Mahmoud Zahar 248.88 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel is now responsible for holding up the resolution of Egyptian-mediated deals for a Gaza cease-fire and the release of hostage IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Schalit, top Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar said Wednesday.
Speaking in Qatar the morning after filming the latest segment of The Doha Debates public affairs program on BBC-TV, Zahar initially refused to speak with a Jerusalem Post reporter, saying he no longer "trusts" the Israeli media, but then gave permission for him to join an interview session with a small group of local journalists.
Co-founder of Hamas and foreign minister in the former Palestinian Authority government, Zahar detailed what he claimed were the main issues now blocking deals for a cease-fire and the release of Schalit.
"The negotiations with the Israelis, being conducted indirectly through Egypt, are stuck on two subjects," said Zahar. "Our deal with the Israelis agreed on 1,000 Palestinian prisoners being released: 450 when Schalit is returned, and another 550 two months later, under Egyptian guarantee."
The majority of the first 450, Zahar asserted, were to be what he called "multi-lifers" - Palestinian prisoners serving multiple life-sentences for taking direct part in terrorist attacks.
"But the Israelis are playing with us on this list; they say that they should choose this list, but many of the names they gave are prisoners soon to be released anyway, so we have reached a block on this... The Israeli government is also using families that have lost some members to Hamas, saying they are against the prisoners' release, but this is only an excuse."
Regarding a cease-fire, Zahar said that two weeks ago in Cairo, the various Palestinian groups in Gaza had agreed on a bilateral agreement with Israel with both sides halting all action against the other - "hudna for hudna" as he called it - concurrent with a reopening of the Rafah border crossing into Egypt.
"But the Israelis, they are again playing with us, say they want to wait for a few months after the cease-fire before opening the gates. Why wait? The people in Gaza are suffering and need relief now."
Speaking during The Doha Debates, Zahar claimed that in the past two months, he had spoken with "many European and American officials" who do not view Hamas as a terrorist organization. He later clarified to the Post that while the former group included Europeans other than the French officials who recently admitted the contacts, the latter did not include representatives of the Bush government, "but former administration officials, including Jimmy Carter and others."
Zahar said, "I think under the present US administration peace will not be achieved. They are not looking for peace."
He added that he was hoping the next US administration would be "more neutral" in its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Asked by the Post if he shared the preference expressed by Hamas spokesman Ahmed Youssef for a Democratic candidate, he responded, "No, I will not fall for this trick. You are trying to play politics by getting me to say something good about Obama."
He did add that he believed John McCain would win the upcoming election, because "the United States will not vote a black man or a woman to be president."
Zahar, who has has lost two sons to Israeli fire - one just last January - is considered the movement's dominant figure in Gaza and one of its staunchest hardliners. He lived up to that reputation during the The Doha Debates, steadfastly refusing to express any conciliatory views toward Israel, even when implored by audience members and condemned by some of them for not doing so.
He expounded on these views in the press interview, saying he believed Israel was declining and heading for collapse.
"We are nearer to achieving our goals than ever before," he said. "Israel is suffering the same diseases [as] other countries, facing moral collapse. I heard that last year, Israel suffered from a lack of immigration, that even more Israelis left the country than came. There is no real immigration. Of the one million immigrants from [the FSU], most are not Jewish, and most of those from Africa, from Ethiopia and elsewhere, are also Christian, not Jewish, and they came for financial reasons.
"Most Israelis have two passports, and the new generation [is] corrupt - they are ready to leave Israel for America and elsewhere if the financial and security situation gets worse," he said.
Zahar also made reference to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's current judicial troubles: "Olmert is now facing his fifth investigation, yet he is called an 'honorable man' by [US President George W.] Bush - well, this is what is called an 'honorable man' in Israel."
He defended Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, saying the IDF did the same, and added, "The point is not to kill anyone, but to demoralize the Israelis and make them rethink their positions. And we see it working; [look] how deputy prime minister [Eli] Yishai told Carter he would talk with us."
Asked if Hamas would ever accept a two-state solution under any circumstances, he responded: "Two-state solution - this is a trick. [Foreign Minister Tzipi] Livni came to Doha and said the Israelis are ready to accept a two-state solution, but I ask: Where are the borders? What about the refugees? I have to know the dimensions of everything, I don't give answers until then. We don't trust the prime minister or any Israeli; our way is not the Fatah way."
While in Doha, Zahar met with Qatari officials, who reportedly told him they wanted to host reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah, the way Qatar successfully did last week between feuding Lebanese factions. But Zahar said he doubted there could be any reconciliation on the Palestinian side "for at least six months," until the PA government of Mahmoud Abbas realized that the current peace talks initiated by the Bush administration would prove fruitless.
"We understand the Palestinian people are divided into many factions, but this is due to the aggression of Fatah. Look what was written in the Vanity Fair article about the conspiracy by the US and certain people in Fatah against Hamas, how they conspired with [US security coordinator to the Palestinians and Israel Lt.-Gen. Keith] Dayton against us."
Zahar expressed confidence that if new elections were held, Hamas would "win a vast majority of the Palestinian people, because we are running the government in a very pure manner, and Fatah is corrupt... Look how they had this official smuggling cellphones into the West Bank from Jordan... and Fatah takes Palestinians in for interrogation, and they end up being killed."
During The Doha Debates filming, Zahar was himself grilled repeatedly by host Tim Sebastian, as well as a number of Palestinians in the studio audience, over Hamas's own reported human rights abuses and the hundreds of Gazans it killed in its battle with Fatah for control of the area last June.
But Zahar deflected all such questions and refused to assume any guilt for those actions, saying repeatedly it was the fault of Fatah or Israel, and that Hamas was justified in all its actions.
The Doha Debates segment with Zahar will be broadcast on BBC World News on June 7 and 8.