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Delegation of British and Irish Parliamentarians to Damascus, Syria

15/16 March 2009


Throughout our discussions, I felt that the people we spoke to gave honest accounts of their views and I hope I have represented them accurately.  This account is not an expression of my own views (except where indicated in italics) and is presented as an aid to the understanding that is necessary to bring peace. I would welcome a similar dialogue with Israeli groups and other Palestinian factions. At the end of the visit, the delegation was strongly of the view that the UK and EU should recognise Hamas as legitimate leaders of the Palestinian people and act accordingly in the pursuit of peace.

Lynne Jones MP

The delegation consisted of:

Chris Andrews (Irish parliament); Lynne Jones MP; Bness Lindsey Northover; Pauline McNeil MSP; Clare Short MP; Bness Jenny Tonge; Sandra White MSP; Lord William Wallace

Non parliamentarians: Arafat Shoukrit and Daud Abdullah

The meetings the delegation undertook:

Khaled Meshaal (General Chief of Staff, Hamas)

Ahmed Jabril and Talal Naji, Secretary General and Deputy Secretary General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine

Ramadan Shallah, Leader of Islamic Jihad

President Bashar al-Asad

Other Meetings and Conclusion

Khaled Meshaal (General Chief of Staff, Hamas)

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When asked about the founding charter of Hamas from August 1988, which states that the land of Palestine is consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgement Day and that Palestine can only be liberated by Jihad, he said that this was written as the world was seen then and Hamas should be judged on the basis of what they do, not what was written 20 years ago.  ”It is a historical document representing a phase in our history, not a manifesto of our current political program”.  When they won the election in 2006 Ismail Haniya’s programme led to the reconciliation agreement with Fatah.  The Mecca agreement was a national agreement to accept a Palestinian state on the territories occupied by the Israelis in 1967 on the basis of self-determination and independence.   The Quartet    (UN, USA, EU and Russia) should accept these realities.  When I asked whether this was the same point of view expressed to their own people, he said that they “do not speak in two languages, the world is a village and would soon find out”.

Arafat had recognised Israel on the basis of the pre-1967 borders and repudiated parts of the PLO charter but the same state poisoned Arafat to hasten the appointment of Abbas.  (This was a point of view expressed by others we met.)  However, four years later, what progress has been made?  Even before his appointment, new settlements were announced.

Israel does not genuinely want peace.   Palestinians believe sincerely in peace and all religions have lived in peaceful coexistence.  Jerusalem was a model of all faiths living harmoniously together.  The fact that the Palestinian people exercised their right of resistance to the occupation does not mean that they do not want peace.  But so far, the negotiations have not led to peace.

The siege of Gaza continued after we had given the Israelis a truce and yet the Israelis expected the truce to be renewed without lifting the siege.  He said he had told Jimmy Carter that if the siege was lifted, they would end hostilities.  The siege is an act of war, people who die slowly through hunger or lack of medical treatment still die.  Discussions are continuing, through the Egyptian negotiations, to end the siege and Hamas has offered one and a half years of ceasefire in return for the lifting of the siege.  Though Israel agreed in principle, Israeli internal politics meant that it was not delivered.

There was a great deal of pressure on Olmert to get Corporal (now Sergeant) Shalit released as he was captured during Olmert’s administration.  Hamas was not opposed to releasing him but the ceasefire negotiations are on the basis of lifting the siege and opening the borders.  The Shalit release negotiations are related to the release of “our” prisoners, though both matters could be discussed in the negotiation.  They were two separate issues.

Just before the Israeli elections, a European interlocutor said Olmert needed the release of Shalit.  Hamas responded that they were prepared to release him but they wanted release of their own prisoners.  Israel rejected everything as the details were discussed.  Israel gives conflicting and misleading information to Europe and it was all a public relations exercise.

