Hamas, Israel and Britain: an interview with Sir John Jenkins.

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Hamas, Israel and Britain: an interview with Sir John Jenkins.

Sir John Jenkins

With four Middle East ambassadorships behind him over a 35-year Foreign Office career, Sir John Jenkins is perhaps Britain’s pre-eminent expert on the region. Until his departure from the FCDO in 2015, he was the British Government’s senior diplomatic Arabist. He then jointly authored an internal government review into the Muslim Brotherhood and Political Islamism and went on to become Executive Director of The Institute for Strategic Studies – Middle East (2015-2017) and a Senior Fellow at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs (2017). He now works for the think tank Policy Exchange and at Cambridge University’s Centre for Geopolitics.

In September 2018, the head of Hamas’s Politburo Ismail Haniyeh is reported to have said: “…Today, many important opportunities exist, including in the Western countries, which can be relied on to build our strategy: the boycott movement, the BDS, the marches, solidarity convoys…”

In this extended interview with the journalist John Ware, Sir John offers his perspective on Hamas’s strategy in the West, the vicissitudes of the Israel-Hamas war and the divisive impact it is having on the UK. His comments illuminate the contemporary situation with the historical context that has been absent from too much of the public debate.


John Ware: As you know, Hamas has two wings, a military wing and a political wing. And the political wing is very active beyond Gaza on what Hamas calls The Outside. What essentially is the strategy of Hamas’s political wing on The Outside?

Sir John Jenkins: There are three bits to Hamas, to the Hamas leadership structure. One is, what we call the military wing. One is the political wing, which is outside mainly in Doha, or Istanbul, and some of them are in Beirut. The other is the prisoners’ Shura, or Consultative Council, and each Shura has a vote in the end.

I think one of the striking features of the last 4 or 5 years since Yahya Sinwar took over as the head of Hamas inside Gaza, is that the balance of power between the three groups seems to have shifted. Maybe ten, 15 years ago, the political wing on the outside — because Hamas was sort of stuck in Gaza — was the most consequential, because it was a wing that talked to the Qataris, the Iranians, and the Turks and so forth. They exercised a preponderant influence. I don’t think that’s the case now. I think it’s the military wing in Gaza who exercise that sort of influence.

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar,

And if you look at, what’s happening now, in terms of a response to the latest hostage release plan, which involves a ceasefire or maybe a rolling ceasefire or three different sorts of ceasefires, for different periods, it seems to be the political wing on the outside that’s taken a much harder line than the military wing inside. And this suggests that there’s a significant amount of pressure on the military wing. But the political wing wants to try and reclaim some of the influence it had before. And their role historically has always been to act as the interface with the outside world, with its allies, such as Iran and the government of Qatar — in a different way from Iran, of course — the government of Turkey, sympathisers around the region, and allies and partners, including elements of Lebanese Hezbollah and so forth.

Now, I think it is a question, when we look forward to how Hamas reacts once the conflict in Gaza is  over,  how do they rebalance this?  The power centre has shifted to Gaza from the outside and that’s partly a function of the amount of money that’s gone into Gaza over the last ten years, particularly from Qatar, with Israeli approval, but also funding from Iran and elsewhere. And the IDF keeps saying that they keep discovering intelligence documents showing the size of this funding, both open and covert. And that’s where all the action is taking place. So, if you’re (Ismail) Haniyeh – (Khaled) Misha’al has gone from his formal positions, but Misha’al is still around — if you’re Haniyeh or Misha’al or even, someone like (Musa abu) Marzouk, or (Saleh) al-Arouri in Beirut – Arouri is now dead of course — you are not at the sharp end of the struggle anymore. So, I think there’s clearly a sort of dialectic within Hamas between these different factions. And we’ll see what happens. I mean, you know, it depends if Sinwar and (Mohammed) Deif, who is essentially the commander of the military forces of Hamas in Gaza, survive this conflict. And if they do, what their response would be to the sort of deal that you see being suggested at the moment, and from what [the US Secretary of State] Blinken is saying and what the Saudis are saying.

JW: Strictly in terms of Hamas’s message, what is that message it seeks to promote in the West?

JJ: It’s an absolutist organisation. I mean, think of the claim that Hamas makes. First of all, Hamas is, as recognised in its 1988 charter, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, in Hamas’s document of General Principles and Policies which they issued in 2017, they tried to tone the charter down a bit, but they’ve never renounced it. And they — everybody knows the history of Hamas — they arise out of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood when Egypt was governing Gaza.

JW: Well, they tried to suggest that it’s an updated charter, but it’s…

JJ: It’s not. It’s a document which sets out a set of policy lines for the present. Nowhere in this 2017 document do they say that the charter is no longer valid. And in fact, they restate some of the most important elements in it, particularly, the claim to all the land of what they call historic Palestine, which is essentially the land of Mandated Palestine after 1921/22, which is from the Jordan River to the sea from what is now Metula and Kiryat Shmona in the north of Israel down to Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba, 60% of which is actually now the State of Israel. So when people say “from the river to the sea”, the Hamas slogan is not about creating a modern, liberal, democratic, multi-national, multi-ethnic, tolerant state. It’s about creating an ethno-nationalist, Islamist Palestinian state on this land. And that’s what “from the river to sea”, the Hamas slogan, means.

