In early August and late October, I met with Hamas’ Usama Hamdan and Hezbollah’s Ammar Mousawi, chiefs of their respective organizations’ foreign relations portfolios. The two groups are vastly different in structure, level of development and historical experiences, but share much in common too. Each can credit its origin to Israeli occupation. Hamas was born on the eve of the first Palestinian Intifada, from a single incident when an Israeli truck mowed — some claim deliberately — into a carload of Palestinian workers in the Gaza strip. Officially formed in 1985, Hezbollah, in turn, was jumpstarted by Israel’s 1982 invasion and occupation of Southern Lebanon. Although Hamas is a Sunni organization and Hezbollah a Shiite one, both groups embrace Islamic values as their core ideology and driving principle, though their political actions appear to be driven more by realpolitik than Quranic mandate. And the two groups form part of an increasingly powerful Mideast bloc that unapologetically refuses to accept any regional status quo that features an occupying and militarily adventurous Israel.

Hamas and Hezbollah are both seasoned denizens of the US State Department’s List of Terrorist Organizations, a designation that seems odd when one considers that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese would fall through the cracks without the vital social services — healthcare, education, employment, infrastructure development — these two groups provide their indigenous populations. Ask a secular Palestinian or Lebanese civilian which of their political parties they trust most, and even the most begrudging among them may name Hamas or Hezbollah as the “cleanest” of their politicians.

And this influence continues regionally. Polls throughout the Middle East consistently point to Hezbollah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah as the most popular leader in the Arab world. Hamas’ Khaled Meshaal is never far behind — a far cry from his main political opponent, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, whose US-supported Fatah party is viewed as corrupt and incompetent, sometimes even by its own supporters. Despite US and Israeli efforts to isolate these groups by swathing them in the dreaded “terrorist” label and all that implies post 9-11, even pro-US Arab leaders are careful not to malign these groups. Popularity rubs off, so to speak.

But this isolation from mostly Western nations has taken its toll. Officials of both groups recognize that any resolution of conflict in the Middle East will likely necessitate US and European involvement. Concurrently, it appears that the West has copped on to a similar notion – that any resolution of regional conflicts will in turn necessitate the involvement of both Hamas and Hezbollah.

As a result, former US officials and current European officials have been making quiet pilgrimages to Beirut and Damascus for some years now – with occasional reciprocal visits – to try to build relationships and influence these groups. Tellingly, Hezbollah’s Mousawi was meeting with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner just hours after our final interview. The going has been hard, but he points to the European Union’s non-interference policy during the June Lebanese elections as a dividend of improved communications.

So where do things stand on rapprochement? What do they think of Obama? Do they have “hope” that US policy will “change?” What do they think of the peace process? Extremist groups in the Mideast – who are the worst offenders? Do they find inspiration in Americans and who might these figures be? Hamdan and Mousawi had plenty to say.

On Obama…

Ammar Mousawi, Hezbollah Foreign Relations Chief

Ammar Mousawi: There is no doubt that we find certain traits that are distinguished in the character of Obama — that he is no repetition of former US presidents. When we listen to his speeches, we certainly note something new. However, the political forces that make policy in the US allow any exceptional steps to be only limited. There is no doubt that there is a change in tone, but it is doubtful that there will be a change in policy. If change were to take place, it would not be in Cairo University — it would have to be in the US Congress.

We know that Obama is experiencing political difficulties from his opponents. He is being besieged in domestic policy challenges and internal issues – healthcare reform, issues of his roots. So when he declared his ambitious approach for his solutions for the Mideast, they sent him the Israel lobby to put him in a corner.

Usama Hamdan: I think there has been no change since Obama became president. In fact, I believe we faced a great failure last month (when the US administration caved on the issue of an Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank). It was a minor failure, but a failure nonetheless. Brings me as a Palestinian to ask why Palestinians should accept any conditions when Israel doesn’t. I liked Obama’s Cairo speech, but we have to see what happens on the ground.

The US is putting itself in a corner by thinking it is their responsibility to protect Israel in the region when Israel is doing the attacking. Someone has to be courageous enough – there must be conditions for Israel. If you have a child that doesn’t have to follow rules, he will be spoilt. Israel is the US’s spoilt child.

The US has to say to the Israeli government “That’s it.” They can do that. It is not so simple, but it is not too difficult either. Who in the world will support Israel against the US? Fifty percent of Europeans identified Israel as the biggest threat to peace and stability in the world — not in the Middle East — but in the world.