Palestine reconciliation has begun in Cairo, but this is being demanded as a prerequisite for reconstruction.  Shouldn’t we be attending to the needs of the people of Gaza and not this use as blackmail to force agreements?  Hamas have put forward reasonable proposals for reconstruction.  Hamas want to serve the people but nevertheless are not insisting on funds going to the Government but are happy that the work should go through NGOs.  There is a reconstruction committee of all the factions but still no response from the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and the other Arab states included in the Quartet.  The Europeans and others encouraged Hamas to become involved in the elections as they expected them to get only a minority vote and therefore to be contained.  When Hamas won the election, those that advocated democracy subverted the electoral process and tried to undermine the Government.  He then mentioned a US General Keith Dayton and said that he had courted other corrupt factions with weapons. 

Note: I have since been referred to this article from Vanity Fair

When asked about the way forward, he said that the Hamas delegation involved in the reconciliation talks in Cairo had been instructed to display maximum flexibility and to address the five issues tabled.  Under pressure from the Quartet, the Palestinian Authority want to impose their own conditions, going back on the principles enshrined in the 2007 (Mecca) agreement.  These principles should be the basis of agreement today.

He then referred to a statement made by Hillary Clinton (at Sharm al Sheikh) recently in which she said that the agreement must involve the acceptance of the Quartet conditions.  He contrasted this with the attitude to the Israeli Government.  No similar conditions were imposed on Israel such as in the agreements on forming coalitions.  He was not advocating this but just contrasting the treatment of the two.  The Palestinian Authority only want to address the situation in Gaza but not the West Bank.

The weak and corrupt Palestinian Authority gets power from international approval.  Without international involvement, the Palestinians would be able to organise themselves based on democratic principles.  Corrupt elements would realise that they do not have the support of the people, whereas the international dimension meant that they used international approval as their powerbase.   This was a substitute for the support of the people.

Reference was made to Mitchell in Northern Ireland, as one of our delegation is an Irish Member of Parliament and I also mentioned Mitchell’s role as a mediator, helping to bring all sides together but not imposing upon them.  Wasn’t it a good sign that Obama had appointed Mitchell as his envoy? Khalid Meshal said that the success of Mitchell in Northern Ireland was due to his engagement with all parties and was seen as impartial.  So why does he not approach Hamas with the same impartiality?  Hamas is ready to engage with him including over the issue of the missiles.  There has been no direct contact from Mr Mitchell.  Hamas will participate in Parliamentary elections and accept the results of democracy.

Chris Andrews said that the Irish constitution changed in the context of a just settlement in the North.  Would Hamas consider changing their charter?  In response, Meshal said that if there was an acceptance of the Palestinian State on the 1967 boundaries, including East Jerusalem, with sovereignty and the right of return, the State would develop its own constitution so there would be no need for any charter, whether of Hamas or Fatah, as they would have a state constitution.   Hamas was arguing for the acceptance of this position and was the only organisation that could convince the Palestinians that this was the way forward.  He said that the Palestinians were the victims of different views of Arab states.  He said give the Palestinians a year to come to an agreement, without outside interference, and they could do so.

I asked for clarification of what he meant by ‘the right of return’.  In response, he pointed out that Israel allowed any Jew from the Diaspora to come to Israel and gave them a home after being away for at least 2000 years but Palestinians displace from their homes only 60 years ago were not being allowed to return.

He said that he thought that Islamic Jihad would not participate in a National Unity Government but would treat it with respect (see view from Islamic Jihad below).  Fatah is seen as a corrupt party that has failed in the objective of achieving a Palestinian state.  He contrasted this with the success of Hamas in providing services for the people, success in elections, standing up to Israeli aggression and acting as a trustee of Palestinian human rights. 

I asked about the instance when Hamas expelled Fatah from Gaza. He said that Hamas had not expelled Fatah from Gaza but they had left themselves.  Hamas would welcome the return of Fatah to Gaza and they were negotiating with Fatah members from Gaza in Egypt.   Regarding the incident when a man was pushed out of a window, he said this was in fact perpetrated by Fatah on a person they thought was Hamas because he had a beard.

