“Zaytoun” is the name of a plant in Arabic. In English it is known as olive. Its significance can be imagined from the fact that it has been mentioned in the Holy Quran. Allah Ta’la in a verse swears by it and calls Makkah “Baladil Amin” (City of Peace). That’s why the branch of Zaytoun has become a symbol of peace. Interestingly, this olive branch seems to be common to both Fatah and Hamas. Fatah leader and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat had in his historic speech at the United Nations General Assembly delivered on November 13, 1974 said: “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand. I repeat: do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.” It is said that this speech earned Arafat and PLO representation in the UN. Now when more than 32 years after the reference to the olive branch by Arafat, this scribe met on March 12, 2007 Dr Mohsen Mohammed Saleh of Hamas during the three-day international conference on “West Asia: War, Imperialism and Resistance”, at India International Centre (IIC), New Delhi, he too appeared to be fond of this symbolic plant. The Beirut-based think-tank “Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations” which he heads shows, in its emblem, olive with its branches. Besides, the think-tank is named after “Al Zaytouna”. Seen in this background, the “Makkah Declaration” signed recently between Fatah leader and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah with the mediation of Saudi King Abdullah becomes very important and historic. Dr Mohsen Mohammed Saleh in his exclusive interview to A U Asif, Editor, fanawatch.com, discusses in detail the impact of Makkah Declaration and other aspects related to the issue of Palestine. Following are the excerpts of the interview:
Question: Impact of “Makkah Declaration”?
Answer: “Makkah Declaration” symbolises peace. It is a good step forward. It has to stay because the two groups have consciously agreed to its points and declared to be committed to it. Bloodshed is a red line. No body or group likes to cross this line. It is true that Makkah Declaration is not acceptable to both America and Israel. They may try to fail it. But I am hopeful that even after that it would work. Because this declaration actually underlines the importance and need of unity among different groups of Palestinians and urges to share power to the cause of Palestine. As a result of which a national unity government has to exist there. In my view, this declaration has helped different groups to think of the cause altogether above the personal and organisation’s interests. It has sent a very pleasant message to the Palestinians in general and is being welcomed widely. As is obvious, Mahmoud Abbas has now himself clearly told the Americans and Israelis that he is committed to the “Makkah Declaration” and would abide by it.
Q: As is obvious, Makkah Declaration was signed by Mahmoud Abbas and Ismail Haniyah. But what was the role of Khalid Masha’l? Who is he?
A: Khalid Masha’l is the man who has emerged as the symbol of resistance after Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, founder of Hamas. He now lives in exile in Damascus (Syria) but he is in the heart of the general Palestinians. His contribution to the cause of Palestine is great. That’s why he remained in the centre-stage at the time of signing of the Makkah Declaration. He is the undisputed leader of Palestine and is respected by all, irrespective of groups or schools of thought.
Khalid Masha’a was born in 1956 in the Silwad neighbourhood of Ramallah. He moved with his family to Kuwait and lived there until the 1990 Gulf War. He led the Islamist Palestinians at Kuwait University. He participated in the foundation of the Islamic Haqq Bloc which competed with Fateh's blocs on leading the General Union for the Palestinian Students in Kuwait.
He got a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics from Kuwait University and went on to teach Physics in Kuwaiti schools. He was married in 1981 and has seven children, four sons and three daughters. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, he moved his family to Jordan and began his work with Hamas as one of its founders. He has been a member of the Hamas Political Bureau since its inception and became its chairman in 1996.
On September 25, 1997, Israeli Mossad agents tried to poison him. He would have died, but the Mossad agents were captured and it provoked a crisis in Israeli-Jordan relations. King Hussein insisted that Israel send the antidote to save Masha’al’s life. Israel agreed and the two agents were later released in a prisoner exchange in which Israel released Sheikh Ahmad Yassin from jail. Jordan later expelled Masha’l to Qatar when Jordan's relationship with Hamas deteriorated. Masha’l then moved to Damascus (Syria) where he ran the political wing of Hamas. After the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin on May 22, 2003, Khalid Masha’l was appointed the world leader of Hamas.
