Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal arrived in Moscow on Monday for discussions with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as Israeli and Palestinian leaders plan for negotiations.
Mashaal, who arrived with a major delegation from Hamas (which stands for “Harakat Al-Muqawama Al-Islamia,” or the Islamic Resistance Movement), is hoping to score some political points from Russia, which is a member of the Quartet of international mediators – together with the United States, the European Union and the United Nations – for the Middle East settlement.
The Quartet was established in Madrid in 2002 by former Spanish Prime Minister Aznar, as a result of the escalating conflict in the Middle East. Tony Blair is the Quartet's current Special Envoy.
Following a recent thaw in Israeli-Palestinian relations that could see “indirect talks” between the two sides by as early as late February, with the United States serving as mediator, Hamas is hoping that Moscow can bring them on board for the upcoming talks.
Founded in 1987, Hamas is a socio-political organization dedicated to the creation of an Islamic state in Palestine, arguably at the expense of Israel and the Palestinian territories. It has been the source of extensive welfare and social programs to the Palestinian people, which contributed heavily to its early popularity.
In January 2006, Hamas stunned the Middle East with a big win in the Palestinian parliamentary elections, securing 76 of the 132 seats, while previous ruling party Fatah grabbed just 43.
Following a series of violent encounters against Fatah, Hamas was pushed out of the West Bank, but remains in control of the Gaza Strip.
Despite being labeled a terrorist organization by the US, Israel, Canada, the European Union and Japan, Khaled Meshaal in July 2009 told the Wall Street Journal that “Hamas was willing to cooperate with the United States on promoting a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict which included a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders provided Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to Israel and East Jerusalem be recognized as the Palestinian capital.”
The great chasm that separates peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is apparent in a speech delivered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu one month before the Hamas concession when he said that “Israel cannot agree to a Palestinian state unless it gets guarantees it is demilitarized,” Netanyahu said, essentially demanding that the Palestinians lay down their arms. He also said that Jerusalem must remain the unified capital of Israel, a condition that few Palestinians will ever agree with.
Hamas is ranked as a terrorist organization by several nations, including the United States, Israel and the European Union. Moscow, however, views Hamas as an integral part of the Mideast peace process and has repeatedly called for an end to the blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, which was engaged in a devastating war against Israeli forces in the winter of 2008-09.
Hamas senior foreign official Osama Hamdan, who is part of the visiting delegation, outlined some of the issues to be discussed, including the ongoing construction of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories, the future of eastern Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want for their future capital, as well as inter-Palestinian relations.
“This is what we would like to discuss first of all,” he told Itar-Tass, adding that “Russia’s support is very important for us.”
Meanwhile, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said that he wants amendments made to an Egypt-sponsored reconciliation plan that was designed to provide a common consensus amongst the various Palestinian factions, without which peace with Israel, not to mention a Palestinian homeland, will remain elusive.
“Some provisions were changed without our consent or even removed altogether,” Mashaal said in an interview published in the Monday edition of Russian daily Vremya Novostei. “As a party to this agreement, we insist that the text be checked and meet the agreements reached as a result of lengthy negotiations with other Palestinian movements, specifically Fatah.”
But Mashaal, who survived an Israeli assassination attempt in Amman, Jordan, in 1997, sees little prospects for peace with Israel, calling the Likud party of Benjamin Netanyahu an “administration of war.”
“I don't see any prospects on a Middle East settlement because the administration of Israel is an administration of war, aggression and occupation, and not an administration that wants peace,” Mashaal said at a news conference in Moscow on Monday.Mashaal's comments cast a cloud of doubt over Moscow's desire to host a Mideast peace conference and to involve Hamas, despite strong opposition from Israel and the U.S.
Just last month, top Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, 50, was found dead inside of his room at the luxury Al Bustan Rotana hotel in Dubai in what has been described as an assassination.
Hamas has publicly blamed Israel for the killing, which occurred only three days after the first-ever visit to the Arab Emirates by an Israeli minister.
Mahmoud al-Zahar, one of the group's co-founders, claimed over the weekend in an interview with Al-Jazeera television that the assassins entered Dubai with fake documents as part of the entourage of Uzi Landau, the Israeli infrastructure minister, who was attending a regional conference on renewable energy sources.
Al-Mabhouh, who was reportedly responsible for arranging arms supplies from Iran to Gaza, was tracked from the moment he boarded Emirates flight EK 912 at Damascus, Syria at 10.05 on January 19, the Times reported.
Hamas has since accused Israel of “breaking the rules of the game” by taking its war with the Islamic group onto foreign territory, and vowed to retaliate by targeting Israeli officials abroad.
Meanwhile, Landau has denied any connection between his visit and the killing of the Hamas leader.
To put the situation mildly, Hamas has had a tumultuous history with Israel, and vice versa. Sheikh Ahmed Ismail Hassan Yassin, for example, one of the principle founders of Hamas, was killed by an Israeli helicopter attack in March 2004, which also left at least nine other people dead.
Yassin’s replacement, Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, was in power for just four weeks before his assassination.
Indeed, Rantissi's brief tenure as leader of Hamas was spent in hiding. On April 17, the day of his death, he came out of hiding to visit his family in Gaza City, arriving before dawn and staying till the evening. Shortly after he departed for home he was killed.
Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas said on Saturday that his secular Fatah movement would meet its Islamist rival Hamas only after the group signs an Egypt-sponsored reconciliation deal.
“When Hamas signs the reconciliation, there will immediately be a meeting with [Hamas leader] Khaled Meshaal, between Fatah and Hamas, and between all the factions to apply what is contained in the Egyptian document,” Abbas told reporters after meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.
“There is nothing to add or amend to the Egyptian document,” he said, referring to modifications requested by Hamas.
President Abbas also had unflattering words for US President Barack Obama, whom he blames for stalling Middle East peace talks by failing to stand firm on his demand of a complete freeze in West Bank Jewish settlements.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed late last year to a 10-month temporary construction freeze, but the Palestinians have declared that to be insufficient.
In an interview this weekend with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Abbas said the optimism he had experienced following Obama's election had waned, and he was no longer satisfied with the American leader’s performance.
“I was initially very optimistic after Obama won the election,” Abbas said. “His Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, kept coming to us and promised to urge the Israelis to stop settlement construction completely. Mitchell said that the negotiations would only resume after a moratorium. The American government suddenly backed away from this position in September.”
It isn't my job to tell the Americans how to deal with Israel,” Abbas added. "But they have options… Obama said that a Palestinian state constitutes a vital American interest. The president is under an obligation to apply all of his energy to achieving peace and the vision of a Palestinian state.”
Concerning Hamas, Spiegel asked how reconciliation be possible between the secular outlook of the… Fatah movement and the Islamist worldview of Hamas?
“We are a people with different religious and political sentiments,” Abbas responded. “Some are extremely religious, some are strictly secular and others are moderate. But we have been accustomed to living together for the past 60 years. All of these movements exist within the PLO.
Spiegel ended its interview with President Abbas, 74, by asking him about his decision not to run in the next elections for the presidency of the Autonomous Authority and whether this is an admission that he will no longer be able to make the Palestinian dream of a sovereign state a reality.
“That's absolutely correct,” Abbas said. “The road to a political solution is blocked. For that reason, I see no purpose in remaining president of the Autonomous Authority.
Abbas then made a comment that even Hamas would agree with: “Do not drive the Palestinians to the point of total hopelessness.”