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Former Hamas official speaks out

In this interview with Al-Monitor, Ahmed Yousef, former political adviser to deputy chairman of Hamas’ political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, weighs in on the negotiations with Israel, the future of a potential reconciliation with Fatah and international relations.
RAFAH, GAZA STRIP - AUGUST 16:  Ahmed Youssef, an adviser to Ismail Haniya of Hamas, the dismissed Palestinian prime minister speaks as he sits at his home August 16, 2007 in Rafah, southern of the Gaza Strip. Today, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas issued an executive decree convicting any one who joins the administrative forces or militia of the rival Hamas movement.  (Photo by Abid Katib/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Ahmed Youssef

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — In an interview with Al-Monitor, Ahmed Yousef, former political adviser to deputy chairman of Hamas’ political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, said that Hamas is making unremitting efforts to spare the Gaza Strip a new war with Israel. He denied the existence of a direct dialogue with Israel, pointing out that Western envoys are in contact with Hamas.

Yousef, 65, every now and then gives bold opinions on the negotiations with Israel, the future of a potential reconciliation with Fatah and international relations, to market Hamas positions regionally and internationally. He heads the House of Wisdom Institution for Conflict Resolution and Governance in Gaza, and he hosts meetings with Western delegates who come to Gaza from time to time. Yousef is considered “Hamas’ gate” to the West in light of his extensive relations, having lived many years in the United States. He studied at an American university and he was an activist with US-based Islamic institutions before he held senior positions, including as executive director of the United Association for Studies and Research for 10 years.

Yousef returned to the Gaza Strip following the withdrawal of the Israeli army in 2005 and Hamas’ legislative elections victory. He was appointed political adviser to then-Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in 2006.

Yousef, who has been a Muslim Brotherhood member for 45 years and has held senior positions within Hamas, which he refused to divulge, pointed out that the pragmatist line within Hamas is growing. According to him, this comes in light of the internal debates that are taking place within Hamas following the wars in Gaza in 2008, 2012 and 2014. He played down the importance of the talk about the growing influence of the military wing within Hamas, because the movement has political and media arms, as well as an Islamic political project.

He stressed that the future of the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas is becoming more and more difficult amid the mutual accusations of disrupting the work of the consensus government and neglecting the suffering in Gaza, the absence of a third-party mediator that has influence on both and the lack of a positive development in the relationship with Egypt, despite a recent meeting. He blamed Iran for the declining Iran-Hamas relationship because of Iran’s military involvement in Syria, but he said that Iran’s relationship with Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, still exists.

Yousef pointed to positive signs from Saudi Arabia regarding Hamas, namely Saudi Arabia’s willingness to act as a mediator in the potential Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, Saudi Arabia’s encouragement of Egypt to pursue its efforts toward ending the Hamas-Fatah division and the reconciliation that took place between Saudi Arabia and Hamas’ regional allies, namely Turkey and Qatar.

Below is the full text of the interview:

Al-Monitor:  What are the latest developments regarding Hamas’ contacts with Western countries, and how do you coordinate the meetings between Western officials and Hamas leaders?

Yousef:  There are a lot of meetings taking place between Hamas and the West, mostly informal ones. They are divided into three types. The first type of meeting is to exchange views. [Those meetings] happen periodically with visiting European ambassadors and consuls. The second type of meeting is organized by Western civil society activists. They gather information, read the political map, publish [the information] in their reports and serve the security services in their countries. A third type is secret meetings that take place behind the scenes and outside of Gaza with Western official representatives and figures, such as parliamentarians, ambassadors and former foreign ministers. Most of these meetings consist of in-depth conversations with Hamas political bureau officials. [The meetings] issue positions that reflect a more balanced and moderate view regarding the movement. Many of these meetings are arranged by Western mediators and figures who have balanced positions toward Hamas. But Westerners want to keep the political meetings under wraps because Hamas is on Western terrorism lists, and this exposes [the Western officials] to legal liability.

Al-Monitor:  What about the recent Israeli leaks of an indirect dialogue with Israel about a truce with Hamas?

Yousef:  Until now, there is no direct dialogue with Israel. But international bodies have UN missions and a continuous presence in Gaza. They present ideas to Hamas leaders to alleviate the Palestinians’ suffering. They are the outcome of a discussion with Israeli parties to deliver messages to Hamas that ending the siege around the Strip requires [Hamas] to reduce storing weapons and stop preparations for upcoming military confrontations. These ideas are part of the Israeli “carrot-and-stick” policy. Israel and the international community think that a lasting truce will lead to removing the blockade around Gaza and establish a seaport or airport to facilitate movement and trade between Gaza and the outside world.

Al-Monitor:  You have called for freezing the armed resistance for several years so that the Palestinians can catch their breath. How do you assess the last war in 2014, and how has al-Qassam Brigades reacted to your calls?

Yousef:  The recent war on Gaza left thousands of families [with nothing] and only with the ruins of their demolished homes. I said that reconstruction is everyone’s responsibility, including that of al-Qassam Brigades, which should stop the many forms of militarization and not give Israel a pretext to conduct aggression on the Gaza Strip. Al-Qassam Brigades should announce an official truce and engage in the reconstruction. This will encourage donor countries to make financial contributions and prevent Israel from disrupting the reconstruction. My call was just a suggestion to stop Israeli pretexts to disrupt the reconstruction and to reduce [the pressure] on Hamas, despite the fact that the situation in Gaza may reignite even though Hamas is keen to spare the Strip the horrors of a new war.

