Osama Hamdan is Palestinian resistance group Hamas’s top representative in Lebanon, and a member of the organization’s Politburo. The 56-year old, Gaza-born official has also served in Iran as Hamas’s representative in the mid to late 1990s. Hamdan has been part of Hamas delegations for the Palestinian National Dialogue, and has participated in inter-factional dialogues in Cairo and in talks with European officials.
I first met Osama Hamdan in 2009, when interviewing Hamas and Hezbollah’s senior-most foreign affairs officials for the Huffington Post. For whatever reason, I seem to always get the call for a Hamas interview a few hours before I board a flight – it was the same when I first met Hamdan, and then a year later, when I was driven to Damascus about 10 hours before my Beirut flight was set to depart, to interview Hamas’s then-political chief Khaled Mishaal.
About six months later, the Syrian conflict erupted and Hamas’s fortunes in both Syria and Lebanon flipped dramatically. While Hamdan and his associates stayed put in Beirut, the organization was, for a few years, no longer at the heart of the Resistance Axis.
That has now changed, as evidenced by Hamas’s growing arsenal of increasingly sophisticated missiles, reportedly supplied by Iran and its allies. While Hamas claims that Iranian support continued throughout the Syrian crisis, official sources have said this support “ebbed, rather than flowed” during a few tense years.
Hamas may be back in the resistance fold once again, but more than a few feathers were ruffled during the Syrian conflict. Hamdan, during this interview, refused to provide any insights into the Syria-Hamas relationship and whether it was on the mend. And, of course, the wave of post-Syrian conflict ‘normalizations’ that have taken place between a number of Arab states and Israel have further diminished the resistance group’s regional support network.
Yet Hamas is ever more popular on the Palestinian street, where polls show they would win hands-down in any forthcoming national election. Plus, their updated arsenal of targeted missiles took Israelis by surprise during their last conflict, setting an important deterrent for the Occupation – to the relief of Palestinians everywhere.
Right now though, dialogue is underway – for the umpteenth time – to reconcile the various Palestinian factions; a prisoner exchange negotiation is in the works; ‘normalization’ threatens the Palestinian path ahead; Israeli strikes on Syria, sabotage in Lebanon, and threats against Iran, have kept the resistance on its toes in 2021.
Here, then, is The Cradle’s exclusive interview with Osama Hamdan in his modest offices in Haret Hreik, Beirut’s southern suburb, in which he shines a light on recent developments in the Palestinian resistance theater. Notable is that Hamdan conducts the interview in fluent English:
The Cradle: What is happening in the negotiations in Cairo? Talks have been going on for decades, often with US attempts to contain Hamas. Or is Egypt really intent on opening up Gaza this time?
Hamdan: I do not believe that we should talk about intent, or why they do one thing and not the other. I believe that the Sayf al Quds (Sword of Jerusalem) operation in May 2021 was unique and important for the Palestinian cause, as well as for the region. It shows that resistance is still capable of building power, capable of defending Palestinian rights, and is still committed to the main target of the Palestinians, the liberation of Palestinian land, the return of refugees, and all the rights of the Palestinians.
At this point, maybe the Americans have started to understand that they can’t contain Hamas. When we participated in the elections in 2006, everyone on the other side wished Hamas could make the changes in its resistance program for the benefit of the political solution, but it was clear that Hamas continued the resistance. Also, our position was clear in rejecting the conditions of the Quartet.
We have been under siege for the last 15 years because of those conditions. Instead of changing our position, as the US wants us to do, we have continued and we have built our relationship with the people. Everyone understands that Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] did not go ahead with the [subsequent] elections because all indications were that it would be a victory for Hamas.
The Cradle: What is the purpose of these talks with Egypt?
Hamdan: Well, for Egypt, Palestine is very important. On the historical level, they have relations with all Palestinian organizations. They are the mediators in the internal politics of Palestine, and they are partners in the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. Egyptians have rules that you have to work with, even if you don’t have complete agreement on everything.
Our meeting in Cairo was to discuss with the Egyptians several issues on the basis of the Palestinian resistance, on the basis of the results of Sayf al Quds.
The first issue was that everyone has to know that we will continue the resistance. After the new American administration, everyone understands that there is no chance for a political solution, which was clear to us 25 years ago. And we should work on this space as united Palestinians. If there is any chance to rebuild the Palestinian political system, the PLO, the Palestinian National Council, we are ready to participate. If not, we will continue our work with Palestinian resistance movements like Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and others.
The Cradle: Do you trust the Egyptians, given their attitude regionally towards the Ikhwan and Islamist groups? How do you go back to having Egypt as a mediator when it takes these positions so clearly?