The one thing the 2017 document does do is tone down the virulent anti-Semitism of the charter. The charter itself quotes The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It blames the Jews for virtually every single significant historical disaster of the last 300 to 400 years, including…

JW: ….Wars…

JJ: …Wars, the Russian Revolution, the Freemasons, everything. And these are traditional tropes of vulgar Islamism, which go back quite a long way. I mean, there was always a strain of anti-Judaism in Islam going back to the Koran, because of the way in which the Prophet Muhammad had interacted with the Jews of Medina, and the way in which Muslims understood the history of those interactions as proof of Jewish bad faith. The virulent anti-Semitism you see in the charter, a lot of that comes out of the European anti-Semitism of the late 19th, early 20th century, exacerbated in the 1930s. And, you know, there was a foundational document for all of this in Hajj Amin Al-Husayni’s 1937 pamphlet on Judaism and Islam, which sets all this stuff out. I mean, Hajj Amin Al-Husayni had been Mufti of Jerusalem, appointed by the British, had played a significant role in anti-Jewish agitation from the 1920s onwards. He was eventually exiled, ended up in Berlin, and, you know, worked for various reasons — I mean, it’s historically controversial — with the Nazis and then was exiled after that to Beirut and Cairo and so forth. But he remains a figure revered across the political spectrum in Palestine, because he’s seen as someone who resisted British imperialism.

JW: I want to get back, if I may, to what’s going on in the streets here. Because obviously Hamas doesn’t bring guns to Britain or Germany or whatever, but there are significant activists here…

JJ: Yes.

JW: ….activist supporters of Hamas in the West, including in Britain. How would you characterise the message that they try to get across in places like the UK?

JJ: Hamas, you mean?

JW: Yeah.

JJ: I mean, at the centre of this is a delegitimisation of Israel. Now Israel became a state in 1948, was then recognised by the UN, after the war. What the Israelis called the War of Liberation, of course the Palestinians call it the Nakba — “the catastrophe” — but Israel was recognised internationally as a state. What Hamas want to do is to roll back the reel to before that recognition and stop that recognition taking place, or delegitimate that recognition itself. And the way they delegitimate it is partly, in Islamist terms, by saying that the Jews are the enemies of God, and are constitutionally conspiratorial liars, and the enemies of Muslims everywhere. And of course, in the 1988 charter they quote the famous hadith from Bukhari’s collection – hadiths are the sayings, or the reported sayings and actions, of the Prophet….

JW:…”a stone or a tree..”

JJ: “A stone or a tree will cry  — on the day of judgement, O Muslim, a Jew is hiding behind me, come and get him.” It’s profoundly anti-Judaic and, in a modern context, antisemitic – it’s a call for the murder of Jews, and de-legitimation.

It’s interesting the way [Hamas] use leftist discourse. There’s this interesting amalgamation of Islamist and leftist discourse, it’s something that’s arisen really since the 1950s, 1960s in the West with the exile of many Islamists from the Middle East to Germany, France, to the United Kingdom and elsewhere. So it’s claimed that Jews are settler colonialists, which is essentially a claim that goes back to Frantz Fanon, the theorist of anti-colonial violence and a publicist for the Algerian FLN during the Algerian civil war. And this concept is that the Jews represent the latest version — perhaps the last version — of 19th century European colonialism, which itself is stigmatised across the board as entirely evil and entirely illegitimate and entirely unique.

So by associating the Jews, not just with the usual Islamist tropes about Jews, but also with this anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist, leftist discourse, they manage to create or become part of a much wider coalition, which is against not just Israel. And a lot of people who would be on these marches in London, will be doing it because they say colonialism, imperialism is a bad thing. And they think that Israel is a settler colonial state. And that’s all part of this de-legitimation strategy, which is clearly having an impact.

JW: I guess other people, not necessarily supporters of Hamas, but people critical of Israel, would say, well, you know, expansion of settlements…..

JJ: Yeah…

JW: ….And many of the Israeli government’s policies over the years have not exactly helped the legitimacy of the state.

JJ: Absolutely. And I think a lot of Israelis would say the same thing. I mean, if you go back to 1967, the aftermath of the Six Day War, there was an agonised debate in the Israeli cabinet about whether they should immediately offer to return the territories that had been occupied during the war — which was basically the West Bank and Gaza.

JW: Occupied as a result [of the attempt by Egypt, Syria and Jordan to destroy Israel].

JJ: Occupied as a result — there had been a military occupation, because the Israelis were militarily in charge of these territories, and thought of immediately offering to exchange them for peace. It didn’t come to any conclusion, which was a great pity, I think. And then, of course, you had the Arabs at the Khartoum summit, a month later, which is famously known as the summit of the three Nos – No to normalisation, No to recognition, No to negotiations — which basically said: if [Israel] did offer [withdrawal] it’s not going to work.

