face sanctions for not recognizing Israel. Can you compensate somehow?

First of all, we have to address if Israel is willing to recognize the right of the Palestinians to live as human beings. Is Israel willing to describe what borders it is going to draw? Is Israel ready to implement the right of return? The argument is that they [the Jews] were here 5,000 years ago, so by the historical principle, they [the Israelis] came here and occupied our land in 1948. Is it possible to implement the same principle to allow the Palestinian who left only 60 years ago to come back and live in his homelands? This question should be asked to the Israelis. We are facing sanctions, but the Arab states are going to help us because they are living in a political status that supports Hamas 100 percent. Rightist and leftist, Islamic and nationalist, Arabic and Islamic countries admire Hamas. So any government that refuses to help will have trouble, especially when they are asked, “Why are you not giving a chance to the Palestinian people to implement a real democracy and to repair what has been destroyed by the Israelis and by the corruption?”

You have all these new responsibilities. Do you still want to destroy Israel?

Hamas is going to destroy Israel? [laughs] Because we have a nuclear weapon and F-16 jets and Apache helicopters and because, all the time, we are killing Israelis … this is … policy that is not acceptable. We are [using] primitive weapons to defend ourselves, to push the Israelis outside our land. So I think the question should be answered by the Israelis: “Who is going to destroy the other?” The people who occupied our area in 1948, who reoccupied our area in 1956, the people who reoccupied our land and Arab land in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt in 1967, who went to Lebanon and killed thousands of people in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Who is going to destroy whom?

But Israel is recognizing a two-state solution.

Israel is not recognizing a two-state solution. This is a fabricated story. Ask them about the borders of this Palestinian state; ask them about the wall that is isolating the eastern area from the western area in the West Bank. When they cut 58 percent and annex it for what they call Israel in the West Bank, and cut the rest of the area -- 42 percent -- into three cantons. You are not reading the map very well, or you are only hearing the Israeli fabricated story.

Israel is saying that you won’t recognize them. Now the world is calling for you to lay down arms and start talking.

OK, that was practiced since 1991. When the PA [Palestinian Authority] started, the PLO started talking; they put down their guns. At the Madrid conference, at the Oslo Agreements, they put down their guns. They confiscated the guns of Hamas, put Hamas in jail, tortured them, cooperated with the Israelis and talked with them up to 2000. Then Mr. Arafat reached the conclusion that the Israelis are not really willing to give the Palestinian people their basic demand. He switched his attitude, they reoccupied our land. Why do we have to repeat a failed system? Why should we use a corrupted political process that will bring for us disaster?

What’s your strategy for Israel then?

Why should we deal with them? Why? Why?

They’re your neighbor.

They’re not our neighbor. We have alternative neighbors -- the Egyptian neighbor, the Jordanian neighbor, we can cooperate with them. Israel is not our fate.

But they’re occupying Palestinian land -- how will you get it back?

OK, this is a very good point. These questions should be answered by the international community. For us, the people who have lost their land, their houses, their children, their hope to live as human beings … I’m asking the international community, is the occupation legal?

The international community will claim you’ve been launching terrorist attacks, killing Israelis.

You describe this as terrorism? If you do, you have to describe the American attacks on the British as terrorism. You can change your history. You could describe Mr. De Gaulle as a terrorist for running an effective armed struggle against the Nazi occupation. I think you need to rewrite your history and describe all your heroes as terrorists because they liberated their land.

So killing women and children is not terrorism?

How many women and children have been killed from our side? How many houses destroyed by the Israelis? This is acceptable? All the time, you have only one eye. Either you are blind or you have one eye to see only one side. What is the main cause of this fighting against the Israeli occupation? It’s the occupation. If you are ready to evacuate our area -- as you did in Iraq, as you did in Kuwait, as you did in many countries, as the integrity of Afghanistan was threatened -- why are you in the West leaving the Israelis to destroy everything in our life? If we reacted peacefully, nobody would recognize us … we did this for 15 years. When we realized that our land would not be liberated, when we started to do armed struggle, we were described as terrorists. I don’t believe this is serving the Western interest on an individual level, on a national level and on a historical level.

Let’s talk about the PA’s commitments. The PLO has signed peace treaties. What will you abide by?

What are the peace treaties?

The framework for a two-state solution.

That was signed in 1993.

Will you submit to that?

