GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas leader, downplayed media reports of an internal rift within the Islamist movement in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor.
“Mahmoud al-Zahar is not an employee of Hamas, rather I have been a fixture in the movement for many years, and my positions are well-known,” Zahar said when asked about reports that some in Hamas were seeking his expulsion from the movement.
About the differences within Hamas, Zahar, who is described as one of Hamas’ hawks, said, “Some disputes could occur within the movement and are resolved by consultation.”
During the interview at his home in the Gaza Strip, Zahar said Hamas was keen to remain neutral in regional conflicts, including the Syrian civil war. “Hamas said it supports the will of the Syrian people, but did not claim that the regime needs to be brought down or fought,” he said.
Zahar said that pressure on the movement to take a position in the Syrian crisis forced it to leave the country, rejecting assertions Hamas took a stance supporting the Syrian opposition.
Known to have strong relations with Iran, Zahar said, “We must maintain good relations with Iran as part of our overall view of the Islamic nation.”
On domestic Palestinian politics, Zahar said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was “not honest with his people,” when asked about reports that Abbas is scheduling unilateral Palestinian elections for January 2015. “This is a mere game to renew his representation of the Palestinian people so that when he signs the coming disastrous agreement, he will have legitimacy.”
Zahar also rejected assertions that Hamas’ popularity was declining, and dismissed talk of a wedge between it and Islamic Jihad.
The text of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: There have been many reports in multiple Arabic newspapers about intentions to dismiss you from Hamas, due to what has been described as your independent positions that are not in line with the movement’s approach.
Zahar: Who is capable of removing Mahmoud al-Zahar? Mahmoud al-Zahar is not an employee of Hamas; rather I have been a fixture in the movement for many years, and my positions are well-known. I will not deviate [from my positions] in any way, thus I agree with some people and disagree with others. These claims are baseless and that those making them are enemies of the movement and enemies of Palestinian principles. They know that I am keen to preserve these principles in a comprehensive way. If you were to read Israeli newspapers from the past 25 years, as well as Arab newspapers that are hostile to the resistance, you would find hundreds of such lies.
Al-Monitor: But these reports came after claims that there are disputes between you and Hamas?
Zahar: When [internal] disputes occur they are resolved by consultation. We are distinct from other parties and movements in that when consultation resolves these disputes, those who opposed an idea and those who supported it both become supporters. So disputes are not discussed, because they have ended. Elections are similar to consultation, for they hold a vote and determine the opinion of the majority, and then there is no talk about disputes. In Hamas, we don't have a left or a right. Thus, there are no disputes that reach outside [the movement], as long as there are no groups working to deepen disputes as an approach they have adopted.
This has been a distinguishing feature of the Islamic movement throughout its history, and the Muslim Brotherhood has been very committed to this. When consultation, through an election, resolves an issue, both supporters and opponents become supporters.
Al-Monitor: Were these internal differences related to the movement's position on Syria?
Zahar: This is not true. The opinion of everyone [in Hamas] is not to interfere in the affairs of any state. And when the Syrians hosted us, they knew that we were not a pressure card in their hands. We remained in Syria and were neutral [toward the conflict] for a long time. When the security situation became bad, and when some parties wanted to push Hamas to take positions that would deviate from this neutrality, we had to leave. Thus, we maintained our political position and our "rifles" remained aimed at the enemy [Israel]. This is not a new policy, and in 1970 we did not intervene in the crisis that took place between the Palestinians and the Jordanians that ended in Black September, nor in the Iraqi-Kuwaiti war. Everyone wants Hamas to intervene on their behalf, and when Hamas does not respond they are hostile toward us, as is happening in Egypt now.
Al-Monitor: But Hamas did not take a neutral position on the Syrian crisis, but rather stood in support of the will of the Syrian people.
Zahar: Hamas said that it supports the will of the Syrian people, but it did not say that the regime should be toppled or fought. Hamas supports the will of all people, including the American people. All governments in the world should respect the will of the people, including the Syrian regime itself.
