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Zaki Chehab on “Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic Movement”

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As Israel warns Hamas that none of its leaders are safe from assassination strikes, we talk to Zaki Chehab on the founding of Hamas and how Israel once directly backed the militant group in an attempt to counter Yasser Arafat. Zaki Chehab is the political editor of the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper and the Arabic TV channel LBC. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn now to the situation in the Occupied Territories. Israel warned Hamas today that none of its leaders are safe from attack, following a rocket fired from Gaza on Monday that killed an Israeli woman. The Israeli military carried out two new air raids in Gaza overnight in response to the attack. Israel has pounded targets in Hamas and Gaza for nearly a week, killing more than 30 people.

High-ranking Israeli officials are now threatening to assassinate the Hamas leadership. Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said Israel will kill exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal “at the first opportunity” and warned Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas could also be targeted. Zaki Chehab, you’ve just published Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic Movement. Talk about what’s happening today.

ZAKI CHEHAB: Nothing in the statements made by Israeli officials and ministers is new. They have all along been targeting Hamas leaders, killing them. Israel did not stop one day. They have killed the founder of Hamas. They have killed his deputy. They have killed so many leaders. Every day —

AMY GOODMAN: And you’ve interviewed all of them.

ZAKI CHEHAB: I interviewed all of them. I met them, and I don’t think it will affect the way Hamas is functioning. I think it’s time that Israel would think again, or rethink, because for 10 years of negotiation with the Palestinians, have achieved nothing. Resorting to violence and military force is not going to solve Israel’s problem. The only thing that would solve Israel’s problem is by giving Palestinians hope by withdrawing fully from West Bank and Gaza, by giving the Palestinians the right and the freedom to move around, give them the chance to live in dignity. This is the only way, which give peace and security to Israel and the Israelis.

AMY GOODMAN: Zaki Chehab, let’s go back to the beginning of Hamas, as you do in this book. How was it created?

ZAKI CHEHAB: Hamas, practically, is a branch of the international Islamic Brotherhood movement worldwide. As I was told by Sheikh Yassin, himself, the founder of Hamas, ’til ’77, 1977, himself, he was not a member of the Islamic Brotherhood movement. He visited Egypt for the first time, and he like met some of their leaders at that time as someone who admired them. But practically, he was not a member.

So, Hamas, as an organization, was practically or officially launched in the first week of the Intifada in 1987. But they were active like as a group, and you would be surprised if I tell you that the Israeli government at that time have helped Hamas to expand. They have given them the permission to set up social centers and the what’s so called the nerve center for the Hamas movement today, the Islamic University, is something have been given by the Israelis to Hamas to weaken Fatah, who was fighting the Israelis at that time. So in terms of military struggle against Israel, Hamas ’til 1987 never been involved with a military struggle with Israel, unlike Fatah, who have started this in the ’60s.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re saying that the Israeli government helped set up Hamas.

ZAKI CHEHAB: It’s not only that. Even the first cache of weapons Hamas managed to accumulate, it was given to them by the Shin Beit, which is like the Homeland Security or the Israeli internal intelligence, to the extent that when Hamas leader, Hamas founder, Ahmed Yassin, and his fellow were arrested, they were convicted as a result of the cache of weapons given to them by the Israelis, and to be specific, by someone who have like carried the name of Abu Sabri.

AMY GOODMAN: Yassin and Rantisi have both been assassinated.

ZAKI CHEHAB: Both of them has been assassinated.

AMY GOODMAN: By the Israelis.

ZAKI CHEHAB: By the Israelis, yes. It was very clear from day one. And I think, you know, whatever measures Israel takes against Hamas leader, the experience have showed us that there will always someone who will take place and replace, and nothing would really change the situation. The only thing which can weaken Hamas is by giving the Palestinians hope that there will be an independent state at a specific time.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re saying that Israel set up Hamas to counter Arafat.

