Late last week, thousands of angry Hamas supporters demonstrated in the streets of Gaza City against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Hamas leadership threatened that Abbas's plans for a referendum would lead to "division and chaos." Abbas wants to use a referendum to force the Hamas-led Palestinian government to recognize Israel. According to Abbas's plan, the people will vote in late July over whether to accept a proposal drafted by a number of Palestinians currently imprisoned in Israel. The prisoners represent not only Abbas's moderate Fatah Movement, but also those groups responsible for terrorist attacks against Israel, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The prisoners' central demands are the establishment of a Palestinian state on the territory occupied by Israel in the 1967 war, as well as the commencement of negotiations with Israel. In stipulating these conditions, the authors implicitly recognize the Jewish state.
Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, 43, is calling upon his people to boycott the referendum. According to the interim constitution, President Abbas in fact has no right to call for a referendum. Although he is entitled to issue decisions by decree, Hamas, with its parliamentary majority, can then reverse those decisions. Israeli attacks on Palestinian terrorists in which innocent civilians are often killed, such as last Friday's attack on a beach in Gaza, are responsible for much of Hamas's support.
In an interview with SPIEGEL, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh discusses the latest developments.SPIEGEL:
Mr. Prime Minister, how does it feel to be living off of cooking oil and olives?
Haniyeh: When I said a few weeks ago that our people would eat cooking oil and olives if necessary, I didn't mean that there really would be only oil and olives. What I meant was that our people have the necessary patience to endure the current difficult situation. Palestinians would rather do without certain food items than their national rights.
SPIEGEL: But it doesn't look as though the people wanted to keep Hamas in power, no matter what. Palestinians are demonstrating for milk and bread every day, and the Autonomous Authority's employees are demanding their salaries, which they haven't received in three months. Have you overestimated your popularity?
Haniyeh: The people are truly suffering. But this isn't the government's fault. It's a first in the history of mankind, that a people are being punished for their democratic election, even as they continue to live under an occupation. That is a double punishment. Every Palestinian family feels the effects of the international embargo. But the more the pressure on the government grows, the more support we receive, both from the Palestinian street and from the Arab and Islamic world.
SPIEGEL: But who is responsible for this crisis? Is it really just the countries that are boycotting your administration? Doesn't your behavior make you partly responsible?
Haniyeh: This is not a political crisis, but a statement of moral bankruptcy on the part of the world community. I know that many in Europe are unhappy with their governments' policies toward the Palestinians.
SPIEGEL: But you will find few people in Europe who would truly deny Israel's right to exist. In other words, you could solve the problem by recognizing Israel.
Haniyeh: I'm amazed that conditions are constantly being imposed on the victims and not on the occupiers. First you should call on Israel to recognize our right to exist and the right to our own Palestinian state.
SPIEGEL: But Israel already did that in the 2003 international roadmap for peace.
Haniyeh: The PLO, deceased President Yasser Arafat and current President Mahmoud Abbas also recognized Israel and established the basis for negotiations to achieve a resolution of the conflict. And what have the Palestinians received in return?
SPIEGEL: The Israeli army's withdrawal from Palestinian cities, for example, an autonomous authority with its own police force and the democratic parliamentary elections that brought you into power. And yet Hamas still refuses to recognize Israel.
Haniyeh: We're not talking about ink and paper, but about the experiences of recent years. Despite agreements, treaties and acknowledgments, the Palestinian people remain a people suffering from poverty, injustice and occupation. There are 475 military roadblocks in the West Bank. The region is divided into cantons. A wall is being built that will incorporate large parts of our territory into Israel. An embargo has been imposed on the entire Gaza Strip. The Jewish settlements are being expanded and the Jordan Valley annexed. We don't want to sign another document, we want to improve the situation of the Palestinian people.
SPIEGEL: But the Israeli government has repeatedly stated that final borders have not been discussed yet. In other words, this is a preliminary establishment of borders, at least from an Israel perspective. Everything depends on whether there will be mutual recognition of your respective rights to exist.
Haniyeh: If all that we were talking were mutual recognition, we would agree. But the reality is quite different. Israel is against dividing Jerusalem, against the return of the refugees and against a withdrawal to the 1967 borders.
SPIEGEL: If Israel were to withdraw to the 1967 borders and leave East Jerusalem, including the Islamic holy sites, to the Palestinians, would you then be willing to recognize Israel?
Haniyeh: If Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says tomorrow that Israel will fulfill these conditions, we will provide something in return.
SPIEGEL: What would that be?
Haniyeh: A long-term Hudna, or cease-fire, for the next 50 years.
SPIEGEL: But why only that? Why can't you go a step further and say: If the Israelis fulfill these conditions, we will be willing to recognize the State of Israel?
Haniyeh: These are hypothetical questions. So far, no Israeli leader has announced these concessions. Instead, Israel announces unilateral measures. Jerusalem is to remain united, the refugees may not return and the large settlements will not be cleared. That's the reality. We want sovereignty, we want a state and we want to live like other people in the world. If Israel recognizes our rights, we will ensure that peace and stability return to this region.
SPIEGEL: We can understand that many Palestinians are frustrated. But we get the impression that two diametrically opposed and unbudging positions are clashing here. How can there be peace if neither side is willing to make compromises?
Haniyeh: Who bears the responsibility, the victims or the occupying power?
