It is nearing 11pm. I am sitting in a very cold hotel room with a bespectacled middle-aged Arab man debating whether it is better for the Palestinian leadership to stand on their principles or time for them to bend enough to get some results.
The man is called Abu Alezz, and he is keeping me company while I wait for his boss, Hamas Political Bureau chief Khaled Meshal.
In 40 minutes, we have covered decades, centuries of history and conflict – the 1948 and 1967 wars, the fight over Jerusalem, Israel’s violation of international law, Hamas’ use of military resistance, the Palestinian right of return, internal strife between Hamas and Fatah, outside interference from Egypt and the United States, the futility of peace talks, etc.
It’s not the lofty ideals we argue over, but small phrases. Dates. Legitimacy. Borders and blockades. A tall wall.
“Israel is not giving any care about the interests of its allies. It is working on its own agenda.”
- Khaled Meshal, chief of Hamas Political Bureau
Word traps that have derailed the peace process over and over again.
Parsing terminology at this late hour in this drafty room, my mind wanders.
I wonder what happened to my cell phone, my voice recorder and my digital camera, which security guards took for examination before my meeting with Meshal.
I wonder how my family is doing.
Just a few hours earlier I was cooking dinner and baking chocolate chip blondies in anticipation of an evening with friends.
I was saying good night to my husband. I was putting my baby daughter to sleep.
I was not thinking about the fate of the Palestinian people, as Meshal must have been during his meeting with Qatar’s Emir earlier that day.
How often does he think of them? If I were in his position, a Palestinian running the Gaza Strip as it withers under an economic blockade that denies them even basic supplies, I would be thinking about it every minute of the day.
But thinking would not be enough. Being invested in the cause would not be enough. After decades of stagnation, of negotiations and interventions, the people are calling for something tangible. Something they can grasp in their hands and say, this was worth everything we’ve been through.
Back to the hotel room. There is movement across the hall. Men talk to other men, and I’m finally cleared for action.
I walk across the hall into a spacious suite, am handed my voice recorder and digital camera. I take a seat on an armchair in an opulent sitting room. A chocolate-covered, sugar-dusted camel figurine sits atop a tray piled with dates.
I am brought water, juice. I sip politely, chat a bit more with Abu Alezz. And then suddenly, Khaled Meshal enters the room, and I am face-to-face with a man my own government classifies as a terrorist.
Meshal looks just like he does in pictures.
He is imposing, assertive, clear-eyed, polite.
Predictably, we don’t exchange handshakes.
Considering that security had taken my cell phone, and that I may have been the only woman on the entire 16th floor of the posh Qatar hotel where Hamas was camped, I found this observation of tradition comforting.
I may have been on my own, but these men respected me.
I thank Meshal for his time, and dive into my questions, asking first about last week’s unofficial but historic meeting between Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan and US diplomat Rachel Schneller.
A step forward
Meshal calls the meeting an “advanced step,” but wonders why it has taken the American government so long to talk to his party.
“There should be a limit to that stubbornness,” he says, adding that no peace could be achieved until the US recognizes Hamas as a major player in the region – and recognizes the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination.
The remark was a pointed reference to the 2006 Palestinian elections, which Hamas arguably won fair and square, much to the dismay of Fatah and the American government. About a year and several bloody conflicts later, Hamas was ousted from the West Bank but still retains control of the Gaza Strip.
We switch away from civil battles for a bit, talk about Israel, which Meshal says is starting to look more and more like a loose cannon.
“Israel is not giving any care about the interests of its allies,” he said. “It is working on its own agenda.”
Israel’s recent announcement to build more settlements in occupied East Jerusalem, despite US protests, have strained relations between the historic allies.
Tensions further deepened this week when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called off his trip to Washington for a nuclear non-proliferation conference, sending a minister in his place.
“The US army has clearly realized now that Israeli practices are directly affecting the interests of the US and the safety of the US soldiers in the region and the world,” Meshal said. “We have been saying this for a long time, but now the difference is that the US and Europeans are realizing this reality.”
Speaking of Israel, I ask Meshal about his safety, whether the assassination of colleague Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai by suspected Mossad agents has him worried about any more attempts on his life.
(About a decade ago, Israeli Mossad agents poisoned him with a nerve toxin, but were forced to cough up the antidote after the US intervened.)
“Nobody likes to die just for the sake of death. But for the sake of my country, my people, their interests, their faith – if I need to sacrifice even my life, I would do that willfully.”
- Khaled Meshal, chief of Hamas Political Bureau
The leader responds with predictable bravado – “I am not afraid of their threats, I am not afraid of death,” he said.
I press him on this. He is a family man. How can one not be scared to lose it all?
“I like to live,” he concedes. “Nobody likes to die just for the sake of death. But for the sake of my country, my people, their interests, their faith – if I need to sacrifice even my life, I would do that willfully.”
On to my final question.
What is the next step for Fatah and Hamas?
Back off, America
This is the only time Meshal switches to English, because he wants to be very clear on this point.
“The next step: in Washington, to change the United States policy not to have veto on our conciliation,” he says.
In essence – back off, America.
It’s also the only time he raises his voice.
“There is a very big difference between being open with the US and to talk to them, and having America try to negatively intervene in internal Palestinian politics,” he said, adding that reconciliation must happen on Palestinian terms, and no one else’s.
Fair enough. But is Hamas the right group to speak for what Palestinians want? In 2006, the people voted them in. But after the devastating loss of life and infrastructure in 2009 Gaza war, do they still feel the same way?
There likely won’t be an answer to that question for a long time, because the Palestinian territories can’t hold democratic elections until Fatah and Hamas regain some common ground.
But there are indications that the everyday people each political faction claims to represent is tired and looking for change.
So went the sentiment at a forum in Doha last month, when an audience of mostly Arab youth issued a referendum of sorts to a panel of Hamas and Fatah representatives. The vast majority of attendees – 89% – voted that they had no confidence in the current Palestinian leadership.
I attended that Doha Debates forum, and it was a disaster. An evening of bickering between grown men and emotional testimony from a despairing audience.
Rumor has it that the Obama administration may put forth their own peace plan, now that talks between Israel and the Palestinians and between Fatah and Hamas (the Palestinians and the Palestinians) have stalled.
According to the New York Times, experts say that such a plan would include the following conditions:
First, Palestinian officials would have to accept that there would be no right of return for refugees of the 1948 war that established the Israeli state, and for their millions of descendants. Rather, the Palestinians would have to accept some kind of compensation. Second, the two sides would have to share Jerusalem — Palestinians locating their capital in the east, Israelis in the west, and both signing on to some sort of international agreement on how to share the holy sites in the Old City.
Third, Israel would return to its 1967 borders — before it captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the Six-Day War — give or take a few negotiated settlements and territorial swaps. Fourth, the United States or NATO would have to give Israel security guarantees, probably including stationing troops along the Jordan River, to ease Israeli fears that hostile countries could use the Palestinian state as a springboard for attacks. And finally, Arab neighbors like Saudi Arabia would recognize Israel.
Before witnessing the Doha Debates and interviewing Meshal, such a plan would have looked good to me.
But now I know that if these terms were presented to those at the negotiating table (provided everyone agreed to sit down at such a table in the first place), they would likely fight tooth and nail over every word.
I thank Meshal for his time, am returned my cell phone, escorted out of the building. I am back home, back to my life that isn’t consumed by the quagmire called Palestine.
I can see how it would be hurtful to tell people who think they’re only doing right by you that it’s time for a changing of the guard.
But perhaps, amid a sea of failed agreements, circular arguments and stubborn refusals to compromise on anything, that’s the only viable option left.