ZAKI CHEHAB: To counter Fatah and Arafat leadership at that time, who was like, you know, involved in a heavy fighting and struggle with Israel, as you know. Fatah was like the main force behind the Intifada, behind first — you know, behind the attacks, which have taken against Israel. So that’s practically the intention because the Islamic movement at that time was quite conservative, shy and not organized. And the Israelis, as I’ve been told by even Israeli leaders who were active in the what’s so-called the civil administration, which was set up straight after the occupation of Gaza and West Bank in 1967. There, they were trying to find organization and personalities who would like became more active and take the [inaudible] away from Fatah and other moderate and left groups.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you make of the reports that Americans are now arming Fatah to fight Hamas to undermine and replace the Palestinian unity government?

ZAKI CHEHAB: This is really nonsense. And I can give you an example: the latest approval of the Congress of $19 million, which has been mentioned in the media, that it’s dedicated to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas or Fatah military wing and the president security guards. The fact that this $19 million — Mahmoud Abbas, himself, have found out that nearly $15 million of this money would be spent by Americans, either on travel or equipments or cars or how to spend, so practically the money which would reach the Palestinian Authority would not be more than $3 to $4 million, to the extent that Mahmoud Abbas himself was considering writing a letter to the Congress to tell them, “Thank you. We don’t need your money.” So the kind of impression when Congress approves such amount would go in the media as if the Americans are, you know, financing and funding in this way.

The fact that there are peace agreements signed in 1993, these agreements have allowed the Palestinian Authority to receive weapons and training so they can arm their police and security services. But since 1993, more than 13 years, Israel have not allowed the Palestinian Authority to upgrade the weaponry. And the kind of weakness they are under and suffering from is a result of what Israel is doing, because there’s no respectful agreements.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of the PLO, of Hamas recognizing Israel?

ZAKI CHEHAB: It’s quite an interesting question. Everyone would ask, you know, why Hamas would not scrutinize Israel. It’s a very clear question. But I would ask, you know, what Israel would give Hamas in exchange for this. You know, when someone want to get married, he would ask his fiancée if she’s going to be loyal to him, faithful, not going out, respectful, all sorts of things, and she would ask him if he snores and, you know, make certain conditions, because she will say, “Yes, I will marry you,” or he will say, “I will marry,” you know, “you, as well.” So Israel would jump straight and ask for marriage straightaway. Israel have to give the Palestinians, you know, concrete promises, that by this specific time if Hamas would recognize the state of Israel, then we would give you an independent Palestinian state.

There are major Palestinian groups, including Fatah, have recognized Israel for the last 14 years. Unfortunately, this recognition were terms of peace agreements which was signed in Washington, in Cairo, in Oslo, and all over the world, have not achieved peace with Israel, because the Israelis be very mean in giving the Palestinians the hope they needed so they can have peace, a proper peace for them and for the Israelis. So the kind of commitment was not fulfilled, to the extent that in the last meeting between Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert, Olmert asked Mahmoud Abbas why Hamas did not commit itself to the peace agreements with Israel. And Abbas joked with Olmert. He told him, “Are you yourself committed to the peace agreements we sign with you?” So this is really the kind of atmosphere and situation.

Far from this, the last two months, we have seen the most important accord reached between Fatah and Hamas in Saudi Arabia. It was sponsored by the Saudi King Abdullah. In that agreement, Hamas have committed itself to all the agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority with Israel, which means indirectly a recognition of the state of Israel to live in peace and security, because when they recognize — and even more than that, they went further to give Mahmoud Abbas the authority to negotiate with Israel. And I think this is quite an encouraging step from Hamas towards, you know, achieving peace with Israel. But unfortunately, this step by Hamas was ignored completely by Israel and by the West.