Hamdan: They have been the mediators for more than 20 years, and if they went forward in this direction, we will be happy. If it doesn’t work, we’ll keep trying, but without giving up our goals, or our work, the work we do with resistance, and the liberation of Palestine.
The Cradle: Did the Egyptians jump-start these talks? Or was it a Palestinian request?
Hamdan: No, it was an invitation from the Egyptian side.
The Cradle: What does Egypt really want from Gaza? To keep the front calm with Israel only? Do you not suspect that that is their goal?
Hamdan: No, I believe it is more complicated than that. The Egyptians believe that this issue of calm is part of their national security as well. Which is true, because although they have a peace agreement with Israel, I believe they know deep down that the real enemy is Israel. And their relations with Palestine, with Palestinians, gives the Egyptians an upper hand in the region. So it is a benefit on both sides. We, as Palestinians, need the Egyptians to be supportive of the Palestinians. And the Egyptians understand that Israel is still an enemy.
The Cradle: A Hamas official once told me that every time the Israelis attack Gaza, Israel rushes within the first days to get a ceasefire process in play, and that it is important for Israel to keep hostilities short; otherwise, it starts to suffer losses, both in terms of public opinion, and actual physical losses. Egypt is always there jumping in to push that ceasefire. Is that helpful for Hamas?
Hamdan: Well, if the conditions are not acceptable for Hamas, we would simply say no. That happened in 2014.
The Cradle: You said no to Egypt?
Hamdan: We said no. And instead of just having hostilities for 12 days, we continued for 51 days. We said no. If the conditions are not good for the Palestinians, we simply say no.
The Cradle: What changed in May 2021? I mean, the world saw the West Bank and the 1948 Palestinians rise up. It was extraordinary. Was it surprising to Hamas?
Hamdan: It was surprising for everyone. Usually, we expect our people will act, but the level and extent to which they did was a surprise for everyone. We trust our people in the occupied 1948 lands, and we don’t accept that they are part of Israel. They are always Palestinians. But they are under special conditions. Clearly, they are just as much a part of the resistance as any other Palestinians, which came as a shock to the Israelis. And this is very important for us as Palestinians. After 73 years of occupation, Israel has not been able to turn Palestinians into Israelis. Today, we are seeing the third generation under the occupation – they still talk about being Palestinian, and they are part of the struggle against Israel.
In the West Bank, from 2008, there was a new security system, new policies. [US] General Keith Dayton said that he will build a new type of Palestinian who will accept relations with Israel against his own people, which we have seen the Palestinian Authority (PA) become.
But today, we see that the young people fighting Israel were only children at that time. So, after 20 years, we have a new plan for General Dayton: We are talking about a new resistance in the West Bank, which is shocking for the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority too.
I believe the events in May were a sign of two important things. The first is that ‘resistance’ is the real mood and desire of the Palestinians. They believe that there is no choice but to resist the occupation. And when you act as the resistance, you unify the Palestinian people. We now see the Palestinians – from the river to the sea – and in the diaspora, supporting the May battle of Sayf al Quds. This battle showed that the people believe in and trust the resistance. This new resistance is based inside all Palestinian lands, and this legitimacy of resistance came from the people, it didn’t come from outside. So, more support for this resistance was given as a sign of trust. We trust you, we trust what you are doing, and we trust you are working in a good way. So that was, I believe, an important change in Palestine for all the Palestinians.
The Cradle: Has there been a change in Hamas’ relationship with 1948 Palestinians? Organizationally, institutionally, individually, since the events of May?
Hamdan: It is too early to say. 1948 Palestinians have their own ways of organizing themselves through political parties there and human rights NGOs. And I believe the important issue is not how Hamas will work with those people; the important issue is how they are capable of organizing themselves, as Palestinians, as part of the Palestinian nation, which I believe they are doing. Simply, if they had not acted as Palestinians in resistance during the last decades, then they would not have acted the way they did during the May events. They acted because they have struggled for a long time to be Palestinians, and to keep their identity and culture.
The Cradle: The other interesting thing about the events of May was the West Bank suddenly exploding again onto the scene. And it has stayed that way, with many daily clashes between occupation forces and Palestinian youth, who appear to be very disenfranchised. They are obviously against the occupation, the home demolitions, the theft of territory, and other abuses, but they’re also against the abuses of the PA, and their clashes are sometimes aimed at both. What do you make of this new phenomenon in the West Bank?
Hamdan: It is new because there was a lot of political pressure on the Palestinian people in the West Bank from both the PA and Israel. I believe that the people overcame this dilemma during the battle of Sayf al Quds. Our actions against the occupation, our resistance, is a national issue. It is not something that just belongs to Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It is a national action by the Palestinian nation that moves things forward. I believe the PA now realizes it is not going to be as easy to dismiss its own people as before.
