Moscow goes overboard for Hamas

Mashaal reiterates demands for 1967 borders, return of refugees.

mashaal lavrov 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
mashaal lavrov 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The Hamas delegation received a royal welcome in snowy Moscow on Friday. The visit drew an enormous amount of attention among the foreign and local media. More then 400 journalists lined up for strict security checks in front of the RIA Novosty news agency building in the city center, to attend the press conference held by the delegation, headed by the organization's chief, Khaled Mashaal. "Only president Reagan's visit [in 1988] was covered as extensively as Hamas's visit today," said a veteran Russian reporter. He said, "Not even half of these people would show up for Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas], were he to hold a press conference today." Since early Friday morning, every TV news report, newspaper headline and radio broadcast in Moscow has begun with Hamas. There was no pattern to the reports, but rather a great deal of confusion as to how this unusual visit should be covered and how the delegation should be addressed. Russian President Vladimir Putin said shortly after Hamas's election victory that "Russia had never seen Hamas as a terrorist organization," but many local newspapers and news agencies regularly refer to the organization and its leaders as terrorists. Few dared to use that word regarding the current delegation. Many struggled to find a formula that would not offend anyone while still implying that Hamas was still quite an ambiguous player. The Hamas delegation met with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the ministry's Stalin-era building on Smolenskaya Square. The security arrangements could not have been any tighter: In addition to elite Russian guards, there were a dozen of Mashaal's own security men, imported from Syria. "Why do you need such heavy security in the heart of Moscow, at the ministry of foreign affairs," asked Akram Huzam, former Al-Jazeera Moscow correspondent. Smiling and in obvious good spirits, Mashaal said, "Basically, we trust in God for our protection, but it's better being safe than sorry." Joking with journalists, Mashaal projected firmness, optimism and confidence. Also present were Moussa Abu Marzouk, who accompanied Mashaal from Damascus, Muhammad Nazal, who joined the delegation from Beirut, Said Siam, a senior Hamas leader from Gaza, Sami Hater and other Hamas leaders from Gaza and abroad. Ignoring the Russian hosts, the RIA Novosty news agency, Mashaal ended up running the press conference himself, allowing the Arab-speaking correspondents to ask questions in Arabic. "We are welcoming the attention to our visit by the Russian and foreign media, and ready to answer any question," said Mashaal. He expressed his deepest gratitude to the Russian government and nation, "which always enjoyed excellent relations with Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims, and is about to play a great role in the Middle East nowadays." He said many Palestinian leaders, from both Fatah and Hamas, were hopeful that Russia would be able to "counterweight the unbalanced position of today, in which America calls the shots." Both sides described the visit as positive, but it seemed the hosts had hoped for greater flexibility from the new Palestinian leaders. Russia's intentions for the Middle East seemed quite clear. The ex-super power was interested in playing the role of negotiator and of a dominant player, as it used to in the sixties. As for Hamas, its leaders hoped international recognition would follow the Moscow visit. This week, the Hamas leaders are to visit Latin America and South Africa. Hamas is not about to change its demand that Israel withdraw to the pre-1967 borders, accept a right of return for Palestinian refugees and release Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, Abu Marzouk, deputy chief of Hamas's political bureau, said in an interview in Moscow Saturday. Abu Marzouk reiterated that recognition of Israel was not on the agenda. "It means a negation of the Palestinian people and their rights and their property, of Jerusalem and the holy sites, as well as negation of their right of return," he said. He did not say whether refugees would return to a future Palestinian state or to all of Mandatory Palestine. "We Palestinians just want to live like any other nation, in peace and security," he said. "We want to establish our state in the 1967 borders and live without fear and persecution. The international community should pressure Israel to abide by the law and the decisions of the United Nations. "Soon after the [January 25 Palestinian Authority] elections, Hamas committed itself to observe the tahdiya - the inter-Palestinian cease-fire agreement that was signed in March 2005, despite the unceasing Israeli violations and violence. Also, we said that we were interested in real peace and were willing to act for the achievement of this goal," Abu Marzouk said. "A temporary peace might be achieved by the means of the gun, but a true, lasting peace can only be based on foundations of true justice," the Hamas No. 2 continued. Abu Marzouk would not say how he defined a "lasting peace" based on "true justice." However, in a February 14 interview with Egyptian-based Dream 2 TV - translated by MEMRI - he said, "Hamas believes that all of Palestine belongs to the Palestinian people. All of Palestine, from the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea, belongs to the Palestinians." The current phase was to seek control of the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, he said, but this was "a temporary and phased solution. This is not the permanent solution," he said. In Israel, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Friday that Russian President Putin had assured him Russia would continue to observe the principles laid out by the Quartet. "Putin gave us messages about limiting their contact with Hamas and supporting the principles that we drafted and that are supported by America and by the Quartet," Olmert said. The US said the meeting in Russia had put Hamas on notice that it must renounce terrorism and accept Israel. The meeting in Moscow "served the purpose to deliver the message," State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said. "We think it's important that Hamas get the message loud and clear. We have a common front and a united purpose to make clear to Hamas that it has before it a clear and unambiguous choice," Ereli said. And yet, he said, that Hamas will soon be in a position to govern gives it "a certain exposure. You can call it legitimacy, you can call it whatever you want, but those are the facts of the matter," he said. Responding calmly to Hamas's refusal in Moscow to soften its hostility to Israel, Ereli said: "We'll judge Hamas by its actions. So far," he said, "it hasn't taken the actions that the international community is looking for,' Ereli said. "Will they do it tomorrow? Well, let's see." Gil Hoffman and AP contributed to this report.