In the Arab summit, which was like a couple of weeks later in Riyadh, also Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was sitting right behind Mahmoud Abbas in the Arab summit, when they adopted, all Arab leaders, that they want to go ahead with the what’s so-called the Arab Peace Initiative with Israel, where they would like sit and talk with Israel in order to achieve peace. They accepted the United Nations resolution, and Arabs, for the first time, including Palestinians, were ready to make peace. But this time, unlike previous occasions, you know, when Arabs were not ready, Palestinians were ready, this time the Israelis were not ready at all, because, as you know, the prime minister, Olmert, is, I think, the weakest prime minister have seen in many years, if not decades. And as you know, his popularity is just about 2 percent. So he’s not capable of making any decisions, to the extent that his reaction to Arab summit initiative was, “Let’s think about it.” So this is the kind of atmosphere we are in, that you don’t have now an Israeli leader who is like, you know, capable of taking the hard decisions to withdraw from West Bank and Gaza, sit with Arabs and tell them, “We are serious about peace.”

AMY GOODMAN: What about Condoleezza Rice? What is your assessment of what the U.S. is doing there?

ZAKI CHEHAB: The U.S. practically — since January, she made many trips to the region. I think about three. But it was very unfortunate that these trips have achieved nothing more than encouraging Mahmoud Abbas and Olmert to keep meeting. And 'til now, I think there's about four meetings have been taken place in Jerusalem, and they achieved nothing. Everyone in the territories and even in the Arab world knows how the United States administration is extremely engaged in the situation in Iraq. And far from this, I think they don’t really expect the administration to make any measure of progress in the Middle East peace process, because of the coming election here in the United States and the commitment and the difficulties the American forces in Iraq are facing today.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the effect of the Iraq war on what’s happening with the Occupied Territories?

ZAKI CHEHAB: I think definitely it has taken the attention of the Arab-Israeli conflict. And even more than that, you know, this war on terror and the terrorism, which started in New York in 9/11, have really damaged the Palestinian cause, because if you look back before 9/11, there was a heavy American involvement in the peace process. Clinton was dedicated most of his time, to the extent that I don’t think that any world leader have visited the White House, you know, in terms of number of visits, similar to what Arafat have visited, or the kind of peace talks we had here between Arafat and Israeli leaders. So since that war, you know, the Americans really have concentrated on the war on terror and diverted their attention to causes like in Afghanistan or their troubles with Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: What is it like in Gaza now?

ZAKI CHEHAB: Gaza is a very sad place. It’s not a big jail, it’s a small jail. It is the crowdest place on earth. And 70 percent of the population, even more than 70 percent of the population, in Gaza are living under the line of poverty. They are relying heavily on the aids they received from NGOs, from United Nations organizations.

It’s quite sad, because the lucky ones, the lucky ones within the Palestinian who would be allowed to go and work in Israel, and the number of these people is not more than 10,000. And if you imagine the kind of difficulties they go through, I think it’s suffering in itself. These are considered the lucky ones, because they have to go to work from leaving their houses, straight in the early hours, one or two o’clock, so they can get to the Israeli checkpoint at the earliest. They will be searched, and by the time they go to the workplace, it’s by eight o’clock. To go back to their houses, it should be by midnight. So these lucky ones would have to work 20 hours to earn, you know, something to support their families.

The others have no hope, have no chances. Salaries, since Hamas won the election in January 2000, have not been paid. So practically you are talking about a population more than 1.5 million, crammed in a very small area, 350 square kilometers. No hope. We have to give the Palestinians some hope. They can stop fighting. They can stop attacking Israel, and then all will live in peace.

You know, we only hear about a woman killed in Sderot, but nobody mentioned how many Palestinians or practically show the footage of Palestinians killed by Israelis every day. It is quite a sad thing. And human being is a human being. I feel sorry when I see or hear of an Israeli civilian killed, but also I am sorry when I hear a Palestinian killed. So if we want to put an end for this suffering, we want to see a very serious and able Israeli politician who would come and sit down and take the hard decision, because I think we are fed up as a Palestinian of going into peace talks. And Israeli leadership know exactly, if we want to have peace with Israel, they can achieve it tomorrow, but they have to take the hard decision.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us. Zaki Chehab is author of the book, Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic Movement. He is the London-based Al Hayat newspaper, with them, as well as the Arabic TV channel LBC. Thanks very much for joining us.

ZAKI CHEHAB: It’s a pleasure to meet you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: He heads back to London today.

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