You ask me, “Will I submit to this treaty?” I am asking you, what is the practical implementation of this treaty? We have to commit to recognition of nonsense? It’s nonsense! It’s not available. It’s irrelevant. Where is the Palestinian state? What is the border of Israel? Israel has the ambition to reoccupy Lebanon. Still they occupy the Golan Heights since 1967. Israel is the supreme power here, a nuclear power. All the time they are threatening our life.

So, you reject these commitments -- [the] Oslo [Peace Accord] …

Mr. Arafat rejected Oslo and Oslo finished. There was a four-year interim. It started in 1994 and ended in 1998. The man who is responsible for the destruction of Oslo is [Ariel] Sharon. He reoccupied our country. He spoke about area A, area B, area C -- and they are now under occupation.

Will you begin talking to Israel?

Talking is not our intention. It’s a method. What are we going to talk about? The PA spent many years talking and talking and talking, and they reached a big zero.

What’s the option, fighting and fighting and fighting?

In human history, when your land is occupied you have only three options. Either you negotiate to restore your rights, you fight to restore your rights, or a combination of fighting and negotiating. In Vietnam, for example, they ran an armed struggle, and through negotiation -- in France -- through the Americans, they achieved their goal. We practiced negotiation, and Mr. Saeb Erekat [chief negotiator for the PLO], to this moment, is still talking about how negotiation is our strategic goal. They’ve spent since 1991 negotiating to nothing. When we resorted to an armed struggled, we succeeded in pushing the Israelis at least from the Gaza area. If you have a solution to push the Israelis out of the rest of our occupied territory, then it’s the time for negotiation. But in the meantime, the Israelis use negotiation to waste our time.

You’re suggesting you’ll go with the third option.

Israel is not ready to negotiate. When the Israelis are talking about unilateral withdrawal, this is a good answer to your question. If they are ready to offer something to the Palestinians, they can offer it through a third party. But they are going to use the same political tricks, saying they are ready to negotiate, but when we sit down, the imbalance of power will be there. They are not going to leave, and they will waste our time.

We’re talking about a stalemate then.

Yes, but who is responsible for this stalemate? It’s not our responsibility to answer this question. Ask the international community. Ask the Americans. Ask the Israelis.

Will you continue your armed resistance?

Give me an alternative option. If you have an alternative, we can stop that. But until then, we have no other option. Just yesterday, the Israelis killed five, two of them children. You are here. You are a witness. Deeply injured nine. Tell me what negotiation is going to do in this case. Are the Israelis ready to stop their aggression, their crimes against children, against women?

What is armed resistance going to do? They’ll just retaliate and kill more Palestinians.

The Egyptian area was occupied by the British for 82 years. At last they recovered their land. Algeria was occupied by France for 130 years. At last they achieved their sovereignty. So it is not our mission to solve this problem in this day because we are weak and the Israelis too strong. Their power will not be an eternal issue and our weakness will not be an eternal issue. This is a national right. This is not a right of Hamas or the PLO. This is the right of every Palestinian everywhere, at any time, at any place.

So in the meantime, will you focus on a cease-fire?

If they are ready to accept a cease-fire, they should accept our conditions -- release of detainees, stoppage of aggression and practical discussion about their withdrawal from the occupied territories.

Let me ask you this: If Israel withdrew to the 1967 borders, released the prisoners, agreed to make East Jerusalem the Palestinian capital -- would you make peace?

This is a big if. This cannot be practically implemented. Ask the Israelis this. After they answer, I will answer you that. The PLO accepted this big if and they lost their popularity in Palestinian society. We are not a copy of Fatah.

But most Palestinians want peace.


And most Palestinians are ready to accept a two-state solution.

No, no, no. Are you listening to the Palestinian people outside, in the refugee camps? They are representing more than 50 percent of the Palestinian people. You are speaking about the West Bank and Gaza -- this is not the Palestinian people. This is only a part of the Palestinian people. Go and ask the Palestinian people and see if they are accepting your argument or not.

Will you ever agree to live side by side with Israelis?

On what borders?

You tell me -- under what conditions would you live side by side?

It is nonsense to discuss living side by side because Israel is not ready to allow us to live side by side.

What kind of Palestinian state do you envision now that you’re in power?

Palestinian state will be very clean, controlled by moral principles, controlled by justice. Everyone should be secure, as regards his body and as regards his money. Everyone should be treated as a human being. Justice should be the backbone of our authority. We will not allow the collaborator to destroy our life. We have to open our borders to our Arab neighbors to allow free investment for the good of our economy. We have to make strategic communication with the rest of the Arab world and with the rest of the international community, but not against the experience of our national interest. We will clean our political life. We are going to clean our economic life. We will flourish the social aids for the Palestinian people.