Al-Monitor:  Where does the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah stand? Do you agree with the Palestinian Authority’s request to rule over Gaza? What about the accusations against Hamas that it has not given up full control of the Strip?

Yousef:  Unfortunately, there is a lack of trust between Fatah and Hamas, and they blame each other for the reconciliation’s blockage. The PA, President Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] and the reconciliation government have not abided by what had been agreed upon. The government institutions did not unite. There have been no preparations for the elections. Efforts for reconstruction have not been made. The dispute over the former government employees’ salaries is still a big obstacle standing in the way of the reconciliation government extending its influence in Gaza. In light of these uncertainties, Hamas will not hand over the keys of the whole Strip to the government. Mutual accusations are marring the relationship between Fatah and Hamas and fueling the chaos between them. This reflects their lack of wisdom. As long as the two parties do not make concessions to each other, collapses will continue and we will lose our national project. I believe that Hamas will hand over the crossings to the presidential guard, proceed to the presidential and legislative elections, activate the unified leadership framework and use it as a mediator whose positions and decisions would be respected by everyone.

Al-Monitor:  What are the causes of the recent uproar by Hamas against you personally because of your pragmatist line? How do you compare this current to the hard-line current that rejects political flexibility?

Yousef:  Today, there is a greater political maturity and awareness within Hamas, particularly among second-line officials and many of its advocacy and media cadres. The plight and the dialogue that followed Hamas’ stumbling experience in power, and the high number of victims of the successive wars on Gaza, have forced the leadership and the base to discuss taboo subjects. Some, myself included, have raised their voices on the need to make revisions: Where were we? What have we achieved? Where are we going? Can we confront Israel while our people are divided or do we need to unify our ranks before fighting the occupation? I believe that the moderate, pragmatist and centrist wing in Hamas will be dominant in the future. This is what we have learned from history. There will come a moment when the militant line is broken. Today, an extremist reaction is a natural reaction to Israeli extremism and the absence of international justice. But in the end, Hamas is a national liberation movement with an Islamic vision, and its resistance will remain legitimate until the occupation ends and we establish for our people, through peace or war, an independent state.

Al-Monitor:  How is the relationship between Hamas’ politicians and soldiers being formulated and what is the decision-making mechanism for the political and military issues? What about the growing influence of the military within the Hamas leadership?

Yousef:  As with all national liberation movements, there is a military wing and a political wing. The first obeys the second. And there is a general regulatory Shura framework that everybody obeys. Decisions for armed confrontations are taken by the military in coordination with other fighting groups. Determining the level, size and dimensions of the escalation is decided by the political bureau at home and abroad and the rest of the Shura constituents in Hamas. The talk about the growing role of the military and the rise of its position in the decision-making within Hamas is being exaggerated. Despite the respect that everybody has for the soldiers, Hamas is not only an armed resistance movement, it is a national liberation project that uses political and media means.

Al-Monitor:  For how long will the tension between Hamas and Egypt last? Is Hamas now convinced that Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is there to stay and that the era of Mohammed Morsi is gone for ever?

Yousef:  The repercussions of the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi were like an earthquake on Hamas because the movement lost a strong ally in Egypt, which has served as a backbone. [Hamas] found itself with a political regime [in Egypt] that sees [Hamas] as an adversary that must be fought and weakened. But Hamas has agreed to deal with the current Egyptian regime and sought to repair its relationship with [the regime]. [Hamas] has sent signals in that direction, but the regime still refuses to deal with [Hamas]. Over a month ago, some meetings were held to open a new page in the relationship, but the results have yet to appear.

Al-Monitor:  Where will the push and pull in the Hamas-Iran relationship stop? And how can your differences over Syria be ignored? What about the continued Iranian financial support to al-Qassam Brigades but not to the political level?

Yousef:  The problematic relationship with Iran and its tense position toward Hamas are due to Iran’s military intervention in Syria and it siding with the [Bashar al-] Assad regime, which gave the conflict a sectarian dimension that has provoked the Sunni and Arab countries and disturbed Hamas’ relations with them, especially Gulf countries. Hamas does not deny Iran’s role in supporting [Hamas] financially and militarily in its confrontation with Israel. [Hamas] is keen on keeping the relationship with Iran strong. [Iran] has a remarkable strategic position and role in supporting Hamas and in developing [Hamas’] military capabilities. But the sectarian tensions in the region and Iran’s interference in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain because of sectarian reasons have provoked Sunni Islamist movements and was condemned by the countries in the region. Also, Iran’s relationship with Hamas’ military wing is still solid, and the movement is keen to stabilize the situation in the region and return the strategic relationship with Iran to normal.

Al-Monitor:  How does Hamas read the new direction in Saudi Arabia? What is its impact on the reconciliation, the calming and the easing of tensions with Egypt, and the possibility of forming a regional hub for major states, i.e., Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey?

Yousef:  Most of the signs coming from Saudi Arabia are positive. There are assurances that are reflected in the significant improvement in its relations with Qatar and Turkey. It heralds an imminent breakthrough in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Hamas. This means that Saudi Arabia may strongly work to reconcile Fatah and Hamas by encouraging Egypt to complete its efforts in ending the division, by holding legislative and presidential elections and by stabilizing the Palestinian political system through building a political partnership and [reaching a] national consensus.

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