Note:.I was subsequently referred to a video in which a spokesman of Fatah (Abu Khusa) stated that Hosam Abu Quinas Hosam, a senior leader of one of Fatah’s factional districts, had been kidnapped by the Palestinian Presidential Guard who, thinking he was Hamas because he had a beard, threw him from the 11th floor of a building. Apparently such occurrences (identifying people with beards as Hamas and punishing them) were commonplace.

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The view from our Damascus hotel

I asked about his view of the role of women, pointing out that the picture of Hamas leaders in the room was all men.  Following the preamble about women being complimentary to men and how they should play their full role, he said that there had been women ministers in the Hamas Government and women were on the Hamas ticket in the 2006 election.  Talking about the negotiations between Israel and Syria and the possibility that Hamas could be expelled as part on an agreement, e.g. to return the Golan Heights, he said that the Netanyahu agenda was to raise the standard of living of Palestinians in Syria and Jordan as a substitute for giving back their land.  He was therefore unconcerned about Hamas continuing to have a base in Syria.

He said that they had just cause.   Half of the Palestinian people live under occupation, the rest are in the Diaspora without a state.  Palestinians aspire to self-determination and to live in an independent state without aggression.  Hamas believes in the democratic process, reform and combating corruption.  They want a genuine peace without oppressive Israeli conditions and for the international community to respect their rights and to give them the opportunity to exercise these rights.  He referred to Britain bearing historical responsibility for Palestinian suffering and said this bestowed a moral and legal responsibility to assist in the peace process.  Hamas is serious about making peace.  Peace is not possible without Hamas, they have no problem with Jews or Jewishness and wanted to transmit this conviction.  He pointed out that they wanted to live with people of all religions and pointed out that Christians were on the Hamas ticket in the elections. 

Ahmed Jabril and Talal Naji, Secretary General and Deputy Secretary General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine

They are a secular group.  They suspended their membership of the PLO a year after the Oslo Accord.  They felt that world opinion was shifting and cited the academic boycott in the UK as evidence of this.  They spoke about the injustice to the Palestinians and the responsibility of our forefathers for this, referring to Balfour and other historical details.

PFLP was not against Judaism as a religion and, in fact, said that the Israeli “entity” was established not by religious Jews but secular Zionists.

He said all the people at the meeting were refugees and he had been expelled at the age of 10 from his home less than 110km away.  The Oslo Accord made no mention of the return of refugees and surrendered the Palestinian cause.

PFLP had agreed to the June 2007 ceasefire, negotiated via the Egyptians, but their view of the agreement was that this included an end to all forms of aggression in Gaza including the closure of the borders.   In fact, PFLP had wanted the agreement to extend to the West Bank.  He referred to Israeli violations, 28 people had been killed in Gaza, 25 people in the West Bank and 260 people had died (in Gaza) because they couldn’t get medical treatment, and many people were abducted and imprisoned in Israel.  In other words, the Israelis did not comply with their side of the bargain.  Egypt had said that the siege would be lifted within two months of the agreement.  They had been wrongfully accused of not wanting a ceasefire.  In fact, they had agreed to a second ceasefire that could be extended to 18 months but wanted it extended to the West Bank and to the opening of all crossings based on the 2005 agreement on the Rafah Crossings and the prisoner exchange.  On these matters, PFLP was in tune with Hamas and other factions.   They wanted to see the reconstruction of the Palestinian security apparatus, however the Abbas delegation wanted a Government of technocrats with no Hamas Minister, despite their success in the elections.  The four opposition factions (there are nine factions in support of Abbas) proposed a Government from all the factions but would not insist on the most well-known personalities.  They also wanted to see the death of the Oslo Accords.  He pointed out that the Abbas term-of-office had ended on 9 January 2009 and so he lacks legitimacy. 