I understand that Obama is facing internal and external problems and pressures. But his priorities are not clear to us — he seems confused. Palestinians will not wait forever.

On Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

Hamas Foreign Policy Chief Usama Hamdan

Usama Hamdan: Netanyahu has always been against a genuine peace process. We had experience with him when he was prime minister from 1996-98 — he undermined the Oslo Agreements, he divided the issues – there is a very bad experience with him. Adding to this is his foreign minister is Avigdor Lieberman — the worst political figure in all the world. Add to that Ehud Barak. We are facing a government formed of extremists. Netanyahu, Lieberman and Barak? The worst combination in Israeli history.

Ammar Mousawi: One of the unfortunate aspects of Obama’s term as president is that it is coupled with Netanyahu’s. Netanyahu is not ready to even have an “apparent” flexibility toward peace.

On being called “terrorists:”

Ammar Mousawi: The War on Terror’s objective was to corner legitimate resistance and prevent it from achieving its mission. The West still resists differentiating between resistance and terrorism — and that is done on purpose. Resistance is defined as a legal fight against occupation as opposed to terrorism, which is defined as systematically killing innocent people. We are interested in having a dialog with the West because we would like to make them aware of our point of view. Resistance is part of world history — it is not an uncommon thing. All these negative positions taken by the West are because of their support for Israel and unwillingness to see that the people of this region have the right to exist in peace. After the failure of all their attempts to destroy these resistance groups through military and political means, they concluded that they must now know more about us, how we operate. And so the dialogue begins.

(Hezbollah has been on the US terrorism list since 1999. Only the US, Israel and Canada recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.)

Usama Hamdan: We were listed on the US terrorism list in 1993 just because Israel asked for it — before that we had direct contacts with the Americans. We even sent a letter to then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asking why. They know that they are wrong in this. They know that anyone who supports rights and justice supports the Palestinians. We want them to accept Hamas as the choice of the Palestinian people – they must respect the fact that Palestinians are committed to their rights. They will talk with us eventually. We are not in a hurry for that.

In the West, they try to shape you before dealing with you. This is the Palestinian experience. They’ve done this with Fatah. Hamas’ position is to say what we are, what we stand for – clearly – and we can defend our rights best that way.

On Extremist Islamic Groups:

Usama Hamdan: All Islamists should want the good of their people. The most important point is how they deal with their own communities. In my belief, you have to be a good man to your own people – not push them hard or kill them if they don’t accept your point of view. In Rafah, Gaza this August, we had clashes with a minority group which started killing Palestinians just because they had different ideas, by putting bombs in internet cafes, beauty salons and wedding parties.

We are against groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban for this reason. We condemned the attacks of 9-11, the explosions in London, the Madrid bombing when it was clear to us that these were not accidents.

Ammar Mousawi: We try to promote a positive image of Islam that is open to dialogue between people and cultures. We are not responsible for the actions of groups that present a different picture of Islam. We do not agree with the behavior of these groups — they give a negative view of Islam. But the question is who created and supported these extremists?

What gives life to these entities is the policies of the West: unlimited support for Israel will cause this extremism. All the wars in Afghanistan will feed this extremism. We are in a situation where we will have wars with no end. Sovereignty, development, mutual respect, the right to determine your own destiny — these issues need dialog, not wars.

Hezbollah condemns the deliberate killing of innocent people — it promotes in us a sense of sadness as happened with 9-11, London, Madrid. And if there are some differences between us and the US, this is not the way to sort out our problems — these acts are not excusable.

Mr. Mousawi, what is the status of efforts to form a Lebanese unity government — and what are the chances of such a government being successful in overcoming the deadlocks and disagreements of the past?

We believe there are currently good chances for the formation of a national unity government, having overcome the most serious obstacles. We have finally reached agreement on the inclusion of Jubran Basil as a member of the cabinet, and General Michel Aoun has been granted the Telecommunications Ministry, both issues having been points of contention for the opposition.
As for the issue over various ministries, we are still deliberating the cabinet posts that will go to the opposition, but we are hopeful that things will go smoothly.

Mr. Hamdan, what is the status of efforts to form a Palestinian Unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah? How will this impact the holding of elections in 2010?

