First came confirmation that the interview was on. We flew to the Qatari city of Doha. And waited…And waited…
Then we were given a day, then two hours notice – a location.
That is an area of the city and a time. No address – just initial directions to the general area.
We proceeded junction to junction; roundabout to roundabout, stopping to receive new directions at each way point.
A Mossad injection 15 years ago very nearly killed the man we were going to see. Three years ago another top Hamas official was assassinated in a Dubai hotel room by a group of Mossad agents dressed up as tennis-playing tourists on faked passports – including British ones.
So the Palestinian group Hamas, do not take chances. Elected to power in Gaza over, yet deemed “a terrorist organisation” by the US and the EU, Hamas remains committed to denying Israel’s right to exist and resisting Israel by force of arms.
We arrived at a villa after several calls for the next stage of directions. “So who owns this place then?”
“It is owned by a man,” came the reply from the genial man in charge of welcoming us to this safe house.
Several times the producer would ask the question, several times, exactly the same smiling reply. We hand in our mobile phones. We walk through an airport-style scanner. The film equipment is carefully, intimately, searched. Then tea, cakes, sweets and we wait.
Finally, the courtyard doors open again and Khaled Meshaal emerges from a 4×4 with guards. The boss of Hamas is with us.
Neatly trimmed beard, soft-spoken with a ready smile, careful to greet all our team and both cameramen with handshakes. Scrupulous not to neglect or ignore anybody in the room. The guards take up postions by the door and outside. Open- necked shirt, neat, dark jacket: the technocrat, fixer, pragmatist, very much intended look.
I start with Syria.
Hamas left Damascus in January last year, for Doha. Goodbye to his longtime friend and ally President Bashar al-Assad:
“The military approach is wrong. It makes the crisis worse. It doesn’t solve anything,” he explains, “it only makes it more complicated. What we are witnessing today proves our advice was right.”
So advice to Assad to seek a political solution when it looked feasible. And now Hamas denies the accusations that it is supporting rebel Syrian groups like the Free Syrian Army:
“We do not interfere in Syrian internal affairs nor do we interfere in the Syrian Crisis and this is our policy towards the Arab Spring and all other Arab and non-Arab countries in the World.”
“So when the British government wants to arm Syrian rebels they’re making a mistake?” I ask.
“Hamas policy is against any foreign intervention in our countries.This is our general principle. But at the same time we support the rights of people to freedom, democracy and reform and we are against the use of force and violence, massacres, and military options against them. We support people to win their rights, but we are against foreign intervention.
The international community has been talking about this for months and I think there is a kind of deception going on, and that there is a hidden agenda from many international parties to prolong the Syrian crisis and destroy Syria. These parties do not want to see recovery for Syria…they use positive slogans but in reality their attitude identifies with the Israeli agenda of destroying Syria, more death, and prolonging the Syrian crisis.”
“In moving to Doha you are sending a clear message to Assad that he should go?”
“No no, this is not what we meant. We, as the leadership of Hamas, had to leave Damascus the moment we felt that our efforts to convince the Syrian leadership to choose a solution other than the military one failed. On the other hand, the Syrian leadership was not happy with Hamas’ political stance and also, I felt they wanted to put pressure or demand on us to stand by the official Syrian position and support the leadership in their military solution to the Syrian issue … this is why we did not feel then I could stay, so we left – circumstances forced itself on us, but if Assad goes or stays, that’s up to the Syrian people not to us.”
“But you moved to Qatar,” I say, “which more than any other supports the rebels in Syria. You’ve betrayed a great friend in bashar al-Assad and betrayed Iran.”
“I explained to you why we left and this not a betrayal of any one We did not mean to anger any party by our political position, we just stuck to our principles.”
But it’s clear the move has been difficult. Relations with Syria are strained to put it mildly. Qatar has long been the key sponsor of the uprising in Syria. The Emir recently visited Gaza, and as we speak Qatari money is rebuilding the ruins of Israeli bombing back in Gaza.
And then Israel itself.
Bizarrely Hamas and Israel may even find themselves close to being on the same side over Syria. Israel bombs, Hamas leaves Damascus and seeks refuge in the coutry supporting the rebels. How deep is the rift with Assad? If profound, then on the basis that my enemy’s enemy is my friend Hamas could be uncomfortably close to The Zionist Entity as they would have it:
“If you use this kind of description,” says Mr Meshal, “how can you explain the Israeli assault against us in Gaza months ago?
The aggression that killed our great leader Ahmad Al-Jaabary after we left Syria. Israel looks after its own interest and has its own policy of assault no matter which country it’s assaulting, if it’s Lebanon or Syria or any other country in the World. Israel is our enemy.”
So does Hamas continue with its position of stating that Israel clearly exists de facto but has no legitimacy to exist in law?
“I am surprised that the world keeps concentrating on the recognition of Israel and its right to exist, while it is an existing state on the ground, occupying the land and expelling its people while practising all manner of killings, aggression and terror. In all civil and religious laws in the world, there is no legitimacy to any one who establishes themselves by means of violation and the seizure of land and the rights of others. Does the international community accept this equation?”
“So yes or no? Does Israel have the right to exist Mr Meshal?”
“You ask your question your way, so let me answer you in my way. I’m telling you, we are the real owners of the land. We have the right to live freely without occupation, settlements, aggression, prisons and Jewishisation of the land.The law I believe in and I think it’s the same for every human being in the world, not only the Arabs and all Muslims is that there is no legitimacy or future for occupation or aggression.”
I wondered if there were any circumstances in which he could conceive of shaking hands with the Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu?
“Although the question is legitimate, how can I have peace with a killer like Netanyahu. Think logically. I am the Palestinian victim, my land is occupied, and my people are displaced. Netanyahu is waging war against my own people, and denies my rights, so why would the world expect me to shake his hand in the future? There was a historical handshake between Rabin and Arafat, God bless his soul, in the White House Garden when they signed Camp David Agreement, but what was the result? This hand, Arafat’s, the hand that shook Rabin’s hand was poisoned and killed by Rabin’s followers after that.”
He accuses Israel of somehow relishing concessions from Arabs in the Middle East for their own sake and here the historical self-image of Hamas is tellingly revealed:
“It’s a kind of sadism because it enjoys and relishes the Arab concessions. This is why the only answer to this situation is to take a rigid stance.
You are in Britain and you are a respectable TV station. Why are the British proud of Churchill when he was dealing with Nazism when they occupied France and bombed Britain? Why did De Gaulle call for resistance to the German occupation of France from London? Why did he become a hero instead being criticised because of his lack of flexibility?”
With that, he takes his leave in a leisurely fashion. There are more talks with others in side the house before the guard shepherd him into the 4×4 and he leaves the house “owned by a man” and we can now retrieve our mobile phones and, after a suitable time has elapsed, leave the villa as well.