That’s the moment in which the settlement enterprise in the West Bank, in particular, takes off. The first settlement, after the Six-Day War, which is, I think, in summer — the August I think of 1967 — was in what’s now French Hill in Jerusalem, which was land seized on a temporary military order. And yet it remains an integral part of Jewish Jerusalem to this day. So what was temporary became permanent, as so many things do. And then the settlement enterprise in the West Bank, which is designed to occupy the high ground and to occupy the ground above the aquifers in the north and southern West Bank — I mean, it’s very strategic the way this is done — has essentially been the one thing that has done most to derail the prospects for a two-state settlement in the last 30, maybe 40 years.

JW: You think the Palestinian Authority could have been persuaded to reconcile itself to living permanently alongside a Jewish state? Do you think that was ever possible?

JJ: There were certainly — I think the people who negotiated Oslo, which were Abu Ala and Abu Mazen, and on the Israeli side people like Yossi Beilin — I think they were committed to peace. Yes, I think they were committed to a two-state solution. Do I think everybody on the Palestinian side was committed to a two-state solution? No. I think there was a significant body of opinion, including within Fatah, which said: “We’ll take this and then we’ll see what happens afterwards.” They would have remained irredentist. But you know, if you [had] got a Palestinian state, that would then have become a question for the Palestinian state. So any conflict between that state and Israel would have been an inter-state conflict, rather than the sort of messy, whatever it is now, that we see.

Washington DC. USA, 13th September, 1993 Yitzhak Rabin of Israel and Yasser Arafat of the PLO shake hands at the White House South Lawn after signing the Peace Accords, President Bill Clinton looks on

JW: Let me move back to the UK. How important would you say the UK has become to Hamas on The Outside?

JJ:  I think if you look at where Muslim Brothers went after the 1950s, particularly after 1954 when Nasser in Egypt suppressed them, the first country – a lot of them go to the Gulf actually — which is an interesting phenomenon in itself. [They] helped set up education ministries, hospitals, schools, bureaucracies. Because Palestinians historically have been among the most educated of all Arabs and the Gulf states lacked an educated workforce. [When] Muslim Brothers from the Middle East…came to Europe, they first came really to Germany, then to bits of France. [Those in] Germany tended to be Syrians or Egyptians. [In] France, it tended to be North Africans. And [in] this country, for some reason, among Deobandis from South Asia, we got a lot of Palestinian and Arab Islamists of various sorts, Muslim Brothers and others. And they were allowed by and large to function freely here.

And there was an issue about whether the Government should take action about some of the things that supporters of Hamas in this country say, including in mosques. But by and large, they’re allowed to set up TV stations, to broadcast, to write, to make public statements. I don’t think it’s just about this country. I think we’re looking at I mean, the thing about Islamism, I mean, there are different sorts of Islamism…

JW: The reason…let me interrupt you…the reason I mentioned the UK is because the Israelis, as you know, talk about London as the “European hub of delegitimization…”

JJ: So London developed this reputation in the late 1980s and 1990s as “Londonistan”, which [was] a particular issue for the French, because at the time they were having major problems with terror attacks in Paris, which were being conducted, funded and encouraged by people in France, but also people in London. And the French demanded extradition and so forth. It wasn’t just that, we also had various other people to whom we’ve given asylum and various governments wanted them back, and we wouldn’t do it. And so there was a lot of talk at the time and subsequently that this was because of a sort of pact of non-violence in Britain between these people and the security authorities: you can say what you want as long as you don’t carry out attacks here. I don’t know if that’s true. I mean, I can see why people would think that was true, because that’s actually what happened.

It’s not just the Israelis who’ve had concerns or the French who’ve had concerns about the influence of Islamists in London. We’ve seen this with Gulf states, with the UAE, with Saudi Arabia, with Bahrain. I mean there were Bahraini dissidents, who are Shia Islamists, present in London. And they all have concerns about the permissive nature, or the apparently permissive nature, of British politics and law. And they will say to us: “You know, you’re supposed to be our friends. Why are you letting these people broadcast these inflammatory and incendiary messages back into our countries, because it’s damaging us?” And our response, of course, is always because we think of ourselves as the Britain of the 19th century, which gave refuge to Marx, Engels, and various Polish and also Russian and Italian dissidents and would-be rebels.

JW: Do you think it’s time for that tolerant approach to change?

JJ: I think we’re not living in the 19th century anymore. And I think the issue now with us is the impact – well, there are two issues: one is the impact of the activities and statements of these people on our relations with other countries with whom we share significant interests, foreign policy and national security interests. And then there’s the issue of the impact on the social fabric of this country. And that’s changed dramatically, because the context has changed, because of social media, because of a 24-hour rolling news cycle. Because of globalisation, it is far easier — I mean, if you’re Marx sitting in the British Library, you know, writing Das Kapital or The German Ideology, you will get it published, but about five people will read it. I mean, eventually, of course, more read it but that’s because the cause is taken up by master publicists, like Lenin and Trotsky. If you’ve got a TV station here or if you’re on social media, millions will see it instantly. I mean, it is just different.

