Page last updated at 14:22 GMT, Thursday, 9 February 2006

Listening to the message of Hamas

By Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East editor

Khaled Meshaal

Khaled Meshaal, political chief of Palestinian militant group Hamas, worries about his security, and so do the people around him.

He has plenty of reasons to be careful.

The last two leaders of Hamas were assassinated by Israel, and in 1997 agents from Mossad, the Israeli secret service, tried to kill Mr Meshaal in the Jordanian capital, Amman, after a Hamas suicide bomber attacked Jerusalem's main fruit and vegetable market.

The men from Mossad approached him on the street and sprayed his neck with poison.

But they bungled their getaway and were caught, while the rest of their team ran into the Israeli embassy.


Mr Meshaal's life was only saved because the late King Hussein was so furious at what Israel was doing in his capital that he called then US President Bill Clinton to force Israel to supply the antidote.

[Is the international community] ready to understand, or just to listen?
Khaled Meshaal

The then Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who is trying to get his old job back at the moment, was also forced to release the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin; he was one of the Hamas leaders Israel killed two years ago.

Mr Meshaal is mildly amused by the irony that another US president, George W Bush this time, has changed his destiny.

If Israel had been making all the decisions, Hamas would not have been allowed to stand in the Palestinian elections.

But President Bush believes that democracy will cure the ills of the Middle East, so Israel had no choice other than to let its most essential ally have its way.


When we met for an interview in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Mr Meshaal seemed friendly, politically sophisticated and highly intelligent.

As our conversation went into its second half-hour, his Egyptian bodyguards started tapping their watches and shifting in their chairs, sending the international signal that it was time to go.

Mr Meshaal had come from two days of intensive talks with his Hamas colleagues and with Gen Omar Suleiman, the head of Egyptian intelligence, who has been at the heart of the largely successful, year-long effort to get Hamas to agree to a ceasefire and to abide by it.

But like politicians all over the world, hard work and hard choices seemed to be energising him.

He looked as if he would have been prepared to talk all night to get his point across.


It was clear that he had come with a message, which he wanted to get over to an international audience.

"Are they ready to understand, or just to listen?" he asked

Every way you look at it at the moment, it is impossible to see Hamas and Israel sitting down together to discuss what really matters to them

Most Israelis, and many others around the world who have been horrified and enraged by the Hamas campaign of killing in Israel, will consider themselves perfectly entitled not to listen, because as far as they are concerned, nothing is left to understand.

They see Hamas as a brutal movement of unreconstructed terrorists, which may be trying on a few new disguises, but which essentially remains as bad as it has ever been.

The first few themes of what Mr Meshaal had to say were not surprising.

He restated the basic Hamas platform - ceasefire or no ceasefire, it will not give up the option of mounting more attacks on Israelis, which he said were legitimate resistance to a military occupation.

The Hamas charter, which includes the objective of destroying the Jewish state, will not change - but a long term truce will be offered to Israel if it pulls out of the territory it occupied in the 1967 war and recognises Palestinian rights, including the right of refugees to return.


But nuances in the way that Mr Meshaal expressed himself suggested that the evolution of at least part of Hamas into a political organisation continues as it grapples with the prospect of forming a government.

He kept coming back to the role of the international community.

Israeli soldier walks past a Hamas election poster
Israel has refused to negotiate with a Hamas-led government

He said that if Israel withdrew to its pre-1967 boundaries, there could be peace and security in the region and agreements between the sides until the international community found a way to solve everybody's problems.

Every way you look at it at the moment, it is impossible to see Hamas and Israel sitting down together to discuss what really matters to them.

It is also important to note that the subtleties that were there when Mr Meshaal spoke to me were not deployed when he gave a fiery news conference later in the day.

Perhaps he has learned Yasser Arafat's old trick of saying one thing to Westerners and another to his own people.

But what if Hamas, as many Palestinians hope, really are being changed by the prospect of taking responsibility for a people who have been so ill-served by their leaders?

If so, it must be in everybody's interests if the diplomats of the Quartet of the US, the EU, Russia and the UN can take the risk of listening to Hamas and trying to understand it, too.

The risks of not doing so look much worse.

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