Last Friday, France hosted a foreign ministers’ meeting to put Israel-Palestinian peace talks back on the international agenda and to bring the two sides back to direct talks by the end of the year. However, according to analysts, nothing emerged from the meeting as the French initiative appeared to have been emptied of all substance owing to US indifference and Israeli hostility.
Osama Hamdan, the Lebanon-based foreign policy chief of Hamas, speaks to Al Jazeera about the current French drive to revive the peace talks with Israel, Hamas’ position on engaging in direct peace talks with Israel, and reconciliation efforts with Fatah, as well as the possibility of a prisoner swap deal with Israel.
Al Jazeera: The French government has put forth a proposal to revive the peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians. What is Hamas’ position on it?
Palestinians are the ones being attacked, and Palestinians are the weaker side, so when Israel demands that the weaker side be stripped of its capability to defend itself in any case, it means that Israel intends to continue to behave in the same manner it does now; a controlling military and economic overlord over our lives.
Osama Hamdan: We did not think there was anything new in the French initiative. However, it looks like it was meant to help Israel more than anything else after it became clear that Israel is blocking every effort to resolve the conflict.
The initiative is also designed to fill the vacuum that the Americans left after they became totally disengaged from making any effort to strike a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
The most dangerous element about the French proposal, however, is that it establishes new parameters to deal with the refugees’ problem when it proposes monetary compensation in exchange for abandoning the right of return.
Palestinians must not only reject this approach to the refugees’ issue, but also insist on the right of return and the right for compensation for the years spent in forced exile.
Al Jazeera: Is Hamas, as a matter of principle, willing to negotiate peace with Israel?
Hamdan: Palestinians have been engaged in peace talks with Israel since 1992, and until today, we got nowhere despite all the promises of otherwise. Moreover, it was Israel that has always blocked the peace from taking place. Oslo Accord was signed in 1993 and it was supposed to result in a Palestinian state. But seven years after Oslo, the Palestinians discovered that there was no Israeli commitment to agree on the formation of a viable Palestinian state.
Al Jazeera: But Hamas was accused at the time of derailing the peace process with a series of violent attacks against Israelis?
Hamdan: This is not true; Hamas exercised acts of resistance against the Israeli aggression against the Palestinians. During the same period, Israel never stopped its attacks and aggression against us.
Al Jazeera: But why would you engage in acts of resistance during peace talks that were supposed to give you what you want?
Hamdan: Israel, too, was engaged in attacks against us during this period of the peace process. I want to remind you that whenever Israel stopped its attacks against us, we, too, stopped our counter-attacks. Our attacks in 1996 were in response to Israel’s targeted assassinations of many leaders of the resistance such as Yahya Ayyash.
In other words, Israel has no right to say that there is a peace process while at the same time engaging in aggression and attacks against us and demanding that the Palestinians not respond to such attacks, just because there is or there was a peace process going on.
Al Jazeera: Are there captured Israeli prisoners held by Hamas?
Hamdan: There is a clear announcement from al-Qassam Brigades [Hamas’ military wing] that there are Israeli soldiers who were captured during the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza. Al-Qassam did not announce any details about this as part of its own strategy in dealing with the prisoners’ issue.
Al Jazeera: What about their numbers? Are they alive or dead, and is there any secret talks to strike a prisoners swap deal?
Hamdan: There is no information at this point as to whether those Israelis are dead or alive. Until this point, we cannot say that there are negotiations over the issue. Hamas had been approached by several intermediaries; however, this did not reach the level of actual negotiations. This is, of course, because negotiations require an agreement from both sides.
Right now, we are not even sure if the Israelis have authorised anyone to negotiate on their behalf over this subject. At the same time, the Israelis have not announced yet that they are interested in negotiation to have their prisoners released.
We in Hamas, however, assured all the intermediaries that we welcome their efforts and we are ready to negotiate with Israel over this issue, but only after we make sure that they are authorised to represent the Israeli government. We still don’t have that commitment yet.
Al Jazeera: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his newly appointed Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said last week that they support the two-state solution as a principle for solving the conflict. What do you say to that?
Hamdan: Up until this point the Israeli leadership has made no real or concrete steps that show how serious they are about the two-state solution. Israel’s attempts to change facts on the ground in Jerusalem are killing the two-state solution because the Palestinians would never accept a state without Jerusalem as its capital.
More, the building of more illegal settlements on Palestinian lands has increased since the signing of the Oslo agreement taking over 40 percent of the West Bank and thus effectively ending the idea of having Palestinian state.
Also imposing economic hardship on the Palestinians in addition to the siege on Gaza does not send any positive signals to the Palestinians that the Israelis have agreed with the formation of a Palestinian state.
In my opinion, the Israelis were actually buying time in order to change facts on the ground to torpedo any solution that would give the Palestinians a state.
Al Jazeera: But would you then negotiate over those “new facts”?
Hamdan: Why would we negotiate over the removal of illegal settlements? According to international law, Israel built its settlements on occupied Palestinian territories illegally. Also there are several UN resolutions that demand Israel withdraw from the occupied Palestinian territories.
Thus, what is needed, realistically, is for Israel to declare that it wants to withdraw to the pre-1967 borders, proving to the Palestinians that it is serious about having peace with the Palestinians. In theory, it would have made sense in 1993, but for Palestinians, after 23 years of failed negotiations with Israel that got us from bad to worse, I don’t think we are ready to repeat the same experience with Israel, at least under the same conditions.
Al Jazeera: What prevents Fatah and Hamas from reconciliation and forming a national unity government?
Hamdan: I don’t think one group can negate or cross the other out. The Palestinian society – as a whole – has diverse political views and preferences that would prevent one group from dominating or negating the other.
This [political] diversity should be a source of strength, not weakness. At this stage of our political struggle, what we need is a democratic partnership where power is transferred from one political group to another.
Al Jazeera: What then prevents both Fatah and Hamas from forming the long-awaited national unity government?
Hamdan: Hamas has signed a written agreement with Fatah committing to all the points, including the formation of a national unity government, having one national authority to represent all Palestinians. We also agreed that Palestinian presidential guards take control of the crossing points with Egypt and with Israel.
I think Mahmoud Abbas [the Palestinian president] is not really interested in forming a unity government with Hamas, partly because he believes that Hamas will win in any future elections, while Fatah has been weakened by internal rivalries.
Moreover, it appears that Abbas does not believe in the principle of partnership or power sharing. Because he knows that once there is partnership, and power sharing, decisions will no longer be made arbitrarily or by one man as is the case today.
Al Jazeera: What would be Hamas’ position if Israel accepted to negotiate a peace agreement based on its withdrawal from the 1967 borders on the condition that the future Palestinian state must be a demilitarised entity?
Hamdan: We have a firm belief that Palestinians have the right to self-determination. Once statehood is achieved, Palestinians will decide the nature of that state. But when the Israelis dictate that the Palestinian state must be un-armed or demilitarised, it makes us worry.
Palestinians are the ones being attacked, and Palestinians are the weaker side, so when Israel [the stronger party] demands that the weaker side be stripped of its capability to defend itself in any case, it means that Israel intends to continue to behave in the same manner it does now; a controlling military and economic overlord over our lives.
And when the Israelis, or others, speak of “security guarantees”, in reality it is we, the Palestinians, who are in need of such guarantees, not the other way around. And if Israel says it really wants peace with us and in the region, then it does not need the huge military arsenal it has now.
We believe that when Israel say that we must be unarmed, we believe Israel is just not serious about peace with the Palestinians.
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