And this issue about the impact on the social fabric: I think you’re seeing — and this goes to the question of what Islamism actually is — Islamism is an attempt to create a political community which claims to have the answers to everything, which is not what Islam traditionally did. It’s not what Islamic states traditionally did. This is very new and very modern. But once you do that, it’s very attractive to a lot of people who think that they are joining a group which has the answers to absolutely everything, particularly if they are Muslims and feel attracted for identity reasons to these people and they feel various grievances, whether these grievances are real or manufactured. And I think that is a danger, I don’t think it’s a danger just of Islamism. I think it’s a danger of all sorts of grievance and identity groups.

JW: I sent you a sample of sermons — most of them from Friday prayers — immediately after the 7th of October. There’s a reference in one to: “The Jews will fight you and you will prevail over them. Then a rock will say ‘Oh Muslim, here is a Jew behind me. Kill him.’” In another:  “All of this is happening at the hands of the usurping Jews, the unjust haters, the monkeys and pigs…” Another denies Hamas massacred Israelis at the music festival on the 7th of  October, when in fact 360 were massacred, and so on. What did you make of them?

JJ: You know, my first response was: God, this is so tedious. I’ve been listening to this stuff and reading this stuff for 40 years. And it’s vulgar. It’s ignorant. It’s incitement. And of course, there are common themes. Some of these themes reflect the way in which  many Muslims, not just Islamists, have come to understand the essentialist nature of Jews, not just Zionists, but Jews in general, the nature of Israel and in which they’ve come to understand their own Islamic traditions about Jews. So these, these constant refrains — “the Jews are the descendants of apes and monkeys” — which comes out of a vulgarised understanding of certain hadiths and the reports of the prophetic tradition. And you look at it and you say: how can anybody in the 21st century say these sort of things? But if you said it about anybody but Jews, it would be seen for what it is, which is hate speech.

I mean, of course, people can criticise the actions of the Israeli government, of course, people can be deeply distressed about what’s happening in Gaza. It’s very hard to see the photographs or the pictures or the reports coming out of Gaza at the moment and not feel a sense of despair at the inhumanity of the conflict. The conflict is not one sided. I mean, it started on the 7th of October with the massacre of 1200 Israelis and others. But to instrumentalise this human suffering in the interests of essentially an agenda of grievance and identity politics seems to me to be counterproductive. It seems to me entirely wrong. And I am amazed that the Government — that nobody has stepped in to actually look at these sermons, or what has been said and what is being said, and work out if they actually represent chargeable offences.

JW: My impression is that the Government doesn’t know what to do about this. In a sense you can perhaps understand the dilemma, I guess, because on the one hand, some of these speeches might be — I don’t know, I’m not a lawyer — but might be in breach of ..

JJ: …..the Equalities Act…

JW: ….the law. But on the other hand, clearly they feel passionately about the sheer scale of death and destruction in Gaza. And there is a powerful political element to this. So, if you’re the Government, it’s difficult to decide what to do, isn’t it?

JJ: The less you do about it, the more difficult it becomes, I think. And what we’re seeing is the fact that the Government — successive governments, not just this government — have been prepared to tolerate this sort of speech for years. [That] has made it more difficult. If they’d acted in the first instance when these things started to become common, I think it would be easier. You’ve seen this in France as well. The French have started expelling imams who make these sort of statements. The Italians, interestingly enough, have been doing this for years and years and years.

JW: Expelling them?

JJ: Expelling imams. More or less on a 24-hour notice.

JW: But some of them are British citizens…

JJ: So, the Italians will expel imams who make these sort of statements, and then, invite them – if they want — to challenge this in the courts. They do it from outside Italy. I mean, people have different views, but other governments have been more robust on these sorts of issues. But there’s another issue, which is they’re essentially nihilist, because if you look at what’s happening in Gaza — and it is destructive, it’s appalling, the cost in human life is devastating — the answer to it has to be a political answer because ultimately it is a political conflict.

What Islamists say is: it’s an essentialist conflict. It’s a conflict that started at the beginning of the world. And will go until the end of the world between Jews and Muslims and Jews and everybody else, because of the nature of Jews. I mean, if that’s your view, there is no way out of this. It’s an entirely closed circle. Everybody else thinks there’s a political answer to this, which is why everybody at the moment…

JW: …Mr Netanyahu talks constantly about a complete and absolute victory over Hamas, yet you can sense from the military in Israel, that they’re inching away from that because, as you know, soldiers tend to be more realistic than politicians about what realistically is achievable in war.

Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu,

JJ: Yes, I mean Netanyahu, from the beginning of his career in the early to mid-90s, has rejected the idea of a Palestinian state entirely. He went along with it for a bit after he got elected after the assassination of Rabin in 1995. But he went along with it essentially to sabotage it. And we saw that at the Wye River negotiation in 1998. And he’s been very clear about this from the beginning. He thinks, you know – the Jews and Arabs, Jews and Muslims, Palestinians and Israelis — cannot live side by side. He was prepared, of course, to tolerate a Hamas statelet in Gaza, with Qatari funding, as long as it didn’t really affect the security of Israel. And because Israeli governments since around 2004/2005 started building the barrier on the West Bank — I mean, anybody who’s been along the barrier will know that if you’re on the Israeli side, you cannot see what’s on the other side. So out of sight, out of mind. I think one of the things that 7th of October reminded us is that you need a solution to this, and you need a solution because it’s right for the Palestinians — although the Palestinians are not the only people in the Middle East who have these claims. You also need it, from my point of view, because it’s a way to guarantee Israel’s long-term security. You need to do it for Israel if you’re an Israeli, not for Palestinians.

