The Islamist movement Hamas will not let itself be dragged into a war against Israel if it attacks the nuclear facilities of Hamas ally Iran, Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh said on Thursday.
“Hamas is a Palestinian movement that acts within the Palestinian arena and it carries out its political and field actions in a way that suits the interests of the Palestinian people,” he said at his headquarters in the enclave.
“Iran did not ask anything from us and we think Iran is not in need of us,” the prime minister of the Hamas government told Reuters in an interview.
Israel has repeatedly said it rules out no option in its determination to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
“The Israeli threats are declared and they are not in need of analysis. But I think such an issue would have grave consequences on the entire region,” the 48-year-old Hamas leader said. “I cannot predict the scenarios but a battle of this kind would have repercussions for the region.”
Israel says it would have to reckon with potential attacks from the south by Iranian-supported Hamas and from the north by the Tehran-backed Hezbollah army in Lebanon, if it came to war with Iran. Israel says both groups possess stockpiles of rockets supplied by Iran and accuses both of practicing terrorism.
Haniyeh said the grand coalition formed this week by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which gives him an unassailable majority in parliament, had been established for internal reasons but could also have “external motives”.
“On the external level there is no doubt that it was an attempt to absorb the big changes that have taken place in the region - the so-called Arab Spring - and maybe a preparation for several issues,” he said.
Asked if Iran might be one of the issues, he said: “Maybe.”
Haniyeh said the current hunger strike by hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli prisons was a test of Israel’s commitment to universal humanitarian principles which must be recognized. He warned that the death of any prisoner would have “negative repercussions”, but did not elaborate.
“I do not wish that any prisoner in Israeli jails is martyred and so I demand that they implement international law in respect to the prisoners, who should be regarded as prisoners of war,” he said.
Palestinian human rights groups say up to 2,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails have been refusing food since April 17. Two have been on hunger strike for some 70 days and are said to be in serious condition.
“They are simple demands, humanitarian demands, such as ending solitary confinement, family visits, more television channels,” the Hamas leader said.
Israel, he said, must keep the promises it made when captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was released by Hamas last October after more than five years in confinement, in exchange for the liberation of some 900 Palestinians jailed by Israel.
The Islamic Jihad movement in Gaza, which has often exempted itself from the tacit truce agreements Hamas has made with Israel, has said it will escalate violence if a prisoner dies.
“We had a meeting with the leadership of the Islamic Jihad and they have confirmed that any negative development in the issue of prisoners would be discussed among the national front and in a meeting for factions,” Haniyeh said. “They will not take a unilateral action outside of a national consensus.”
Wearing a sober grey suit to complement his carefully trimmed grey beard, the Hamas leader was measured in his responses as he was interviewed in a salon of his office suite.
He displayed an amused irony over the effort to mend the internal split in the Palestinian national movement.
“It’s not dead. But it’s not moving,” he laughed.
Hamas and the Fatah movement led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have curbed the overt hostility that divided them for years, after fighters of the Islamist movement drove the secular Fatah militia out of Gaza in 2007.
But true reconciliation has eluded them.
“We have gone a long way to reach a Palestinian-Palestinian agreement but there are some external and internal obstacles,” Haniyeh said, citing United States and Israeli pressure on Abbas not to make any partnership with a movement shunned in the West as a terrorist organization.
Internally, he said, some factions in Abbas’s Palestinian Authority - which administers the West Bank - were dragging their heels because they benefited from the division.
Haniyeh said the Palestinian cause had been “the biggest beneficiary” of the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
The reconciliation accord of 2011 was brokered with Egypt’s mediation, as was the prisoner swap for Shalit, he noted.
“Governments that had close ties with the Israelis at the expense of Palestinian rights have gone,” he said. “Respect for the Palestinian cause among Arab people has been restored.”
“Arab nations are increasingly embracing the concerns of the Palestinian people in regard to Jerusalem, prisoners and the (Israeli) blockade on Gaza,” he said.
Benefits so far from neighboring Egypt may have been few, but they would come in time “when political life settles” and a new president, parliament and government were in power.
One immediate advantage from the toppling of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 was access to blockaded Gaza from the Egyptian Sinai via the Rafah crossing, he said.
“We hope that with the will of the Egyptian people and political stability in Egypt things will get better and the policies towards Palestine will also be improved,” he said.
Asked if Hamas had abandoned armed struggle, Haniyeh replied: “Of course not.”
Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation would continue “in all forms - popular resistance, political, diplomatic and military resistance”.
Hamas does not recognize Israel, unlike Abbas, who told Reuters in an interview in his West Bank compound on Wednesday that he opposed armed struggle with the Jewish state.
Haniyeh refused to say if Hamas would recognize Israel.
“First of all does Israel recognize the Palestinian people’s right to exist in a state and a political entity?” he said. “Let them first answer this question and then we will answer it.”
He repeated that the Islamist movement was ready to conclude a truce with Israel which “could last for 10 years or more” in return for a state on lands occupied by Israel after the 1967 Middle East war.
But he said nothing of a comprehensive peace treaty, which Israel insists is the only way to end the 64-year-old Middle East conflict.
Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Andrew Roche