We saw that, for example, with the killing of (Palestinian political activist) Nizar Banat. He was arrested, beaten to death, and the PA is still struggling to extricate itself from this calamity. They are acting irrationally. They have arrested dozens of activists who are not Hamas members or even Hamas supporters, but activists against the occupation as well as against the killing of Nizar Banat. As a nation, we may be able to accept some mistakes by the PA, but we cannot accept collaboration with the occupation. So, I think change is happening, even inside Fatah. The Fatah party were angry and they’re still angry about the PA’s security relations with Israel.
The Cradle: Are you hearing this from the young members of Fatah?
The Cradle: So, is there a future for the PA? Is there any real discussion about the dissolution of the PA and the Oslo agreements? Rewinding to a time where there was real possibility, and starting on a new page?
Hamdan: I think the Oslo agreement is dead, but they are keeping the corpse. The Israelis and Americans are not working to solve the problems. They are just managing the problem. So everyone understands there is no political future for the Oslo Accords. And the future of the PA depends on its own decisions. If they decide to be a Palestinian Authority defending Palestinian rights, supporting the resistance in some way, taking part in national resistance against the occupation, I think there will be changes in the Palestinian Authority, and it will work. But if they decide to keep their job as security men for the occupation, there will be no future for the PA.
The Cradle: You say unity is very important in the Palestinian body, but we are constantly hearing about Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), who have worked together and benefited each other in many battles, yet rumors about tensions and disagreements between them persist. A week ago, the PIJ’s Saraya al-Quds (military wing) refuted a statement issued by the joint operations room. Is the voice of Hamas the only one that counts in that operations room? What is going on with PIJ and Hamas in Cairo? What are the disagreements about, from the perspective of Hamas?
Hamdan: Well, everything is openly discussed. There may be some disagreements, but we have to make decisions together.
The Cradle: But what is PIJ disagreeing with you on? The general view is that they are more aligned with the importance of armed struggle. And Hamas is now in Cairo, again, discussing what was being discussed about 10 to 15 years ago, like ‘Hudna,’ a long-term ceasefire.
Hamdan: No one talks about that. There were no talks in Egypt about a long-term ceasefire. We are still clear that if there is an Israeli military reaction to issues, we will react directly. Our goal is to liberate our land. Maybe our brothers in Islamic Jihad have different opinions, and they may express their ideas differently but these are not political or fundamental issues. There will be differences, not only between Islamic Jihad and Hamas, but even within Hamas there will be different ideas about how to deal with issues in the field.
The Cradle: Every time there is a conflict, it seems that, for Israel, Gaza is the low hanging fruit, where it can take out its frustrations. Israel can’t attack Lebanon or Iran, for instance – directly at least. Why do you accept any ceasefire with Israel, when it will just start bombarding Gaza again, after a short break?
Hamdan: This question can be answered through two main points. The first point is that this is a long-haul struggle, not because it’s a struggle between the Palestinians and the Israelis, but because it’s a struggle on an international level. It is a long-term struggle, so you have to act or to deal with that, knowing it’s a long-term struggle. The second point is: why does Israel fear military confrontation when the international community tries to justify everything that Israel does against the Palestinians?
Clearly, there are casualties on both sides during confrontations, but on the Israeli side, the casualties are among the soldiers, whereas on the Palestinian side, it’s mostly civilians. While many in the West do not support Hamas, they clearly see the imbalance in the conflict: Israeli soldiers are killing Palestinian civilians. Many have come to understand that Israel is an apartheid state. I believe Israel is worse than this, but it’s good that the people are starting to see that something is wrong. So when you work with an international community that still supports Israel financially as well as politically, you have to move forward step by step.
The Cradle: Let me ask you about the prisoner exchange because that’s in the news. What is new and accurate about this prisoner file? And also about the six prisoners (rearrested after escaping from Israel’s Gilboa prison) that you said would have to be included in any prisoner exchange?
Hamdan: This is the only thing that’s right and new that’s being said in the media. We prefer not to talk about the prisoner exchange until it is final. There is a discussion. But there are no outcomes to be published yet. As Abu Obeida (Hamas’ spokesman) said, the six prisoners were true heroes when they dug the tunnel and escaped jail. They will be the first six names. We will not accept any prisoner exchange without those six people.
The Cradle: The last two escapees were in the Jenin refugee camp, and we understand that the PA intervened to get them out of the camp so that there wouldn’t be a confrontation. Do you know if the PA told them to get out of the camp?
Hamdan: The PA said, “We will help the Israelis under one condition: no killing.” But, you know, the PA has its own ways to make the escapees come out. They did not ask them to come out of hiding. They persuaded them that it would be better to move from one place to another.
The Cradle: What do you think of that?