JW: It was hopelessly deluded, surely, to expect that somehow you could contain Palestinian frustration in perpetuity, wasn’t it?

JJ: Er, yes. I think, you know, I think there are people in Israel and you see this in the sort of statements that ministers in the coalition government — Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, for example — make about, about moving Palestinians out of Gaza or indeed the West Bank. And there’s been a concerted effort to push Palestinians out of Jerusalem for decades, but then, you know, some may go, but Palestinians know their history as well. They know what happened in 1947-48 and know what happened in 1967. I mean, the idea that anybody is going to go willingly is — seems to me that’s delusional.

Now, they may look at Syria. I mean Syria is an interesting case because Bashar al Assad has been responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of 700,000 of his own citizens, the internal displacement or the exile of another, what, seven, eight, nine million? I mean, the scale of this dwarfs what’s happening in Gaza. And of course, a lot of these people who’ve left Syria will not be allowed back in by Assad. And Assad has passed a law which essentially is very similar to the Absentee Property Law, which the Israeli government passed in the early 50s, which said: “if you leave…

JW: …you can’t come back….

JJ: ….And you don’t come back within a specified period, we take the property. It’s exactly the same.

JW: Just one thing: do you think the British Government has done enough to put pressure on Israel to bring in a ceasefire?

JJ: You know, I think 7th October was a real inflection point in the history of the modern Middle East. Because it brought the Palestinian issue back up into prominence as one of the most consequential issues in the region. I also think it’s true that most other Arab states are fed up with this problem. I think those two things can go together. I think the revulsion in the wider Arab world, when you see this in the polling, against Israel, against the United States and so forth, is profound, is very wide, very serious, but also maybe shallow.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens when this smoke clears. If you look at the polling that’s done by people like (Dr.) Khalil Shikai in Ramallah, or Dahlia Scheindlin in Israel, on attitudes within Israel and Palestine. When it looks like there is a chance of negotiation, the support for a two state solution goes up on both sides, up to about 50-60%. They may mean different things by this. But it’s interesting. The same with support for Hamas. Support of Hamas goes up at times of conflict. It’s always higher in the West Bank, where they don’t have a Hamas government, than in Gaza, where they do.

JW: What you’re saying is: don’t be fooled by the figures. Support for Hamas is shallower than people think?

JJ: Yes, that’s what I think. And there’s an interesting poll which has just come out from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in the US, which is a Republican Right-wing institute, on Israeli public opinion, which says 51% entirely reject the [idea of a] Palestinian state, but 36% still think it’s possible. You know, given where we are on what’s happened, the fact you’ve got 36% still thinking that there is a chance of a political settlement — I was surprised to see it. But actually, it seems to me encouraging.

JW: And to be clear: from your own long experience, a two state solution is fundamentally the only answer?

JJ: A two state solution is impossible. Everything else is more impossible.

JW: You’re taking a leaf out of Churchill here! It’s that difficult?

JJ:  You know, if you look at the effort that the United States are putting into this now, that [Secretary of State] Antony Blinken is putting into this. When David Cameron the other day says: “We are seriously considering recognising a Palestinian state as an option”, Antony Blinken comes out and says the same thing a few days later. Now for me, that has to be coordinated, which suggests that there is a lot going on behind the scenes, which is also to do with Saudi Arabia and this issue of normalisation. Now, do I think you can get a deal, which will stick, done between now and the effective start of the campaigning season in the US, which — I don’t know — is April/May at the very latest? No. Do I think you can get some of the way there? Yes. Do I think you could find ways to try and lock that progress in, in such a way that it could carry over to a new administration, even if that administration is a Trump administration? That’s a tough one. But that’s what diplomats and politicians are paid to do, isn’t it? And, you know, given that it was the Trump administration which produced the Abraham Accords — whatever you think of the Abraham Accords — there has to be some sort of mileage, even under a Trump administration, of suggesting that you could achieve a sustainable resolution to this conflict.  Personally, [I think] you’d need a reconstruction of Israeli politics and a reconstruction of Palestinian politics to make this work. And I think, you know, realistically, you’re probably looking at a 5 to 10 year period, which is difficult in the West because of the way in which our politics works and our electoral cycles work.

Washington DC, USA – September 15, 2020: Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan attend the Abraham Accords ceremony in The White House.

JW: And meanwhile, what of Hamas? Because the IDF now talk in terms of degrading Hamas, not in terms of absolute victory.

JJ: Yep. But as long as there are several thousand fighters left, let’s say, and as long as Iran keeps funding them, you’re going to have a military wing of Hamas, aren’t you?

