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Hamas Works to Form Palestinian Government

February 20, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Nearly a month after claiming an upset victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections, Hamas leaders today presented their new prime minister. He is 46-year-old Ismail Haniyeh, and he will have five weeks to assemble a new government.

Hamas, also known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, has been labeled a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union. Israel has demanded that Hamas renounce violence, recognize the Jewish state and abide by previously negotiated agreements. But the fissure between the new Hamas government and Israel has only deepened.

MAMOUD ZAHAR: We are not here to satisfy Israel or others. We are here addressing how to reconstruct our infrastructural basis according to our national demands, not according to the Israeli demands.

GWEN IFILL: Over the weekend, the Israeli cabinet agreed to freeze the transfer of about $55 million in tax and customs receipts to the debt-ridden Palestinian Authority.

Haniyeh today accused Israel of trying to starve innocent people by taking money from our taxes.

Hamas leaders continue to defend a charter that calls for the destruction of Israel, and the newly elected government has vowed to turn to other Arab nations for support.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah Party was defeated in the elections, has emerged as the go-between. He addressed the new parliament on Saturday.

MAHMOUD ABBAS (Translated): I would like to remind the members of the new parliament and the new government of the necessity of respecting all signed agreements and working according the national interests to end the armed anarchy. As they all contribute now in the structure of the national authority and all of its constitutions, they have to adhere all to one weapon, the legitimate weapon.

GWEN IFILL: In Israel, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has already cut off all contact with the new Hamas-controlled government.

EHUD OLMERT (Translated): Israel will not negotiate with regimes that Hamas has a decisive part in, whether big or small. As we said after the elections in the Palestinian Authority, by the end of the period of the transitional Palestinian government, Israel will immediately put a halt on the transfer of money to the Palestinian Authority.

GWEN IFILL: The Palestinians rely on money funneled through Israel to pay 140,000 employees, about half of them security forces.

On Friday, the United States demanded the return of $50 million in special aid sent to the Palestinians.

Amid the politics, scattered violence continued, including the killing of a top Islamic Jihad commander on the West Bank today.

GWEN IFILL: So what are the implications for the Palestinians and Israelis of Hamas’ now official rise to power? For that, we get two views. Michael Oren is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based policy research organization. He’s a visiting scholar at Yale and Harvard and the author of “Six Days of War: A history of the 1967 MidEast War.” Ali Abunimah writes about the Middle East and Arab-American affairs for newspapers in the United States and abroad. He’s also co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, a web site about Palestinian affairs and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Mr. Abunimah, what can you tell us about Ismail Haniyeh?

ALI ABUNIMAH: Well, he, like the other senior Hamas leaders, like Khaled Meshaal and Mahmoud Zahar, have in recent weeks been stating a position which is very, very different from the one being emphasized by Israel.

They’ve stated that they’re willing to come to terms with Israel if Israel is willing to withdraw up to the 1967 borders and end totally the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. And I think they’ve made a concerted effort to show a very moderate face to the world and, most significantly, I think in terms of Israeli interests, they have maintained the 12-month-old truce that has spared Israelis a drastically reduced number of Israelis killed and injured in the conflict.

Unfortunately, there’s been no reciprocation from the other side, but so far I think Hamas plans to maintain that position.

GWEN IFILL: You make it sound like the new prime minister is pretty much a moderate figure.

ALI ABUNIMAH: Well, if you look at the statements that the top Hamas leaders have made, Khaled Meshaal, who is perhaps the most senior, told the BBC last week that Hamas would end the armed struggle if Israel were to commit to withdrawing completely from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

But last week Ehud Olmert stated that Israel plans to annex the Jordan Valley and most of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, so we’re in a situation now where Hamas is offering Israel a major territorial compromise that Israel doesn’t seem interested in exploring.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Oren, what do you make of that?

MICHAEL OREN: I think I’m going to have to disagree with that. Khaled Meshaal may be making moderate statements to the BBC, but what he’s telling his own people in Arabic is very, very different.

He was in Tehran today with Ayatollah Khaminei praising terror and swearing to carry on the terror war to the end of Israel’s destruction.

By the same token, Haniyeh, the new prime minister, also makes moderate — seemingly moderate statements to the West about observing a cease-fire for a limited period of time but in terms of Hamas’ own internal rhetoric in the West Bank, in Gaza, it’s the war on terror not only for the destruction of Israel but for the annihilation of the Jewish people.

GWEN IFILL: So, pardon me, are you suggesting that there is no such thing as a moderate as long as that person is a member of Hamas?

MICHAEL OREN: I think that Hamas is capable of putting on a moderate face to achieve limited political objectives, perhaps the renewal of European and American aid to the Palestinian Authority.

But ultimately we are talking not about a political movement. We are talking about a theology. And it’s not a matter of just changing this part of their platform or that part of their platform. They believe that this is the will of God. And it is stated in their covenant. And their covenant is talking not just about continuing terror to destroy Israel. It’s talking about annihilating the Jewish people. It’s a genocidal platform.

And this week in Israel, for example, Israelis were horrified to see a program produced by Hamas that showed two Hamas soon-to-be martyr suicide bombers who were sharing a cup of what they claimed was Jewish blood and praising the glories of drinking this blood.

This is the Hamas that Israelis are seeing and, therefore, when Ehud Olmert is withholding tax money, freezing it — not spending it but freezing it — I think that’s the least that the Israeli government can respond to this genocidal platform.

GWEN IFILL: So, Mr. Abunimah, when Israelis see these sorts of episodes and the Israeli cabinet decides they’re going to freeze these transfers of payments, money that goes through Israeli to the Palestinian Authority, this $55 million trust that the cabinet voted to withhold, what do you think that that effort, that action is designed to accomplish?

