Hamas official signals a truce - but not a peace treaty - with Israel

The Globe and Mail

A Hamas supporter attends a rally in Gaza City, December 14, 2011. In a rare interview with U.S. Jewish newspaper Forward, Hamas official Mousa Abu Marzook spoke of the difficulty of governing Hamas (IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS/IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS)

An extraordinary interview with a leading figure in the Palestinian Hamas movement appears in the current issue of Forward, a weekly U.S. Jewish newspaper.

Moussa abu Marzook, the deputy political chief of the Islamic resistance movement, apparently spent five and a half hours meeting with a reporter for the paper in Cairo, Mr. abu Marzook’s new home, ever since he and other members of Hamas headquarters departed from Damascus, their base for more than a decade.

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Mr. abu Marzook is considered a leading candidate for the position of chairman of Hamas’s political committee – the organization’s effective leader – when the group’s secretive Shura council meets this spring.

Khaled Meshaal, the three-term political chairman, took the unusual step of announcing in January that he would not be seeking re-election this time. But, as Mr. abu Marzook explains, this is not an office one runs for or doesn’t run for – if the all-powerful Shura council decides you are their choice, the offer is one you cannot refuse.

Leading figures in Hamas say that along with Mr. abu Marzook, Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s Prime Minister in the Gaza Strip that the group rules, as well as Mr. Meshaal (whether he likes it or not) also are possible choices for the job.

That Mr. abu Marzook chose this time, leading up to the Shura meeting, to reach out to a well-read Jewish publication for the first time, is a reflection of the militant religious movement’s desire to win acceptance in the Western international arena that has largely rejected the idea of even talking to Hamas.

The group has learned, he says, how hard it is to govern.

“Hamas before the [2006]election is not the same as after they are elected,” Mr. abu Marzook said, “because as an opposition party, you can say anything, but no one expects you to do anything. But after election, you have to implement on the ground. And there are many, many difficulties when you implement anything on the ground.”

Indeed, the man’s message is one of wanting to remove the threat of conflict with Israel so that Hamas can function as a normal political party.

“Let’s establish a relationship between the two states in the historic Palestinian land as a hudna between both sides,” he said, using the Arabic term for a truce. “It’s better than war and better than the continuous resistance against the occupation.”

And, he added, it’s “better than Israel occupying the West Bank and Gaza, making all these difficulties and problems on both sides.”

Mr. abu Marzook, who was born 61 years ago in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, emphasized that such a truce is not a peace treaty, it’s not even formal recognition of Israel’s right to exist, just a commitment to live peacefully beside Israel for a large number of years.

And after that?

“It’s very difficult to say after 10 years what will be on both sides. Maybe my answer right now [about not recognizing Israel]is completely different to my answer after 10 years.”

In this, Mr. abu Marzook also reflects the view held by many, but not all, of the group’s leadership.

It is a position espoused by Mr. Meshaal, who, seven years ago, ordered the group to halt the suicide bombing attacks that had become emblematic of the terrorist movement. And it’s long been argued by Ahmed Yousef, a leading adviser to Mr. Haniyeh, among others.

But, as we found in The Globe and Mail’s year-long documentary project Inside Hamas, not everyone in the organization shares such an optimistic outlook.

Indeed, the movement is split these days, with some such as Mahmoud Zahar, a Gaza surgeon who was among Hamas’s founders, arguing a much harder line against Israel.

Many on the hard side of the line also want to continue a relationship with Iran, a financial backer and arms supplier of the group in recent years, while those such as Mr. Meshaal and Mr. Yousef have turned the page on that relationship.

These soft line people chose to support the Muslim Brotherhood that is part of the opposition in Syria and leave that country rather than heed appeals by Tehran to stay and show support for the Bashar al-Assad regime. In burning this bridge, this side of the split is attempting to forge a new relationship with the secular Palestinian Authority that rules the unoccupied part of the West Bank, as well as with Qatar and Egypt, two countries with strong ties to the West.

It is among this group that Mr. abu Marzook wishes to be counted. But, cognizant of Hamas’s still-strong hard line camp, he took pains to say he was not abandoning the option of returning to armed resistance, just putting it in the drawer for a time, to see what happens.