JJ: So [let’s take] the three conditions of the quartet – the international quartet, the US, the EU, Russia, and China — laid down after the Palestinian election in 2006, where recognition as a legitimate political actor inside the Palestinian Territories [required the following]. You had to recognise Israel, reject violence and recognise all international agreements to which the Palestinian Authority had become a party, which basically meant you had to recognise Oslo, with everything that came with Oslo, maybe including also the parameters of the Taba, the reported Taba deal in 2000. There have been suggestions…I mean, I was talking to a very senior Palestinian figure a week or so ago, very senior in both the PLO and Fatah, about this, and he said: “Yeah, it is possible. It depends on how Hamas is induced to become a political actor rather than just a terrorist group inside the territories.” And he said, this is a Palestinian issue, and we may be able to find ways [to talk] about it. He was talking to the [Hamas] political wing in Doha and elsewhere.

You know, I do think for this to happen, Hamas would need to stop being Hamas. Because they’d need to say the charter is, as Arafat used to say, “caduc” that is no longer valid, no longer relevant. Can you do that? It’s an open question. I think generally across the region, Islamists since 2013 have been struggling with the question of how Islamism integrates itself into the emerging new politics in the region. This new politics is partly activated by democratic aspirations on behalf of a significant part of the populations in every country across the Middle East, but also by the drive for economic and social development that you see in the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia, but also in the UAE.

This is a new world for Islamists. What are the lessons? One of the lessons of 2011 and 2013 for me was that Islamism is not a viable alternative governing — operating — system in the Middle East. It’s just not, for all sorts of different reasons. I think that’s what we’ve seen in Gaza, and it’ll be interesting if anybody can get into Gaza at some point and do polling in Gaza about what Gazans think about Hamas. Because my guess is [that] when this settles down, there will be a lot of ill-feeling towards the Hamas military wing, which has brought this catastrophe on Gaza and on the people who live in Gaza — for the sake of what? They’re not getting a Palestinian state out of it, not getting anything, they’re just getting everything demolished, their friends and family killed.

JW: In very simple terms, do you think Netanyahu’s war aims, as he states them — absolute victory — are realistic?

JJ: What’s absolute victory? No, I think what they’re really aiming at – and this speaks to what you were saying about the IDF —  I think this speaks to Hamas as a capable military and governing force inside Gaza. I don’t think any Israeli government, I don’t think any Israeli politician, would survive an election if they were promising Israeli people that they could go back to the communities outside Gaza, up in the north on the Lebanese border, but Hezbollah would just be across that border, and Hamas will just be across the border in Gaza. That is politically unsustainable. Now, that has changed entirely in Israel. There have been some rumours over the past couple of months that parts of Hamas would be OK, either going into exile or becoming a group which operates within a Palestinian Authority-controlled Gaza. [Hamas] is not suppressed but doesn’t seek actively to overthrow that. Maybe. I don’t know.

JW: Not with Mr Sinwar presumably.

JJ: Yes, I’ve never met Sinwar. I’ve met — fortuitously I should say, not as part of my official duties — quite a few of the others. And, you know, they vary in terms of their pragmatism or otherwise. Most of them have some irreducible, ideological principles which would make it difficult for them to accept some of this stuff. But who knows what’s going to happen to Sinwar? Maybe Sinwar and Deif will get safe passage somewhere. Maybe they’ll be dead.

JW: But in terms of funding?

JJ: Yep. There are quite a lot of financial taps that Hamas have managed to turn on. If all of them are turned off — save for Iran — then Hamas continues, doesn’t it, as a viable organisation?

JJ: The most significant funding they got over ten years was from Qatar, of course, with Israeli approval. I mean, that I don’t see coming back in. And that was millions, a huge amount in Gaza terms. Iran funding has gone up and down, Hamas fell out with Iran over Syria. So, the funding dropped off a bit.

JW: It’s been pretty solid in the last few years.

JJ: In the last few years, it’s been pretty solid. Even when Hamas was not being funded as much, Iran just funded Palestinian Islamic Jihad instead. You know, a lot of the countermeasures that you need to take against these groups — not just these groups, but also Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iraqi Shia militias, who are launching missiles against US and coalition and Kurdish sites across the region — is about cutting off the funding. I don’t underestimate – and it is the same with the Houthis — I don’t underestimate the difficulty of this, interdicting money or weapons supplies. But it all depends how important you think that issue is.

And I mean this is something, you know, when I wrote the Muslim Brotherhood review, I put to the then Prime Minister [Cameron], this funding is the bedrock of this. A very senior former minister of finance somewhere in the Middle East once said to me that the Muslim Brotherhood adapted reverse money laundering. They take clean money, they make it disappear into black pools and then it goes underground and resurfaces somewhere else. And that’s what we see with Hamas as well.

JW: On the pro-Palestinian marches – and there have been a lot of them. What do you detect in those marches? Is it mostly ordinary people being appalled at the scale of death and destruction, or do you see something else?

JJ: I think there’s a lot of that. I think we live in an age of political emotionalism, and I understand why people feel passionate about the loss of human life in Gaza, although there is massive loss of human life across the region as a whole.  I mean, we see it in Iraq, you see it in Syria, we see it in Yemen, we see it in the Western Sahara. And I think a lot of people think that this is a way of demonstrating moral engagement with politics, which, again, you know, I understand — I don’t discount it. There are also organised  pro-Palestinian, often pro-Hamas groups who seek to channel this energy, in a certain direction, which is why the prevalence of these shouts “from the river to the sea”, “Khaybar, remember  Khaybar, Khaybar O Jews…”

JW: “Khaybar, Khaybar O Jews, the army of….”

JJ: ….Yeah, Khaybar, the great

JW: …..Kill the Jews….

JJ: …..Kill the Jews basically, chop their heads off.

JW: Well, that’s an interesting point. Just in very simple terms — how do you think Hamas or Hamas activists — people who support Hamas in the UK — have channelled pro-Palestinian attitudes?

JJ: Well, they seem to be the most disciplined and organised component of the marches. So, they’ll have the people, they’ll have prepared the flags, they’ll have prepared the slogans, they’ve got the loudspeakers, they’re doing the chants and these are the people who are basically channelling that energy into a particular direction. I think you see it with the sort of things that organisations like MEND and CAGE put out about this, which have a significant — I wouldn’t say it’s a majority – but they have a significant influence on Muslim opinion in this country. And of course, these sort of sermons, which are meat and drink to a lot of imams when they want to think about what they’re going to say on a Friday. I mean, whipping up a storm, against the Jews, always goes down extremely well.

JW: Well, I guess they would say against the Israelis.

JJ: I think it’s a very — if you’re saying it’s the Jews, if you start your sermon by saying “the Jews, we know the Jews are the descendants of apes and monkeys…”

JW: The Yahud…

JJ: And it’s “Yahud” they say, when they chant “Khaybar Khaybar ya Yahud” they’re not saying  “Sahyuniyyun” – you Zionists — they’re saying “Jews”. You know. And people, you know there is the whole debate about the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and people say: “Well, it means you can’t criticise the Israeli government.” Actually, you can criticise the Israeli government under the IHRA definition and many Israelis do. I mean, you know it as well as I do. Argument doesn’t begin to capture it.

JW: Just on the 2015 review on the Muslim Brotherhood that you jointly authored for  David Cameron when he was PM, on the origins and ideology of the Brotherhood, its network of supporters here in the UK and globally – the Brotherhood of course being the parent organisation of Hamas – your concluding paragraph referred to Brotherhood aligned organisations that support Hamas here, as (and I quote) “contrary to our values and have been contrary to our national interests and our national security”. Just elaborate on that. In what way?

JJ:  I mean I can’t say too much about the report itself because it was an internal report. There was the written statement that the then Prime Minister David Cameron, now Foreign Secretary, made to Parliament in 2015. This goes to the nature of Islamism. You know – and it illustrates in a way the bizarre contradiction between Islamism and various forms of leftism, who claim to support Islamists. Islamism is — claims ultimately — that Islam is a solution to all, to every, every conceivable political, social or cultural challenge. So when the Muslim Brotherhood had stickers on their cars. “Islam Huwa Al Hal” – “Islam is the Solution” – this is very popular, this is what they say. The question then arises: what is the thing to which this is the answer?  And they will say: well, it’s to do with the relationship — not just of the individual — [but] to a political community. And the political community is established in Islam. It’s also the relationship of human beings to God, because the political community is also a religious community. The two things are coterminous. And the appropriate rule of law for this community is Sharia. And they will say this.

I’ve spoken over the years to many, many Islamists, Muslim Brothers and others throughout the region. And one of the questions I’ve always asked them is: when you say you want – and this discourse emerged in the mid-1990s — when you say you want a civil state in the context of the Sharia, what do you mean? Because the Sharia is law which is based upon revelation, not on rational discovery. And I never got an answer. I never got a coherent answer from them because I don’t think there is one. And that’s where the contradiction is for me.

And that’s why this is a challenge to our — I don’t like the word “values” because essentially, I think it’s about law. And if you think about the way in which Western law emerges, Western law emerges out of the Roman Empire. It emerges out of Roman law, which is pre-Christian law. It then goes through a process of transformation as it goes through [medieval] canon lawyers and then with the emergence of the Italian republican states of the early Renaissance. But it’s essentially a law which is grounded in human rationality and in the ability to adapt yourself to circumstance. Sharia is not. Sharia is founded entirely in revelation. And this seems to me to be a fundamental contradiction between the two worldviews.

JW: Just finally, going back to the delegitimisation campaign and its essential component parts…

JJ: The essential claim is that Israel is an illegitimate state, which means it shouldn’t exist. And its claim that they are settler colonialists is an integral part of it, because that appeals to the European left. And that fits into the worldview, you know, which we have seen develop over the last 30 years, among elites, that colonialism and imperialism are predatory and bad, that the foundation of European civilisation is itself in some way questionable. They apply this to Israel in spades, redoubled. So, you know, the recognition of Israel by the UN in the late 1940s is itself illegitimate. And when they’re saying Israel is not a legitimate state, they’re also saying effectively that the United Nations is not a legitimate organisation because the United Nations recognised Israel.

JW: But it’s a message that seems to me to be quite successfully implanted here, because you get a reflection of it in the marches and other forms of campaigning, do you not?