Hamdan: Well, they have worked 100 percent for the benefit of Israel.
The Cradle: What do you have to say about the UAE, Bahraini, Moroccan normalization with Israel?
Hamdan: Well, we are against any normalization with Israel. We believe that it will not be helpful for those countries that normalize. What has happened to those who have had normalization with Israel over the past decades? Nothing good. They did not achieve any of their goals. I believe normalization today is worse than it was before. Decades ago, the main goal of normalization was to create acceptance of Israel among the people. Now it is part of building a new alliance in the region against the will of the people and their nations. They have to decide if they want to be a part of this or not.
The Cradle: What’s interesting is that in some of these countries there are political Islamist movements, including Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) who support normalization and those who don’t. What is your position on that?
Hamdan: We support anyone who supports us, and we will thank them for their support. But if they go in the wrong direction, we will say no. This is our position. No Ikhwan are normalizing relations with Israel. When the Israeli minister went to Bahrain, all the Islamic groups, including Ikhwan, protested against him. They acted on the ground with more than 35 NGOs against normalization. We are against any normalization, regardless of who is doing it.
The Cradle: We are sitting in Beirut having this discussion and we do not know if the Egyptian gas that is coming to Lebanon in the deal the US announced is, in effect, stolen Palestinian gas. Do you have any information on this? Do you take any position on this gas coming from Egypt?
Hamdan: No one knows that. There has been no solid information about this issue yet. Some say it is Palestinian gas, others say it is Egyptian gas. The moment we have solid facts, we will state our position.
The Cradle: What is the status of Hamas’ relationship with Syria?
Hamdan: Well, everyone knows that for the last few years there were no relations. But at the same time, there is no fight, there is no problem.
The Cradle: Are there any talks between representatives of Hamas and the Syrian government?
Hamdan: No comment.
The Cradle: Everyone is normalizing with Syria now.
Hamdan: I have no comment about this issue.
The Cradle: Can you at least say if there are any communications with Syria via intermediaries? For instance, during the war, I met some Hamas representatives in the Homs camp – they were not in any of the other camps – and these representatives were neutral and on good terms with everybody. Am I wrong?
The Cradle: So there are obviously some kind of relations that continue. Tell me what went wrong with Syria.
Hamdan: Okay, something went wrong. I don’t want to talk about history. We are willing to have normal relations with all the regional players who support the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian resistance. We are working on this, and when we achieve that, it will be seen in public.
The Cradle: Is Hamas going to be the last Arab contingency going back to Damascus?
Hamdan: I’m not watching the race, you are the one who’s watching it.
The Cradle: Which Arab countries do you have no relations with currently?
Hamdan: We try to have relations with everyone, but not all those relations are the same. Some relations are good and some are bad, and there are some sides that are working to have relations and others are on the attack.
The Cradle: Who’s not taking your calls?
Hamdan: Who is not taking my calls? Everyone who is afraid of American pressure.
The Cradle: How is your relationship with Iran? Was it significantly affected by the Syrian conflict?
Hamdan: Well, everyone knows it’s very good. More than very good. Our relationship with Iran is now exactly 31 years old. Our work together was based on a very important principle. The main goal was to resist the occupation and to protect not only the Palestinians, but to protect humanity from this cancer. That doesn’t mean that we have to agree on everything. We may have our differences, but those differences must not undermine the main goal, which is resistance against the occupation. So I can say that the relationship has had its ups and downs, but it has been a smooth relationship overall, and we have managed our differences, in a positive way, and together.
The Cradle: How is your relationship with Turkey now? How does Turkey help Hamas specifically?
Hamdan: Turkey supports the Palestinian position on important issues. In fact, they have provided us with all the documentation for land ownership in Jerusalem, especially in Sheikh Jarrah. The Israelis tried to argue that they had legal ownership. But the documents show that all the land in Sheikh Jarrah and other districts in Jerusalem belongs to Palestinian Muslims and Christians. Turkey has supported Palestinians on a humanitarian level, while we hope they can move forward and cut their ties with Israel.
The Cradle: Is that something Hamas puts on the table with Turkey?
Hamdan: We ask everyone to cut their ties with Israel because we do not believe Israel is a state. It is an occupation. It is the cause of instability in the region. We believe that the US is trying to do everything to protect Israel, including destabilizing the political and economic situation in the region, especially in strong countries, because everyone knows that Israel cannot survive with economically strong, independent-minded countries in the region. Israel cannot be powerful unless strong countries in the region are destroyed. That includes Iran and Turkey. So we urge everyone to cut relations with Israel. If there is going to be a decent future for the region, not just for the Palestinians, we have to get rid of Israel, and they can do that by supporting Palestinians, and supporting their resistance.