SPIEGEL: The Israelis are responsible for the occupation of the West Bank. But your government is responsible for the threat to Israel's very existence. You place demands that shake the state of Israel to its foundations, the refugees' right of return, for example.
Haniyeh: Is there a statute of limitations on the rights of the refugees? Doesn't the world see the suffering of millions of Palestinians who have been living in exile around the world or in refugee camps for the past 60 years? No state, no home, no identity, no right to work. Doesn't the world see this injustice?
SPIEGEL: The world does see these fates. But there have been many refugees throughout history. Millions were forced to flee from their homes after World War II. Nevertheless, the status quo was accepted in the interest of peace. A return of those refugees would only have caused new suffering.
Haniyeh: The right of return is an individual right. No one who represents the Palestinians, neither the various organizations nor the government nor the president, has the authority to relinquish this right. Each refugee can decide for himself whether he wants to return to his native country.
SPIEGEL: In other words, he can decide that he'd rather move to a new Palestinian state and receive financial compensation for doing so?
Haniyeh: You expect the Palestinians to sell their native country, their fatherland, for money?
SPIEGEL: No, but proposals must be realistic. In 1947 the United Nations decided to give the Jewish people their own state. Israel's Jewish majority would be jeopardized if 4 million Palestinians were to return.
Haniyeh: The right of return is mentioned in international resolutions, which also contain the option of financial compensation.
SPIEGEL: The leaders of various groups of Palestinians in prison in Israel have developed an 18-point plan that includes, among other things, a two-state solution within the 1967 borders. An imprisoned Hamas leader also signed the document. Do you accept this proposal?
Haniyeh: This is not a document that represents all Palestinian prisoners. After all, it comes from an Israeli prison. The majority of brothers imprisoned in Israel were unable to participate.
SPIEGEL: But some rather prominent people signed the document.
Haniyeh: Of course we respect those who signed the document, which we see as a contribution to the national dialogue President Abbas has initiated. Some of the items are part of a national consensus, but others remain to be discussed.
SPIEGEL: Which items do you mean?
Haniyeh: I'm talking about the recognition of Israel, the continued application of existing agreements and the question of negotiations with Israel.
SPIEGEL: President Abbas gave you a choice: Either Hamas accepts the prisoners' initiative or the people decide in a referendum.
Haniyeh: From our perspective, the national dialogue hasn't ended yet. We expect the president to travel from Ramallah to Gaza to continue the dialogue. We need more time.
SPIEGEL: Abbas is already making preparations for a referendum.
Haniyeh: Who could carry out this referendum?
SPIEGEL: The office of the president.
Haniyeh: The office of the president? The few people who work there?
SPIEGEL: There is a national election commission that professionally organized the January parliamentary election to the satisfaction of all parties.
Haniyeh: The word referendum is not mentioned anywhere in our constitution. There is no law that permits any Palestinian institution to conduct a referendum. The president has no right to poll the people. He is responsible for the consequences. We call upon the Palestinian people to boycott the referendum.
SPIEGEL: According to opinion polls, 85 percent of Palestinians -- and even 72 percent of Hamas supporters -- would vote in favor of the prisoners' initiative. Are you afraid of a defeat?
Haniyeh: Before the elections, the same opinion polls predicted we would receive 18 percent of the vote. In the end we captured almost 60 percent. These opinion polls are politically controlled.
SPIEGEL: That's also a popular argument in Europe among politicians who refuse to accept the fact that they are in a minority.
Haniyeh: But we are not in a minority. We are a government that was elected four months ago by the majority of the people.
SPIEGEL: But you weren't voted into office because of your struggle against Israel. You were voted in because of corruption within the Fatah Movement and high unemployment in the Autonomous Territories.
Haniyeh: Hamas has a worldview and a program, and people voted quite consciously for that. This program includes both resisting the occupation and criticizing corruption in the previous government. Hamas still has a majority.
SPIEGEL: Is the cease-fire to which Hamas agreed in March 2005 still in effect?
Haniyeh: It is in effect, and Hamas and the other organizations are respecting it. The Israelis are the ones who are violating the cease-fire -- by bombing and occupying territory.
SPIEGEL: If all Palestinian organizations are abiding by the cease-fire, how do you explain the April 17 attack on Tel Aviv's bus terminal? And why did Hamas seek to justify this attack by calling it "resistance."
Haniyeh: We are a people who have never attacked others. We are not the aggressor. We want peace and stability in this region. The Israelis are the problem. The must put an end to the targeted killings and daily bombing of the Gaza Strip.
SPIEGEL: Does that mean your government is doing everything it can to prevent attacks?
Haniyeh: We want peace and stability in this region. I call upon Israel to establish the conditions that will enable my government to achieve a long-term cease-fire.
SPIEGEL: We were talking about your responsibility, not about Israel. If you had information about a suicide bomber and had the power to stop him, would you prevent him from carrying out his plans?
Haniyeh: We don't control the West Bank. The Israeli military is in charge there. Our security forces have their hands tied. As long as the occupiers remain on our soil, resistance is the legitimate right of our people.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, we thank you for this interview.
Haniyeh: Now I have a question. In addition to being prime minister, I am also the Minister of Youth and Sports. I used to play football myself. What do I have to do to receive an invitation from (German) Chancellor Angela Merkel to attend the World Cup games?
SPIEGEL: For that to happen, you would also have to recognize Israel's right to exist and renounce violence.
Haniyeh: Then I'd rather watch the World Cup on television.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan