Rebel without a state: Evgeny Lebedev meets Ismail Haniyeh, Prime Minister of Gaza

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As prime minister of Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh is one of the world's most controversial politicians. He talks to Evgeny Lebedev about the Arab Spring, suicide bombing, the Israeli blockade - and the elusive prospect of peace.

From Jerusalem, the drive to Gaza passes tidy fields and shops selling locally-produced honey. For the final stretch, conifers line one side of the road. When they part, you catch sight of the wall that marks Gaza's northern perimeter, its concrete sides topped by observation posts and coils of barbed wire.

A decade ago, the divide between Israel and the occupied territory of Gaza was a single barrier manned by a handful of sentries. Not any more. The checkpoint at Erez is the size of an airport terminal. Inside, white-shirted inspectors summon visitors to Gaza into separate cubicles for questioning before they are dispatched through the half-mile-long walkway, encased in rigid chicken-wire, that crosses the demilitarised zone.

Going the other way, back into Israel, is worse. First you enter a room with a table in its centre on which you are required to open your bags and show what is inside to a camera lens. Then a light on a metal door flicks from red to green to let you into a labyrinth of corridors, each separated by doors with their own stop or go lights, for more intrusive searches.

Nowhere is there a lick of paint. There is barely even natural light. At one point, conveyor belts twist and turn above you as possessions are separated for inspection while suited figures stare down from a second-floor window and bark instructions through intercoms. The result is a process akin to being a prisoner prepared for release. This is apt. The reality of Gaza is what the surrounding wall makes it: a prison in which one and a half million people are held.

The head inmate is Ismail Haniyeh. He was named Gaza's prime minister six years ago when his party, Hamas, won the territory's elections in a result that surprised even themselves. Hamas, however, is an organisation that refuses to acknowledge Israel's right to exist and, crucially, sent suicide bombers to blow themselves up in Israeli towns and cities. Such people were not who the West had hoped would top the poll.

Europe and the US refused to recognise the result. (Later, there was a bitter and bloody falling-out with Fatah, the hitherto dominant partner in the Palestinian Authority.) Gaza was left without an official voice with which to address the outside world. This was why I had now come to see Haniyeh. With the old certainties in the Middle East suddenly upended after a year of revolutions, it seemed more legitimate than ever to wonder how Hamas saw the region's affairs developing. Haniyeh agreed to see me because there was a message he wanted heard.

We met in his office in Gaza City. Haniyeh is a big, well-built man: taller in person than he appears on television, the greying beard tightly trimmed. He wore a loose suit jacket and was clearly in good physical shape for a man of 48. His manner was gentle and noticeably still, and – initially, at least – he smiled readily. Behind him hung the Palestinian flag, its colours reputedly drawn from the work of the 13th-century Arab poet Safi al-Din: "White are our deeds, black are our battles, green are our fields, red are our swords".

I had hoped that what he wanted to say would be a call for reconciliation and that he would see the revolutions of the previous 12 months as an opportunity to start a blank page in relations with the Israelis. There had been signs that compromise was in the air. Hamas's use of suicide bombings had finally stopped, partly in recognition of the outrage they caused. Negotiations had started between Hamas and its political rival, Fatah, to settle their differences. There were even rumours that Hamas might be close to officially abandoning its armed struggle.

But what I found was not a man seeking to reach out the olive branch. It was a man who had seen how the Middle East had been reshaped and who now believed – or so he said – that his version of the Palestinians' destiny might now be on the point of being realised.

"The Palestinian cause is winning," he told me. "With the Muslim Brotherhood part of the government [in Egypt], they [the Egyptians] will not besiege Gaza. They will not arrest Palestinians. They will not give cover to Israel to launch a war. Gaza was a main reason for the Arab Spring. It was people's anger at the regimes that co-operated with Israel and did not recognise the government here.

"Israel is disturbed by this. It knows the strategic environment is changing. Iran is an enemy. Relations are deteriorating with Turkey. With Egypt, they are really cold. Israel is in a security situation they have never been in before. The Palestinians are winning more than anybody else due to what's happening in the Arab countries. That will come out clearly in the future."

Haniyeh did not mince his words, blaming the West and particularly the United States for having tried to keep the people of Gaza trapped even when they sought to play by the rules set by the international community. "These people asked us to have elections and respect the result of elections, and we did. We did what we were asked to do. Anybody who asks for democracy to be introduced should respect the results of democracy."

Would he therefore respect the result if next year's elections in Gaza go against Hamas? "Of course," he insisted. "We respect the peaceful transition of authority. We will not make the same mistakes others made in not recognising the result in 2006."

The Israelis, he claimed, had "tricked" the West into thinking they would willingly do anything for the Palestinian people. It was "20 years" of negotiations that led to "nothing" as the "Israelis don't want to see the Palestinian people get anywhere". When he talked about the Israelis, the smile vanished. His eyes narrowed, and the air of stillness around him, previously reassuring, seemed suddenly intimidating.

He was particularly angry when he railed against the Israelis' blockade on goods going in and out of Gaza. This was enacted in September 2007, after Hamas won the brief but brutal civil war against Fatah that saw street-to-street fighting consume the territory. Although in recent months some consumer goods and raw materials have been allowed in, Gaza officially remains a "hostile entity" in Israeli eyes, and therefore an economic pariah.

Haniyeh has spent most of his life in Gaza. He grew up in the al-Shati refugee camp in the heart of Gaza City, where his parents arrived as refugees during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. It was there that he took his first steps into politics, in the 1980s, ultimately being imprisoned in 1989 for his participation in the anti-Israeli protests of the First Intifada. On his release, his political career burgeoned, and, after a brief exile in Lebanon, he subsequently became the assistant to Hamas's spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. The camp at al-Shati, however, remained his home.

This may help to explain the strength of the Hamas leader's feelings about what Palestinians call the "the siege". He described how the blockade resulted in fuel shortages so severe that cars resorted to running on cooking oil. There were widespread power cuts and medicine shortages. It also resulted in a near total collapse of local businesses due to the limits on exports. With anger in his eyes and voice, Haniyeh leaned forward and – seemingly forgetting about the Holocaust – declared that the blockade was "the biggest crime that modern history ever witnessed". Gaza simply wanted to be treated fairly, he insisted. "We want to live like the rest of the world. To have rights. To have a state."

Stated in those terms, it seemed a reasonable aspiration. But what of Hamas's past use of suicide bombers? Had resorting to such a tactic not discredited the organisation from being part of any long-term policy settlement as the Israelis, and the Americans, maintain?

His response was blunt. They were not "suicide operations" but "martyrdom operations", he said. "We only did this because there's bloodshed done by the Israelis. It is a reaction to F16s bombarding people, killing people, women and children. They continued targeting Palestinian civilians and that's what pushed the Islamic fighters to do this kind of operation."

Yet he also declared (illuminating the dilemma Hamas sees itself facing over how far to go in limiting armed struggle): "The Europeans and Americans have said the martyrdom operations are why Hamas has been put on the terrorist list. But now these operations have stopped. Did they then remove Hamas from the list of terrorist organisations?

"We do not launch wars," he concluded. "We are people resisting occupation."

Then he stood up. "Come – let the people tell you for themselves."

Black-uniformed guards closed off the roads to traffic as our convoy of tinted-windowed SUVs travelled the five minutes from his office to the al-Shati camp, where Haniyeh still lives. When we stepped out on to the tarmac, they swarmed around to create a protective phalanx. Their presence was a reminder of Hamas's emphasis on security. The faction's greatest achievement in government has been to make the streets safer for the majority of the population, doing much to end the gun culture which saw tribal as well as political feuding spill into shoot-outs on the streets.

But there have also been allegations – by Amnesty International, among others – of the repression of political dissidents, detentions, and beatings meted out without even the pretence of a trial. Similar accusations have been levelled at the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of these charges; what I did witness in Gaza, however, was something of the atmosphere of fear and intimidation that one would expect in such an environment. One evening, I had dinner with a selection of local artists, musicians and private citizens. After we had finished eating, a figure in a loose-hanging black leather jacket appeared and took a selection of them to one side to demand their names and details of why we had been meeting.

No one we met at the al-Shati camp alluded to these problems. Instead, Haniyeh took me by the elbow to the beach front and described how he developed the football skills that saw him become, in the 1970s, a star attacking midfielder for the Gaza Islamic Society team – by playing on the sand here as a child. Now the beach was deserted, a result of the 800,000 litres of raw sewage that are discharged daily into the surrounding sea.