JJ: I think a lot of people love shouting stuff about colonialism and imperialism. Colonialism and imperialism — very bad. We disapprove, we want to decolonise our libraries, we want to decolonise our museums, decolonise the National Trust. While we’re at it, let’s decolonise Israel at the same time, which means delegitimising Israel, which means essentially, in the end, making Israel disappear off the map.

JW: Some people who chant “from the river to the sea” would argue that it just means liberating the occupied territories – the West Bank and Gaza.

JJ: I was actually watching Ismail Haniyeh, who’s the head of the political wing based in Doha.

Head of the Political Bureau of Hamas Ismail Haniyeh

JW: Hamas’s political wing….

JJ: Hamas’s political wing based in Doha, on TV, on Arabic TV the other day. And he’s explaining to the interviewer exactly what from the “River to the Sea” means for him and for Hamas. And he says it means that all of Palestine, all of historic mandated Palestine – they’re not claiming bits of Transjordan – so from the Lebanese border in the north, from Metula and Kiryat Shmona, down to Eilat, Umm al Rashrash,  down to the Egyptian border, through Ashdod and Ashkelon, down to Rafah, is ours because this is Palestinian territory. And it’s sacred territory.

JW: Held in trust.

JJ: Held in trust. It’s a Waqf [religious endowment] basically, which is what they said in the 1988 Charter. So from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, from the Lebanese border to the Egyptian border and down to what’s now Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba. This is what they mean. It’s a whole of that territory, Israel, which currently occupies whatever it is, 60, 65, 70% of that area. [Hamas says] Israel has no right to any of this territory. So you then ask: what happens to the Jews? You know, if this becomes Palestine, what happens to the Jews? And on that, you know, Hamas tend to be either silent or extremely reticent. They may say, well, you know, everybody can live [there] — as in Sharia terms — which means essentially you will be a Dhimmi, which means a subordinate, having a subordinate class of citizenship.

JW: I think Hamas’s Osama Hamdan has said: well, they can go back to where they came from.

JJ: Or they can go back to where they came from, which is interesting because probably about 60% of the current Jewish population [in Israel] comes [originally] from Baghdad, from Yemen, from Egypt, from Tunis, from Morocco. So it’s, you know, it’s very interesting, we had an MP who was [recently] convicted in the courts for shouting at a Bahraini protester, outside the Bahrain Embassy. This is Bob Stewart [who said: “Go back to Bahrain,” and “You’re taking money off my country, go away.”] And he’s convicted of a hate crime. But, you know, everybody can say essentially Jews can go back to where they came from. That’s [apparently] fine. It is, er, puzzling!

JW: What sort of support do you sense Hamas has here in the UK? Not just amongst Muslims, but also non-Muslims?

JJ:  I think support for Hamas, for what Hamas represents and what people believe Hamas represents, has significantly increased over my professional lifetime. So from the 1980s onwards. There were always members of the Palestinian Islamic Movement, which was a precursor to Hamas in the UK. The most significant growth in Islamist influence was not so much among Middle Eastern communities, it tended to be among Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian Muslim communities in the UK. But it’s sort of come together because of this unifying Islamist discourse.

JW: Meaning what?

JJ: And this, erm, this discourse has come principally out of Middle Eastern Islamists in this country. And it is about the ultimate unity of all Muslims. The overriding importance of the Ummah, the Muslim global community as a single political community, transcending national boundaries and transcending national loyalties. And also the sense of Palestine as an absolutely core issue for all, not just all Islamists, but all Muslims, which is something that goes back a long way. It goes back at least to the early 1930s, and then, of course, was exacerbated by the Nakba or the War of Independence, whichever way you look at it, in the late 1940s. And it’s tapped in as well to a strain, as I say elsewhere, of thinking about colonialism, imperialism, and the rest of it, which is entirely bad. So people sympathise with the self-proclaimed colonised – or the victims of imperialism.

Arab protest delegations against British policy in Palestine during 1929

JW:  This support is not helped presumably, or I should say, is fuelled partly by Israeli government policy over the last 2 or 3 decades…

JJ: I think there was a lot of hope in the 1990s. I mean, the Oslo process begins in 1991, 1992 and then you get the Declaration of Principles. And so until the late 90s, there was a sense in which you thought this was a problem that could be negotiated. You could find an answer to this, which involved a Palestinian state. So there was essentially a secular political answer. I think with a fading of hope that that’s going to happen, I think that has opened the space for people to take a more absolutist view of this. Which is that this is an existential contest between two irreconcilable notions of what it is to be a political community over a particular piece of land which cannot, in their narrative, sustain two separate political communities. And I think that plays into a wider sense of dissatisfaction. And what Émile Durkheim would have called anomie.

JW: The two righteous victims…

JJ: Two righteous victims, yes.

JW: The historian Benny Morris….

JJ: Yes, absolutely, I mean, you know Benny Morris, the great revisionist historian of the Plan Daleth, of the engineered flight of Palestinians in 1947-48 — who himself is an absolutely committed believer in Zionism.

JW: Thank you very much.


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