A senior leader of Hamas in Gaza revealed that the Palestinian resistance organization has refused an invitation to London from former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Mahmoud Zahhar’s comments in an interview on al-Aqsa TV Monday night are reported by the Gaza-based publication Alresalah.
Blair, former peace envoy of the so-called Quartet, has reportedly been mediating contacts over a long-term truce for Gaza between Israel and Hamas.
Zahhar also said that the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, run by Mahmoud Abbas, is refusing proposals for a port in Gaza, a key part of Hamas’ demands to end the Israeli blockade of the territory.
The senior Hamas official charged that PA obstruction was helping Israel maintain the siege and preventing reconstruction in Gaza.
But Zahhar said that Hamas’ military resistance had forced international parties to talk to its leaders.
Blair has reportedly met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in the Qatari capital Doha twice since June.
Meshaal’s public comments have suggested that significant progress has been made toward a multi-year truce that would effectively end Israel’s siege.
Israel’s tight control of Gaza’s frontiers has remained in place in the year since a ceasefire ended a 51-day assault that killed more than 2,200 Palestinians and devastated much of the coastal enclave.
Zahhar, however, seems to be putting a less optimistic spin on the talks. He rejected as “lies with no basis in reality” claims by senior figures in Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction that a Hamas-Israel deal that would harm Palestinian interests is imminent.
He said that Fatah’s attacks came after European states had effectively ended their boycott of political contacts with Hamas, threatening Fatah’s monopoly on legitimacy.
Zahhar said his movement was seeking a clear end to the siege of Gaza, not merely to come up with new arrangements for the crossings between Gaza and Israel and Gaza and Egypt.
A seaport was essential to that goal, he asserted.
Invitation to London
Last week, Middle East Eye first reported Blair’s invitation to Meshaal to visit London, citing unnamed “informed sources.”
Azzam Tamimi, a London-based author and broadcaster who is a personal friend of Meshaal, told Alresalahthat Hamas had requested a delay in such a visit “until a clear formulation of the ceasefire proposal was formed,” Middle East Eye reported.
Tamimi reportedly said Hamas “did not want these talks to be an extension of the Oslo process, or an attempt to revive an agreement that had already failed.”
Hamas’ proposals of a long-term truce with Israel are at least a decade old. However the movement would want to achieve such an agreement without appearing to make political concessions on fundamental Palestinian rights or recognizing Israel.
Blair, widely regarded as a war criminal for his role in the US-led invasion of Iraq, is a deeply unpopular and mistrusted figure among Palestinians who see him as entirely partisan to Israel.
His murky business dealings with regional leaders and regimes, and the large donations his charities have received from an Israeli-settlement financier, do not help his credibility.
At the same time, by talking to Meshaal, Blair seems to be taking a leaf from the approach he took to negotiations in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, where his government broke taboos on contacts with Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army.
During a recent meeting, Blair “left Meshaal with the understanding that the offer of a visit to London was an official one, with the knowledge of the British Prime Minister David Cameron and the Americans,” according toMiddle East Eye.
Notwithstanding the possible contents of the Blair-mediated contacts, which can only be judged when they are revealed, I had advocated in a 2010 New York Times op-ed that talking to Hamas – following the IRA model – was a necessary condition for any political progress.
Whether these contacts can lead anywhere and, importantly, whether Hamas can use them to make real achievements without falling into political traps set by Israel and its allies remains to be seen.
Musical chairs in Ramallah
While Hamas takes center-stage, Abbas is playing a game of musical chairs in Ramallah. This week, Abbas and 10 others resigned from the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
The Executive Committee, dominated by Fatah, is the PLO’s highest decision-making body.
Abbas did not step down as PA leader.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad are not members of the PLO despite long-delayed reforms that were supposed to bring them in.
The resignations are expected to trigger a meeting of the Palestine National Council, the PLO’s legislative body, to choose a new Executive Committee.
Fatah leaders have presented Abbas’ move as an initiative to bring new blood into the PLO leadership and spur reform.
But many Palestinian political observers dismiss the resignations as political theater by Abbas to reassert his and Fatah’s control and to give themselves a renewed mandate.
However, it is questionable what sort of mandate they could get from the Palestine National Council given that it too is an unelected body most of whose members were appointed decades ago and are virtually unknown to the vast majority of Palestinians.
Abbas, jealous of the political attention Hamas is receiving, may also want to send a message to his Western and Israeli backers that if they do not appreciate and support him he could leave.
And if he goes his PA regime of “security coordination” and protecting Israeli settlers could go too.