How will Hamas encourage the growth of Islam?

The people are going willingly to do it. We are not obliging anybody. We are not using violence to push people to the Islamic law. But if the people make the decision to be Islamic, we should respect that.

You welcome that?

Of course! Why not? This is our religion, and we are very proud about our religion. We are very proud about our Prophet, because we established a purified community. You need to learn from Islam very much. You destroyed your family, you destroyed your integrity, you distributed illegal diseases. What percentage of your community are committing suicide because of money or sex, because of the immoral life? Here, we are living a much purified life. We think you can learn from Islam, other than to describe it as the religion of terrorists.

Would you want Israel to become part of an Islamic bloc?

Before 1948, what was this land? It was Palestine! This is an Islamic land. This isn’t a political issue. This is part of our religion. Jerusalem is the third-most-important shrine in Islam. This is not a Hamas attitude alone; this is for every Muslim in America and Indonesia and in between.

When will you revise your charter, which calls for jihad and rejects negotiations?

Here we are speaking about the political agenda of this government, which will involve Fatah and the Popular Front. So you have to distinguish between our charter and this government.

But you have this charter, which many consider very anti-Semitic --

We are anti-Semitic? When you, in Europe, killed the Jews … rid the continent in 1290, they [Jews] found only the Islamic umbrella for 13 years. In 1303 … the British eradicated the Jews and the only site for Jews was Islam. And when the Spanish eradicated Judaism in 1492, the only place for Jews was Islamic land. So don’t speak about Judaism. We are speaking about Zionism, which is a national occupying regime.

Then how do you justify this hateful language? Is this not a moment for more pragmatism?

What is the meaning of pragmatic? We have suffered too much from the Israeli existence, from Zionism. Now more than 5 million of our people are living outside, away from their homeland. Because the Jews are using Zionism, we are accusing Jews who are using Zionism. For example, in Nablus, the Jews who are against Zionism, we have a good relationship with them. Even the Christians, even the Muslims who believe in Zionism, we are against them.

Will you revise your charter?

No. This charter is not the Qu’ran, but it should not be changed because it is implementing the views of every Muslim everywhere.

The world says you will be isolated.

We are going to succeed. The international community starved our life when we collected money to help the more fragile classes -- and we succeeded. The international community starved our people not to start an educational system -- and we succeeded. The international community, which is not neutral, described our armed struggle as terrorism and still we succeeded in pushing Israel outside. We are going to succeed in this government. And if we do not, we are going to tell our sons and grandsons that we did our best and the principle of our failure is America and Israel and the international community. And that will be a disaster for your national interest. Not only in Palestine, but in Egypt and Syria and Iraq.

What do you think of Bush’s ideology to democratize the Middle East?

The democracy of Bush is well known in Afghanistan -- he put in a spy known as [President Hamid] Karzai. It is well practiced in Iraq by killing children, by torturing children, by killing women. Mr. Bush was a big liar. He spoke about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which was a fabricated story. Bush is not a respectable man. When he went to India, he faced demonstrations. When he went to Pakistan, he faced demonstrations. He is unacceptable anywhere in the world. Even 60 percent of American people are against Bush policy now.

But without Bush, there may not have been free and fair elections in Palestine.

No, no. He refused. He said simply, “You should not allow Hamas to participate.” But Abu Mazen said, “I have no alternative. Without Hamas, it will not be a democracy.” Bush was anti-democratic in Palestine.

This interview between Kate Seelye and Mahmoud Zahar took place at the Deira Hotel in Gaza City in March 2006. It has been edited for clarity.

This interview between Kate Seelye and Mahmoud Zahar took place at the Deira Hotel in Gaza City in March 2006

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Saeb Erekat
Saeb Erekat
Fatah member and PLO chief negotiator
Mahmoud Zahar
Mahmoud Zahar
Founding member of Hamas and foreign minister
Aziz Al-Dweik
Aziz Al-Dweik
Speaker of the new Hamas-led parliament
Arnon Regular
Arnon Regular
Columnist for Ha'aretz newspaper

About the Reporter

Kate Seelye

Kate Seelye is a Middle East correspondent for Public Radio International’s “The World” and a regular contributor to this Web site. Read more of Seelye’s dispatches from the region and watch her May 2005 report from Lebanon and Syria following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.