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The political chief of Hamas has called on President Barack Obama to intervene with the Israeli government to "lift the siege" of Gaza and push for a cease-fire in the conflict to stop a "holocaust" against the Palestinians.
"You as the leader of the most powerful state in the world, I ask you to call [on] Israel to stop its aggression on Gaza — and to lift the siege and open the cross borders and to rebuild Gaza," said Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal, in an exclusive interview with Yahoo News. "This is our demands."
The direct appeal to the president was made — in English — at the end of a wide-ranging hourlong interview, conducted under tight security at a gated Hamas media office in Doha, Qatar. It came amid a new round of violence in the Gaza conflict, including the death of a 4-year-old Israeli child on a kibbutz from a Hamas rocket and the execution of 18 suspected Israeli collaborators by masked Hamas gunmen. On Saturday, Israeli aircraft demolished a 12-story apartment building, sending a huge fireball into the sky and wounding 22 people, including 11 children.
In the interview, in which he answered all other questions in Arabic, Meshaal was at times defiant, comparing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at one point to Adolf Hitler.
"What is the difference between what Netanyahu, [Defense Minister Moshe] Yaalon, and [Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Benny] Gantz are doing — killing thousands of civilians, children, women, entire neighborhoods, targeting mosques, destroying hospitals and [United Nations Relief and Works Agency] schools — what's the difference between that and what the Nazis did in the 1930s and '40s? And what Hitler did. This is the real holocaust."
But he also said Hamas is "ready for a cease-fire" and is willing to stop its rocket attacks, though he insisted that Obama has a "moral responsibility" to pressure the Israelis to stop the conflict in Gaza. "This is an opportunity for me to send a message to the American people, to President Obama, and to the U.S. Congress: America has to act in a moral way," he said. (A White House spokeswoman declined to comment.)
Meshaal, 58, is widely seen as a critical, if cagey, player in the Mideast conflict, having headed Hamas's political arm in exile since 2004 and emerging as its most visible international spokesman. Once the target of a botched Israeli assassination attempt — Mossad agents sprayed him with poison on the streets of Amman, Jordan — Meshaal has been embraced by some Westerners, such as former President Jimmy Carter, as a pragmatist who can help pave the way to a long-term peace agreement.
But the U.S. government since 2003 has branded Meshaal a "specially designated global terrorist," accusing him of raising money for and "supervising assassination operations, bombings and the killings of Israeli settlers."
He called those charges "lies" and disclaimed any direct responsibility for the Hamas suicide bombings that killed hundreds of Israeli civilians during the 1990s and 2000s. "I'm a political leader, and I do not interfere in military affairs," he said. "What the Palestinian people do in resisting occupation are details that I do not get myself involved in."
He took a similar position when pressed about the onslaught of Hamas rocket attacks on Israel, a stance that raises questions about just how much control the group's political leaders have over its military wing. He acknowledged that in the past, Hamas got its rockets and weapons from "different sources" — an apparent reference to aid that the group's military wing has gotten from Iran. "Now it's becoming very difficult to move these rockets through, and we manufacture most of them, if not all of them, in Gaza," he said. "We depend on ourselves in making our weaponry. "
Meshaal was asked how many rockets Hamas has.
"I don't know," he said, smiling. "I'm the head of the political bureau … I direct the policies and the positions. But not the details when it comes to military issues."
As reported by Yahoo News on Friday, Meshaal did acknowledge that Hamas members were behind the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers hitchhiking on the West Bank in June but said Hamas political leaders did not know about the operation "in advance." Still, he justified the killings as a legitimate action against Israelis on "occupied" lands. "Our view is that soldiers and settlers in the West Bank are aggressors, and they are illegally living in these occupied and stolen lands," he said. "And the right to resist them is the right of Palestinians."
Asked during the interview about the fate of Mohammed Deif, the Hamas military commander who was the target of an Israeli assassination attempt last week, Meshaal maintained that he is "fine and safe." He went on to call the Israeli operation, which killed one of Deif's wives and an infant son, "a stab in the back."
Meshaal was critical of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who in a recent interview with The Atlantic accused Hamas of "embedding rockets and command and control facilities in civilian areas" and said, "There's no doubt in my mind that Hamas initiated this conflict. So the ultimate responsibility has to rest on Hamas and the decisions it made."
"Who is planting 600,000 settlers on the West Bank?" Meshaal shot back. "They are stealing the land — and they kill Palestinian civilians. And when Secretary of State [John] Kerry tried to broker some kind of agreement, it was sabotaged by the Israelis. So I find it very strange for Mrs. Hillary Clinton to say something like this, when she knows the truth."
Asked whether Clinton was misinformed, Meshaal responded,"What she needs is to be just and fair," saying that Israeli policies and "hypocrisy" are "against the interests of the U.S."
Meshaal's dueling attitudes — at times uncompromising, at times conciliatory —were seen in his responses to questions about the Palestinian charter, a 1988 document that vows to "raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine," renounces all peace initiatives, and proclaims, "There is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by jihad."
Asked if he stood by the charter, Meshaal said, "People do not judge people by what they have on charters, but what they act on. We have as Palestinians met and decided on the national document. And it has a clear and united position."
The charter also contains language accusing Palestinian enemies of controlling "the world media" and at one point refers approvingly to the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a notorious anti-Semitic forgery concocted to justify pogroms against Jews in czarist Russia.
Asked if, as some have written, he was "embarrassed" by the charter, Meshaal responded: "No, I'm not embarrassed by the charter. This is a historical document that was drafted in 1988. Now we are in 2014. Hamas has its literature, historical literature, and documents. But we also have our agreements with the Palestinian Authority, which seeks a just solution based on the 1967 borders."
The interview was conducted on Friday, just hours after Meshaal attended prayers at a local mosque where he was surrounded by well-wishers. When asked what he prayed for, peace or revenge, he replied: "For sure, when we enter the mosque in our daily prayers, we always start with peace. And when we end the prayer, we say 'salaam alaikum' ... We are the people of peace, and our religion is the religion of peace. And what we want is peace. We are victims of aggression and occupation by Israel, and we hope when this conflict ends, what people will see from us is kindness and peace."