Meeting Ismail Haniyah
In between planning Yousuf’s birthday (the party finally happened yesterday!) and dealing with a spell of constipation he got along with a nasty cold (all I’ll say is-the miracles of olive oil never cease to amaze!), I was too pre-occupied for any serious writing last week. But I did manage to meet with our Prime-Minister designate, Ismail Haniyah.
It happened sort of by coincidence. I met up with the wonderful Helena Cobban, longtime journalist and writer, currently a columnist for the Christian Science Monitor, and also author of one of the first comprehensive books on the PLO. She emailed to tell me she was in Gaza for a few days.
It was a sort of weird convergence of threads in the Palestinian tapestry, or at least my budding family’s own tapestry. You see, she covered the fall of the Tel-Zaatar camp to the Israeli-Syrian-backed Flangist forces in 1976. The camp happened to be where Yassine and his family lived before fleeing to Baalbeck’s Wavel camp, (and where his uncle went missing after the massacre, and remains missing till this day).
So we met up, and chatted and lunched it up in our house as if we were old friends or family. We also drove around with the Hamas elected Munipality head of Dair al-Balah to take a look at some of the institutions Hamas has built there.
The next day, I went to the parliament to meet up with MPs during a break from their grueling and heated two-day session (convened by videoconference due an Israeli-imposed travel ban), with Gaza legislators linking-up to fellow MPs in the West Bank through a large screen wrought with technical difficulties, all of which highlights, to quote my colleague Khalid Amayreh, “Israel's complete control of nearly all aspects of Palestinian life…it is easier for most Palestinians, including public officials, to travel anywhere in the world than to commute the 20-minute-drive between the Strip and the West Bank”.”
In the corridors, I met Helena again, this time about to informally interview Ismail Haniyeh, who had just slid into his office from a swarm of television cameras. So I joined her to assist in translation (though she hardly needed it-she speaks super Arabic) and later warded off his assistant who insisted I take the entire box of tissues instead of just one in a show of hospitality.
My first impression of Haniya (besides his towering height) was his warmth and casual demeanor. I also couldn’t help noticing his eyes. Don’t ask me why I was gazing into Ismail Haniya’s eyes- I guess I always believe that eyes can tell you a lot about a person. They are these soft emerald-grey-green colour that somehow leave you at ease when you talk to him. He doesn’t speak much (any) English. Helena just said she wanted to interview him for 10 minutes and he said, jokingly, “ok, ahham ishee inrakiz 3al ’10 minutes’” (ok as long as we focus on the 10 minutes part).
Nothing he said was particularly groundbreaking, which I expected. But it was interesting to get to know him a little bit better, and compare him to some other Hamas leaders I've met in the past, such as Ismail Abu Shanab, Rantisi, and Ahmed Yasin. He was markedly more pragmatic and soft-spoken, I think i'd compare him most to Ismail Abu Shanab. Some highlights:
Asked about whether he thought Hamas could get the job done, vis-à-vis internal reform and rebuilding:
“Hamas has lived through all of Palestinian societies conditions. We have succeeded in the past in this respect, and we are confident we can succeed in this new challenge, in organizing the ‘Palestinian house’. We have in the past been successful in reaching internal agreements with other factions despite the tense internal political climate. We held our guns when all other factions didn’t. This does not mean there are no challenges-internal and external. The responsibility is huge and not a simple one. That is why we hope to form a national unity government that together can help realize the desires of the Palestinian people. Our people want internal security now”
Haniya then added then he saw that the PLO was one of the most important accomplishments and that he considered Hamas now a part of the it. He also said that “Hamas has relationships with many EU countries” already, but did not elaborate on which ones when pressed.
When the issue of borders and recognizing Israel came up in conversation:
“Why are answers needed over and over again for questions which have been responded to? We ask that the international community demand that Israel recognize the rights of Palestinians for once and to recognize a Palestinian state. Then, for sure, we will have a response to this question. We cannot separate ourselves from the reality of occupation. AT the same time, we hope to become less and less dependent on them.”