ALI ABUNIMAH: Well, I think that what Mr. Oren says is a perfect example of what Israel is trying to do. Israel has stated in word and is carrying out in deed the annexation of most of the West Bank. And Ehud Olmert stated it clearly, that Israel was annexing the Jordan Valley, the largest settlements of Ma’aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion, Ariel and so on, and is not interested in withdrawing to the 1967 border.

So from Israel’s perspective, they very much need people to believe that Hamas is a bunch of wild animals and that there are no moderates because if the world saw that there are people in Hamas that Israel could talk to, that would expose what Israel is trying to do. And I agree with Mr. –

GWEN IFILL: Can I ask you about the $55 million cut-off of aid.

ALI ABUNIMAH: Yes. Well, I think, you know, what Palestinians and many people see is that this is simply punishing the Palestinian people for exercising their demographic — democratic choice in the context where I emphasize there has been a one-sided truce for a year, which has spared Israeli lives, made the Israeli economy boom as life in Israel returns to a semblance of normality.

The same is not true on the Palestinian side. Since yesterday, Israel has killed six Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Last week Israeli troops killed a disabled teenager in the West Bank and shot dead a Palestinian woman tending her sheep in the Gaza Strip.

So these are the realities Palestinians are living with. And they wonder why it is that for the first time in the 60 years of this conflict, we’re talking about economic sanctions not against the country that is violating international law but against the victims of occupation. Very bizarre.

GWEN IFILL: Let me give Mr. Oren a chance to respond to all that.

MICHAEL OREN: That’s the first time I ever heard that Hamas is responsible for Israel’s economic recovery from a five-year war of terror, of destruction against the Jewish state.

Israel won that war by clamping down very hard on Hamas and other Islamic and Palestinian terrorist organizations through remaining resilient as a society and strong militarily. That’s why Hamas has observed sometimes a cease-fire over the course of the last year, not because it wanted to contribute to Israel’s economic revival.

And if Israel has acted the last few days to counter mostly Islamic Jihad terrorists in the West Bank, these are Islamic Jihad terrorists who are daily shelling Israel from the Gaza Strip who just this morning tried to get a large suicide bomber through a checkpoint around Bethlehem and was stopped. Israel simply is acting in its self defense.

I think the important point to stress here about Ehud Olmert and the Kadima Party — and this is a party that is continuing in the legacy of Ariel Sharon — that party represents an historic decision on the part of a solid majority of Israelis. And that decision is to recognize, yes, there is a Palestinian people.

Yes, the Palestinians have suffered through history. Israel is going to try to rectify that suffering to the degree that is consonant with its interests and Israel is willing to sit down with a viable Palestinian partner and make painful sacrifices, painful sacrifices that would probably amount to all of the West Bank, all of Gaza certainly, which Israel has already evacuated, even part of Jerusalem, but in the absence of that partner, that party, the Kadima Party, represents a willingness to go forward with unilateral withdrawals and joining Israel’s border in such a way that Israel can defend itself both militarily and demographically.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Abunimah, is that viable Palestinian partner Mahmoud Abbas, or has he been defamed after Fatah did not win the election?

ALI ABUNIMAH: Well, I find, you know, our memories are very, very short. Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas and the PLO recognized Israel in 1993. As we heard in the introduction, Mahmoud Abbas once again calling for an end to any armed action, and none of that induced Israel to negotiate seriously with the Palestinians. None of that induced Israel to stop expanding settlements, to stop expropriating land.

What shocks me, Mr. Oren is a very knowledgeable man obviously but he clearly didn’t listen to the speech of Ehud Olmert last week in which he stated clearly that Israel plans to annex most of the West Bank.

And one last point here, we’re all talking about Hamas’ founding charter, which I agree is in many respects an absolutely odious document, and ignoring these statements of the positions they’re staking out now.

I remind you that between 2001 and 2004 in the Israeli coalition government, there were the parties of Moledet, Tekuma, and the National Union, whose platforms called for the physical expulsion of all Palestinians from Israel and the occupied territories.

And I wonder why the international community did not demand that the Israeli government renounce those positions, that those parties renounce those positions and our government in the United States was perfectly happy to hand our tax money over to a government that included people that called for the annihilation of the Palestinian people.

GWEN IFILL: We have time for Mr. Oren to respond.

MICHAEL OREN: Well, first of all, Moledet, the party that was mentioned just now, never called for the Palestinian transfer or their expulsion from Palestinian land.

ALI ABUNIMAH: Go to their web site, sir. It’s in English and in Hebrew.

MICHAEL OREN: There was one –

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Abunimah, please.

ALI ABUNIMAH: It’s on their web site. Everyone can check it out.

MICHAEL OREN: I didn’t interrupt you. The party never called for their expulsion. There was one Israeli party that did call for the expulsion and the Knesset passed a law that made that party illegal in the state of Israel. To belong to it, to join it could not run for election.

Also, I would strongly recommend that my colleague look at a map of the West Bank. If Ehud Olmert indeed called for the annexation of Ma’aleh Adumim from the Gush Etzion settlements, Ma’aleh Adumim it is one — one small neighborhood in the West Bank. The Gush Etzion settlements is one small settlement bloc.

Israel has basically made a fence that removes, that signals Israel’s response or willingness to move from basically 88 percent of the West Bank. Eighty-eighty percent of the West Bank is to the east of that fence – 12 percent is on the Israeli side on the western side. Where do you get from Ma’aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion to annexing the entire West Bank? That is a gross representation of Mr. Olmert’s position.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Oren, and Ali Abunimah, thank you both – I’m sorry, Mr. Abunimah – but thank you very much for joining us.