Al-Monitor: In the past two years, relations between Hamas and Iran have worsened. What is the reason behind this?
Zaher: There are two main factors affecting the relationship. The first factor revolves around the fact that a government, that of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was concluding its second term in office — and, as such, spent a year in a transitional phase just settling its affairs — at a time when the events in Syria were escalating. The second factor pertains to the closure of the border crossing with Egypt, which prevented the entry or exit of delegations. Furthermore, a new government came to power, which viewed the Iranian nuclear dossier and its relationship with the West as priorities.
Al-Monitor: While these relations worsened, you visited Iran. Your relations with Iran did not worsen as happened with the rest of Hamas’ leaders, why?
Zahar: The movement’s relationship with Iran is not one predicated on individuals, but is rather a strategic one. In fact, I have played a part in this relationship since 1993, when delegations began coming to visit us, among them diplomatic delegations from Iran, whom we found to be honest to deal with. Iran never asked us to espouse a political position in return for any support, be it political or material, which resulted in good relations between us. We must maintain good relations with Iran as part of our overall view of the Islamic nation, which we do not view as being related to nationalism, for it encompasses many nationalities, such as Malians, Bengalis, Chinese, Arabs, Persians, as well as Turks, Berbers and Africans. The Quran described this nation [the Islamic nation] as “the best of nations” and not the best of peoples. It is a nation with all its constituent components. We are a movement and not a party. As such, our outlook is much more encompassing. The communist and capitalist movements were not confined to one party. Yet, we are a people of religion and not ideology. And our religion is built around clear tenets, and therefore, our position vis-a-vis Iran is one of a nation, thus superseding any Arab-Iranian conflict or Sunni-Shiite strife. The movement is a means by which to achieve this national outlook, which we hope will transform the Islamic nation from one of disparate nations, nationalities and races, to one capable of playing a historic civilized role.
Al-Monitor: So why was Khaled Meshaal's visit to Iran delayed if there were attempts to preserve the relationship between Hamas and Iran?
Zahar: I do not know the details, for none of us are able to travel. These visits are done in complete secrecy. But what I do know is that the movement’s public policy necessitates that we go to Iran, which the latter is amenable to us doing. Our stance is unified in this regard.
Al-Monitor: An Iranian analyst recently told Al-Monitor that Iran provided Hamas with more than $1 billion in aid since 2006.
Zahar: I do not have any information about the details of the matter, but these are fabrications. The undisclosed monies and all other aid that we receive remain secret. We do not divulge any information about them, and cannot be held responsible for any information given by any Palestinian, Egyptian or Iranian sources.
Al-Monitor: There have been recent confrontations between Hamas and Islamic Jihad? Why?
Zahar: The dispute that occurred lately took place in a mosque in Khan Yunis. All these disagreements are over trivial matters, such as the hanging of a poster, the holding of a meeting or the allocation of jobs in mosques. They do not represent the true relationship that exists between us and Islamic Jihad, which is strong on all levels: military, political, security and religious. Some matters deviate from this norm in this or that mosque, or between people with limited outlooks who do not truly understand the nature of the overall relationship between Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But these disagreements are not widespread.
Al-Monitor: Al-Monitor has been following up on some opinion polls showing that the popularity of Islamic Jihad was increasing in Gaza at the expense of that of Hamas.
Zahar: I do not want to delve into this subject. Your aim is to drive a wedge between us and Islamic Jihad. I will not partake in this game meant to cause problems between Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Al-Monitor: So allow me to pose the question in a different way: Has Hamas truly abandoned armed resistance while other parties insist upon continuing it?
Zahar: Anyone who claims so must be drunk. How has Hamas abandoned the resistance effort? What are the manifestations of it doing so? Where have we prevented the launching of rockets? The last time three men were martyred as they fired rockets, did we stop them? This so-called ban came as a result of agreements between the factions after the last war. After every war, the factions agree about when to strike and when to stop. Some factions aim to cause tensions on the border crossings, which is not part of the resistance’s plan, but an attempt to bolster the siege by closing down the Kerem Shalom crossing. That is why they are arrested. And, in fact, some of them turn out to be spies or affiliated with factions that have nothing to do with the resistance movement. This is a clear case of psychological projection; those who fought against the resistance, criminalized it, imprisoned it, stripped it of its weapons and cooperated with Israel against it, now want to project their deeds onto Hamas.