The camp itself is a half-kilometre square labyrinth of makeshift concrete houses separated by narrow twisting pathways into which 87,000 people are crammed. As we walked, figures emerged from houses or leaned out of windows. A Hamas official followed us. In his hand he held a bundle of $100 bills that he passed to the prime minister to palm, like a mafia capo from The Godfather, to any who spoke with us.

The Israelis know exactly what they face in Gaza. Suicide bombings may have ceased but not the violence. There is evidence that Hamas has tried to restrain rocket attacks but they are still fired out into Israel. Only a few days before my arrival, one of them smashed into open land near Eshkol.

Israel agrees that the Arab Spring now means it is facing dangerous times, with potentially hostile regimes around it. That is why so many key government figures despaired when they saw their allies in the West cheer the events in the Middle East last year, and why prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned in a recent speech that the Arab revolutions had created an "Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli, undemocratic wave".

"I do not see anywhere in the Arab world where the Islamists will not take over," a senior Israeli cabinet minister told me, "as the 'Google kids' [the rebels who gained public prominence in the West through their use of social network sites] are a tiny minority. The problem is that of a dysfunctional society that basically did not make it into the 20th century, let alone the 21st.

"That will lead to an Islamist phase, and that might go on longer than people think. We went through three decades of peace but what we now face is a tough time."

That very last point – the imminence of hard times – might be a rare instance in which Hamas agree with the Israelis. During my trip to Gaza, the organisation invited me to three houses, two still standing and one that was not. Each told its own story about the potential alternatives to an all too elusive peace. None of them was good.

One house belonged to Hussein Diab Hamoudi, who had lost two of his five sons in fighting with the Israelis. Interestingly, one had been a member of Hamas and the other Fatah, showing how the two political opponents could at least happily co-exist in one family.

But his loss had not led him to turn his back on war. Instead, his front room had been turned into a memorial to their sacrifice. Two giant banners of his sons' photographs flanked by rows of missiles and with images of blood dripping down their sides hung in opposite corners. Every table top and wall was filled with memorabilia and pictures of them portrayed as jihadist soldiers to be revered.

I wondered how this monument to the dead affected his other sons, and asked if he did not worry that it would encourage them into actions that would result in their own pictures joining those of their two dead brothers. "I expect it," the 59-year-old answered. "But I am not afraid of such a moment."

Why? "Because this is the way we live. We expect death every single moment. I am proud of them being martyrs. This is our land and this is the way that we live." The gathered Hamas officials nodded their approval.

The second house was home to a new-born baby boy. It was striking how many children everyone I met in Gaza had. My driver had nine and my translator seven. Haniyeh himself has 13. The demographic implications are obvious.

The most recent arrival was born to Haniyeh's neighbours, in a house three doors down. When we visited, he took the baby and kissed it for the waiting photographers. But the image that struck me was a poster stuck to a bookcase in the house, between a picture of Minnie Mouse and stickers of Barcelona football players. On it was a timeline highlighting outrages against the Palestinian people, all the way back to the eighth century – a constant lesson to the youngsters that theirs was a history of betrayal.

It was here that Haniyeh started talking about his own mother. "I was with her when she died. It was when she heard of the Qana massacre in 1996 [when Israeli shells struck a UN compound in Lebanon killing 106 people, including refugees]. We were watching it on TV and she had a heart attack. I tried to resuscitate her but she was in a coma by the time she reached hospital. She was in a coma for several days and then she passed away. I consider her a martyr."

He led me out of the house and into a wasteland to its rear covered in rubble, twisted girders and piles of rubbish. "This was a building bombed by the Israelis in 2009. The people had evacuated but when people build their homes it costs them all the money they made during their lifetime. So when you damage the home, you damage everything they had.

"The Israelis must recognise us as the Palestinian people. They have to return prisoners, remove all settlements in the West Bank and not have one soldier on Palestinian land; a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital. We are the victims. They are the victimiser."

He reached over and rested his hand on one of the girders. "The young boy," he said of the baby he had visited earlier. "I wish him to have dignity."

Then he headed off in the protective cocoon of his security guards. One, however, did not follow them. Instead, he stared up above us. He stared for a long time and then leaned down to speak into the microphone attached to his shirt.

"He sees an Israeli drone," one of his colleagues explained. I looked up, saw nothing but clear blue sky and said so. Those around me smiled. "It will be there. They are always there. They are watching us to see what we do."

Evgeny Lebedev is chairman of Independent Print Ltd, owner of 'The Independent' (twitter.com/mrevgenylebedev)

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