There was some confusion as to whether the PFLP wanted an early election or whether they wanted to see the 2005 agreement that all the Secretary Generals of the PLO factions would meet to begin the reconstruction of the PLO.  There needed to be a new executive of the Palestinian National Council, which had not met for 16 years.  In the intervening period, half of the members had died and many others resigned.  He pointed out that a third of the elected Members of Parliament are in Israeli prisons.

I asked about the legitimacy of his organisation, pointing out that Hamas had their legitimacy from the results of the elections.  He said their legitimacy came from their involvement in the resistance and their history.  They were in the establishment of the PLO with Fatah.  He pointed out that the elections in the West Bank and Gaza only involved 4 million out of 22 million Palestinians, most of which were in the Diaspora.   In the elections, the PFLP had encouraged their supporters to vote for “every good man”, including Hamas candidates.

Ramadan Shallah, Leader of Islamic Jihad

A Library paper on the Anapolis negotiations (dated 13 April 2008) prepared for me, had quoted information from an article in the Independent that Islamic Jihad was a more radical rival to Hamas (in the context of their having launched Quassam rockets at the Israeli town of Ashkelon, in response to Israel having killed four militants in Gaza on the 12 March).

Ramadan Shallah said that he had been born in Gaza in 1958 and got his degree at the Islamic university of Gaza. He had gained his PhD in Economics at Durham University and in 1991 he went to the University of Florida.   In the UK he had done political work supporting the Intifada and he was chosen to take over as Secretary General of Islamic Jihad after the former leader was assassinated by Mossad on his way back from Tripoli (in Libya).  Jihad meant ‘armed resistance’ and he said that the Palestinians had a legitimate right to resist the Israeli occupation.  However, he pointed out that they had no connection with other groups calling themselves ‘Islamic Jihad’; they were only concerned with resisting the occupation of Palestine.  As part of the resistance movement, they could not engage in politics.  However, they accepted the truce but considered this was violated by the Israelis.

Since the Oslo Accord, settler numbers had grown from 100,000 to 200,000 and, if East Jerusalem was included, to 500,000.   He said that there was no land left to establish a state in the West Bank except in the desert.  He pointed out that if Gaza were to declare itself an Islamic state it would receive international opprobrium, yet Israel was accepted as a Jewish state.  They would be happy to live alongside Jews; the conflict was nothing to do with religion.  They were not like Al-Qaida and were only looking for self-determination within their own territory. 

When asked if he would express these views publicly, he said that, if he did, his words would be taken but they would “give us nothing”.

Islamic Jihad did not accept the two state solution, he said that you can’t build hope on a mountain of failures and he wants to see the world standing up for Palestinians as they did against apartheid in South Africa.  Nevertheless, Islamic Jihad was helping the negotiations in Cairo and wanted to see Hamas and Fatah come to an agreement.  He said “we are all Palestinians, we are not going to fight against other factions if they make progress”.

He had a chilling analysis of the possible way things could go.  He pointed out that the imbalance of power meant that there had not been a peace process between the Arabs and Israelis but the Arab states had signed treaties agreeing to recognise Israel.  Thus the Arab-Israeli dispute had been transformed into a Palestinian-Israeli dispute.  However, people in those Arab states were going back to the root of the struggle and were rejecting Israel.   These developments were being used by the likes of Al-Qaida, whose interest were not those of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which just wanted self-determination in their own country.  He referred to an article by Martin Kramer, which also foresaw similar tendencies pointing out that this was no longer an Arab-Israeli issue but was being used by Islamists who wanted to see the return of the Caliphate. (He did not use these words, this is my interpretation.)  He pointed out that relationships with Hezbollah and Iran, which was not an Arab state, and sympathy for the Palestinians in countries like Turkey was being used by Al Qaida.  He described suicide bombings as a “last resort”.

President Bashar al-Asad

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We did not know we would be meeting the President until after we arrived in Syria.  I have met heads of state on previous delegations and these have always involved waiting in a room for the great man to enter.  In this case, the President personally welcomed us as we arrived. He gave us nearly two hours of his time and was eager to answer even critical questions.