I have to say that we are still committed to the Palestinian reconciliation and we are willing to have this reconciliation for the benefit of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause. I believe that Mahmoud Abbas’ move to hold elections on January 24, 2010 has undermined these efforts, but we are still working with the Egyptians to overcome this problem. However, I believe that no elections will take place without reconciliation between the two parties. On this same issue, a few days ago, Abu Mazen declared a clear failure in the peace process, saying that he will not be a candidate in the upcoming election. I think that was supposed to be a helpful step to go back to the Palestinian dialogue, because when you feel there is a failure in the process, you have to go back to the people. I think Abu Mazen was saying there is a failure in the political track, and he invited all the people to support national unity, to face the Israeli threat. This may help Palestinian unity.

No one can trust that there will be real elections without Palestinian unity and so it will be a waste of time and a new complication in the Palestinian cause if there is an election without this unity.

There must be a change in the Israeli mentality because they must understand that without ending the occupation, there will be no peace.

Outside of your own bloc, name a Middle Eastern leader you admire and tell us why:

Ammar Mousawi: I admire the Emir of Qatar who made something of his country — it is small, but he has made it into a country of influence. They’ve helped us in rebuilding what Israel destroyed in its 2006 attack on Lebanon. The Emir was the first and only Arab head of state to come to the suburbs of Beirut to witness the horrifying destruction of the Israeli aggression. And we thank him for this because it motivated our own Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to come himself. Imagine the prime minister of all Lebanon didn’t see the urgency to visit this area that had taken heavy bombardment and destruction? We are embarrassed in one sense, and angry on the other hand.

Your thoughts on US Middle East policy?

Ammar Mousawi: America is a great nation — to get to this place has taken some great people, and a certain individuality that is renowned through history. We have no issues with the American people, we share many concerns with them on their government’s policies. We have in the Middle East paid a heavy price for US policy. There are many Americans paying for these failed policies of previous administrations. Bush’s ratings in the US dropped into the 20s. Therefore, can anybody be surprised if we say we object to aspects of US foreign policy?

We would like to say to Americans that they are subjecting themselves to a double standard – on one hand talking about values and on the other hand resisting and undermining these very values through their unconditional support of Israel’s actions. The way they have received and treated the Goldstone Report has caused an uproar here.

I tell you this – America will not find anyone to assist it to come out of its Mideast crisis other than this bloc of nations that Hezbollah belongs to. If we count today the total US crises – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, even Pakistan, what does the supposed Arab “moderate” bloc have and what does our group have in terms of cards to help the US. The strength is in the hands of our resistance bloc.

Usama Hamdan: The US administration has to realize that Israel is occupying Palestinian lands, not the other way around. But they are sending weapons to be used against Palestinians every day — at least $2 billion worth is sent to Israel annually. They have to put these basic facts on the table before pointing a finger at Hamas’ rockets. We have said before we are ready to engage in a prolonged ceasefire if there is a complete Israeli withdrawal from occupied Palestinian lands — they did not even try to respond to this offer.

There is a peace process. Hamas opposes that peace process, not because we like to be against it, but because we believe there is no real peace. The Israelis and the sponsors of the process, mainly the US administration, were not creating peace through negotiations, they were dismantling the Palestinian cause. If you go through the Oslo Agreement, you discover that this agreement pushed aside the main issues that created the conflict -the status of Jerusalem, the land, sovereignty of a future Palestinian state, the right of return for refugees, and our natural resources. They said all of these have to be negotiated afterward!

We have an Arab saying that goes: the one who is safe from punishment will act badly. Israel feels it is totally protected, that it can do anything — it feels it is a country above the law when the US uses its veto to protect Israel at every turn. If the Arabs work to protect their own interests, talk to the Americans about their mutual interests, I think the Americans will see the value of re-balancing their strategic interests in the region.

At the moment, nobody in the region can view the US as an honest broker of peace. That is because of the history of American foreign policy. The US has to make a major change – they have to show that they are balanced on the Palestinian issue and not just following the line of the Israeli lobby in the US.

Mr. Hamdan, are there any US presidents you admire, and why?

George Washington, because he led his people to independence. And John F. Kennedy, because he tried to make a change for the better.

Mr. Mousawi, do you watch any American television shows? Any particular programs you admire?

My wife likes the Oprah show, and I watch it with her sometimes — Oprah seems to cover some interesting topics of social value.

First published: November 9, 2009

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