Al-Monitor: Returning to the topic of Hamas’ popularity and the number of supporters who attended the “loyalty and steadfastness” rally on March 24, which were said to be less in number than the Fatah supporters who attended a rally held at the same location.
Zahar: When Fatah organized its rally in the same location, it was announced, according to Dr. Nabil Shaath, that 1.2 million had participated. Those attending Hamas’ rally were more than those of Fatah. Do you disagree?
Al-Monitor: According to the Ministry of Interior, 200,000 persons attended the Hamas rally.
Zahar: If 1.2 million attended the Fatah rally, while only 200,000 attended that of Hamas, and given that the population in Gaza is 1.8 million, half of whom are under the age of 15, then how could this number be possibly true? No one can count numbers and no one can say that Hamas is losing its [popular] bases. Hamas is not losing its [popular] bases. The numbers were not counted. My residence is located 1 kilometer [.62 mile] from the site where the rally was held. To reach the festival, I had to make a turn and go through the area of Sheikh Radwan and then take the sea road due to the gathered masses. It does not matter [if they numbered] 200,000 or 500,000 or a million, because the scene spoke for itself.
Al-Monitor: There have been leaks published in newspapers claiming that President Mahmoud Abbas has set Jan. 25, 2015, as a date to hold elections and renew Palestinian “legitimacy.” What is your view of this?
Zahar: We got bored listening to these statements. This man is not honest with his people. He said he was not participating in negotiations until settlements came to a halt, yet he did. And every time he says he was not going to negotiations, he submits and participates.
This is a mere game to renew his representation of the Palestinian people so that when he signs the coming disastrous agreement, he will have legitimacy. However, we should ask: Is he drawing his legitimacy from Gaza and the West Bank only, or from Jerusalem and Palestinians abroad? He currently does not talk about Palestinians abroad, even though the Cairo Agreement stipulates that elections of the national council will be held abroad. Will he hold the elections of the national council? Has he prepared for the elections? Abu Mazen has yet to take one step [in this regard]. Let us suppose he will hold elections in Gaza and the West Bank alone. Give me one name of a Hamas member in Gaza who can run for elections without being detained by the PA [Palestinian Authority] or Israel. First, we want to end the security cooperation. [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu asked him to cut off all relations except for security cooperation, because the main reason behind the presence of Abu Mazen [in power] is the security cooperation with Israel.
Al-Monitor: What if they declared Gaza a rebellious region?
Zahar: If elections were unilaterally held and Gaza was pronounced a rebellious region, Abu Mazen would have to take responsibility for this decision before the Palestinian people. They consider Gaza a region rebelling against the world, the United States, Europe, the subordinated Arabs and the whole universe. When he declares it a rebellious region, what will happen? Will they enter Gaza? Israel entered Gaza, or better said, ran away from us in 2005. These expressions have no value on the ground unless they are preparing unconquerable armies to enter Gaza as they did with Iraq. In that case we will welcome them here.
Al-Monitor: So do you consider the reconciliation to be a pressure card in the hand of Abu Mazen in the negotiations process?
Zahar: Why does he not contact Hamas at this particular moment? We are ready at any moment. We will host them. Previously, delegations came and left and the majority of them aimed at putting things in order for Fatah and not to achieve reconciliation. We met in Cairo in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011 and negotiations are ongoing.
Al-Monitor: What about the re-emergence of the armed Qassam Brigades in the West Bank?
Zahar: An occupied community has the right to defend itself. I do not want to go into the details, yet negotiations did not yield any results until now. Now in Gaza we kicked the occupation out and the people should opt for another choice. We [publicly] declare this choice and we are not ashamed of it. The project of resistance has to be adopted with all its tools to end Israeli occupation.