The President of Syria began by saying that it was important to deal with the reality on the ground and not labels.  “Solutions start with goodwill at popular level and, as human beings, we cannot be isolated from what has happened in the past.  Syrians had been eight months in talks with the Israelis and the return of the Golan Heights was symbolic as to whether the Israelis want to make progress.  He felt that the Israelis are not ready for peace and that the Government reflects Israeli society and does not want to work to convince their people that peace with the Palestinians would be good for everyone.  He felt he has the support of the Syrian people in trying to find a peaceful settlement but not any peace.  He felt it was not helpful to have any pre-conditions.  There were obstacles to peace and he preferred to talk about requirements, including the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 242.  There was an important role for Europeans, particularly in pursuing the 1991 Madrid ‘Peace for Land’ process.  He accepted that Europeans were partners with the US but whoever was US President, whether given the label ‘good’ (I assumed implying Obama) or bad (implying Bush), they all have obstacles to what they can achieve.  Syria had been hopeful that Blair would be able to use his influence with the US but he didn’t exercise any influence in practical terms.  He felt that there had been progress in British policy and particularly cited the recently announced willingness to have talks with Hezbollah.  He also cited the attitude of David Miliband when he visited Syria recently, he felt that there was a real dialogue and that the British were listening and not dictating, unlike in the Blair era when Britain always went along with US policy.

Referring to the situation in Gaza, he said anyone would want to fight if their family was dying, there was nothing else they could do.  The first issue was the need to discuss the exchange of Corporal Shalit for 450 Israeli prisoners, but he also added that past experience was that when one group of prisoners were released, more were then arrested. The EU could have a role in guaranteeing the sustainability of any agreement. A peace treaty is not necessarily the same as peace.  The mood now is bad on all sides but this would change if credible proposals could give hope.  He castigated the attitude of the US who he said regarded talks as a reward.  Peace means normal relations.  Israelis only work on a short-term basis and in a bilateral manner and not on a comprehensive basis. Whilst it is still possible to have an agreement between Israel and Syria, this would not change the relationship with the Palestinians. The Israelis didn’t seem to understand that “cleansing” the Palestinians into Syria and Jordan would not give them peace.

The return of Arafat did not bring statehood but corruption.

Egypt was unwilling to lift the siege at Rafah because the siege makes Hamas weak. (Note: Hamas were an off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood who originated in Egypt.)

The “one state” solution in which the Israelis and Palestinians lived together was not practical. He was opposed to a religious state.

On Hamas and Hezbollah bases in Syria: 10 leaders of Hamas came to Syria as refugees and were not allowed to return.  Should he throw them in to the sea?  Hezbollah, on the other hand were free to go and were part of the Lebanese government.

Israel will only deal with the reality (implying their status as regional power and support from US) and so were not serious about the two state solution.  There is majority support for UN resolutions but Israel just ignores them.

On relationships with Iran, he said that just because Iran supports Syria over the Golan does not mean Syria supports Iran eg on the nuclear issue.  Equally, Hamas should not be blamed if Iran supports them. .(Note: Western aid was cut off to the Palestinian Council after the Hamas victory in the Legislative Council elections and their refusal to accept the Quartet conditions – see article from Vanity Fair above.)  Eqypt was most influential in applying pressure on “Palestinian unity” and, in turn, Egypt was influenced by the US. Saudi Arabia used to have good relations with Hamas but have latterly come into compliance with Western conditions – most of the so-called moderate states were dependent on petrodollars.

The timescale for necessary actions to bring about peace was not necessarily coincident with main priorities.

First it was necessary to work for peace and reconstuction in Gaza, irrespective of relationship/recognition of Hamas, though it was importanrt to know what to expect from them. (at this point he referred again to Miliband having said that there should be no dictation but dialogue, contrasting this once more with the Blair era).  Europe was waiting for Obama to take the initiative.  This was a mistake.  The US is the most important player but Europe needed to help Obama, not wait for him to give the lead, acknowledging the difficult pressures he was under.