Q: Does it mean that even after the departure of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the charismatic leader of Hamas, the movement survives?
A: The movement would survive because it is for a cause. Sheikh Yassin was, no doubt the man behind all this but the movement he began would, Insha Allah, continue to survive. In the life of a movement such situation arrives but if it is for a cause it doesn’t stop and continues its journey with more determination and spirit.
Q: What is the experience of Hamas after remaining in power for more than a year?
A: It is, indeed, a new experience not only for Hamas but for the general Palestinians. They now know how to share power in comparison to the PLO government led by Fatah group. Earlier, every body was talking about it but wanted government of their choice only. Hamas has proved that it can be done. Makkah Declaration has strengthened its initiatives. The major change after one year in power is that the spirit of the Palestinians has gone high and Islamic and resistance movements have too grown stronger. This is evident from the mood of the general Palestinians whether in or outside Palestine. In such a situation, Intifada activities have naturally gone slow. People are now engaged in the new experiment.
Q: Why Hamas is opposed to the peace initiatives by Israel and America?
A: Hamas is always for peace, conciliation and agreement. But the question is: On what ground? Every body knows the pacts in which Israel and America have been interested are devoid of the main issues of Al Quds (Jerusalem), Palestinian refugees and areas now under Israeli occupation. How the peace, conciliation and agreement can be imagined in the absence of these main issues? This was the reason as to why Oslo Pact did not work and failed. Who does not know it is Israel that has kept inside its jails thousands of Palestinians but made a world-wide hue and cry over its only one soldier. Besides, it is also a fact that UNO adopted 530 resolutions on West Asia/ Palestine in comparison o only one resolution on Timor but even after that the issue remains unsettled. This all is due to the unjust role of the Super Power in defence of Israel.
Q: Was it your first visit to India? How did you find it and its people? What do you expect from India?
A: Yes, this was my first visit to this country. My family is with me in this journey. I found this country and its people as per my expectations. The people are democratic, tolerant and polite in nature. This was proved particularly during the present international conference on the West Asia. The people I happened to meet also gave the same impression. So far as the expectations from India are concerned, India is a country that has been an advocate of the Palestinian cause since the first quarter of the last century. Its Father of Nation Gandhiji was known for his principled stand upon Palestinians and their homeland. After its Independence it abided by its stand. Even today when it has developed a close relationship with Israel, it continues to claim to be committed to its declared traditional stand on West Asia/ Palestine. In my view, India is an emerging super power. It can play a decisive role in bringing Israel to terms to international legality. We look towards India with hopes and expectations.
Q: Now something about you and your think-tank?
A: I am too a Palestinian ‘Muhajir’ (Refugee) and now live at Beirut (Lebanon). I was born at Anabta in Nablus. I taught contemporary Palestinian history at the International Islamic University of Malaysia from 1994 to 2004. Afterwards, I am engaged in running the think-tank “Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations”. It is an independent licensed corporation established in Beirut in 2004. It conducts strategic and futuristic studies on the Arab and Muslim world, particularly West Asia. It emphasises on the Palestinian issue and the conflict with Israel as well as related Palestinians, Arab, Islamic and international developments. It runs a wide-range data base and classifies it along the most modern scientific and technical methods. Personalities like Prof Abd al Wahab al Masiri, thinker and expert on Zionist issues; Prof Ahmad Mubarak al Khaldi, Dean, Faculty of Law, Al Najah University; Prof Anis al Sayegh, former Director of PLO’s Research Centre; Prof Bayan Nwaihid al Hout, expert in modern Palestinian history; Prof Hassan Ahmad Ibrahim, expert in African and Middle Eastern history; Prof Imad al Din Khalil, historian; Dr Mohammed Amarah, thinker; Dr Mohammed Isa Salhieh, expert in Islamic and Arab history; Mounir Shafiq, Former Director of the PLO’s Planning Bureau; Dr Omar al Ashqar, former Dean, Faculty of Islamic Studies, University of Al Zarqa, Jordan; Salah Abd al Maqsoud, Director of Arab Media Centre and Vice Syndic of Egyptian Journalists and Dr Tareq al Swaidan, thinker and administrative expert are associated with it.