Hamas has changed. In effect they have accepted the two state solution but this has come from within rather than from outside pressure – they had, in effect, convinced themselves – they could not have been “cornered” into compliance.

The Israeli elections were not about electing a “good” leader but about whether a leader could emerge that had the strength to work for peace.  His view was that the Israelis were not ready for peace – the only leader that had come near it (Rabin) had been assassinated.  He still felt we were in hopeful times – in the long term Israel would learn the lesson that they would benefit from peace and the encounter with Hezbollah had perhaps taught them that they were not all powerful.  The West should help them in reaching that conclusion.

We then went on to discuss internal Syrian affairs.  When one of our own delegation attempted to end the discussion at this point, the President was anxious to continue.

He said he had never claimed they were perfect.  Priorities were based on what was important for the people. They were moving forward on openness and human rights but going too fast was counterproductive.  He mentioned accusations that Syria had a nuclear programme and that the IAEA had cleared them – the small amount of radioactivity found could have been planted by anyone.

After 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, their priority was retaining their sovereignty but since then they had been progressing cautiously.  The internet was not yet fully opened but Wikipedia had been opened a few months ago.  He was determined to continue progress and criticism, e.g. by Human Rights Watch, would not affect the timescale, which had to reflect his Country’s realities – respecting “traditional views”.  He said that something similar to the Da Vinci Code, easily accepted in the West, would have created huge problems for his efforts to maintain a secular state.

He said that it was still theoretically possible to be sent to prison for 3 years for insulting the President – something he felt he did not need, was not used, but was difficult to remove. They did not put people in to prison for their opinions.  However, there were 1300 returnees from Iraq in prison that had not been through due process due to lack of judicial resources.  One person had been released following pressure from Canada and had turned out to be a terrorist.

I asked him about torture and he said that this was not in his people’s culture. They were a peaceful people.  There had been numerous coup d’etats but only one person had ever been killed and that was a mistake.

In hindsight, I regret that I did not have the nous to ask him about the assassination of Rafiq al-Harari, the former Lebanese Prime Minister.  On doing my homework when I returned to the UK, I read that the President had apparently warned Hariri that Syria would not be forced out of Lebanon.  In the end, the assassination triggered a civic uprising that ended the 29 year Syrian occupation – not an example of the cautious approach that the President advocated in our discussions.  Syria has denied any part in Hariri’s murder.  UN investigators detected a trail leading to the arrest of four Lebanese generals, part of a single chain of command originating in Damascus.

If you would like to read more about President Bashar al-Asad and Syria, you may find this article of considered analysis from the Financial Times on 11 May interesting.

Other Meetings and Conclusion

We later visited Palestinian refugee camps.  As the president told us, refugees have the same rights as Syrian citizens other than the right to vote and have access to the same healthcare and education. 

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Children in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria

However, on arrival at the first camp, I was whisked off to do an interview for Palestinian (Quds) TV.  This was quite a hair-raising experience as the driver was (unknown to me) on a tight deadline to get me to the studios in time for a live interview and thought nothing of going the wrong way to get on to a main road.  Thus it was that I missed most of the encounters with real people.  However, I was back in time for a meeting at this man’s house.  He is a retired teacher and is pictured with a book he wrote about the village from which he was driven out in 1948. 

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Palestinian teacher with his book about the village he was forced to leave

He said he always dreamed of returning to the “most beautiful place on earth”.  Is he wrong to wish this?  Who are the terrorists – those that drove him out or those that fight for his return?  We must go beyond the current “realities on the ground” to seek a just solution without further bloodshed.  Both sides are dependent on huge financial transfers from the US and EU.   Isn’t it time we started to act in a more even-handed manner in terms of the deployment of these resources? 


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