GAZA CITY – The longtime right-hand man to Hamas founder and spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Ismail Haniya led the controversial Palestinian political party and militant group to a stunning upset victory in January 25 parliamentary elections over the late Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party. Haniya, one of Hamas’s youngest founding members, is 46 and robust, with a trimmed graying beard and no-nonsense personality. Many of his fellow Hamas members – including Yassin himself – have been killed by the Israeli military in retribution for suicide bomb attacks. Haniya himself barely escaped assassination in June 2003, when an Israeli air force plane bombed a Hamas meeting in a Gaza City apartment. Haniya left the building just seconds before the explosion. Now considered a front-runner for the post of the Palestinian prime minister, Haniya and his party represent one of the biggest diplomatic and political headaches developing in the West today. That’s because Hamas – long considered a terrorist organization by Washington, Brussels and Tel Aviv – secured its majority win in the Palestinian Parliament through a peaceful election, considered one of the most democratic in the Arab world. Kathimerini interviewed Haniya at his home in a narrow street in a Gaza refugee camp. Friends and neighbors were there, poor and ordinary people who wanted to congratulate and bless him over a cup of tea. Haniya’s humble neighborhood – a far cry from the more upscale suburbs in Ramallah and Gaza where Fatah leaders live – hints at why Haniya, with his ascetic ways and plainspoken manner, may have won the votes of so many Palestinians. Muhammad cartoons A few hours before Kathimerini met with Haniya, a furor flared over controversial caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad recently published by a Danish newspaper. Armed members of the Islamic Jihad had declared that citizens from European countries who published the Danish cartoons were not safe in Palestinian territory. (Since then, the furor of the caricatures has exploded into an international crisis where mobs have burned the Danish Consulate in Beirut and attacked the country’s embassy in Damascus.) Haniya said he considers the caricatures a case of desecration that should draw indignation from every Muslim, as well as any civilized person. However, he said Palestinians do not want to impose their religious beliefs on anyone, since they respect all religions and all civilizations. «No one has anything to fear from Hamas as concerns their beliefs,» he said. «We want to secure equality for all citizens, independent of what they believe and whom they vote for. Anyway, in the elections people with various beliefs voted for us because they saw us an honorable power of change.» Corruption Do you owe your victory to the armed struggle against Israel or the internal problems in the Palestinian Authority and to what degree? Of course people respected the martyrs of Hamas in the struggle for freedom against Israeli occupation. But the issue of corruption has a very large role. Citizens saw that those responsible for this unacceptable situation were not accountable for it anywhere, they weren’t punished by anyone, and so [citizens] punished them through their votes. Are you going to ask Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas for broader cooperation with the government of Hamas? We’re aiming for a government which incorruptibly and devotedly unites the Palestinian cause as well as all aspects of the problems facing our people. In every situation, the government that will be formed will be a government for all Palestinians, not just Hamas. Mahmud Abbas continues to say he wants «one Palestinian authority, a law, an armed power.» Now that the Palestinian authority is a two-party system, who will control security powers? Is there a risk of a break? If we follow the pattern which you have brought forth, there is a simple solution: Setting up a single, united Palestinian military – something which Israel refuses to accept – which would be able to take on the defense required by Palestinians. From this perspective, the organization’s armed units would no longer be necessary; they would be absorbed in the Palestinian military. In such a case, Hamas does not intend to provoke a break over this topic. Economic sanctions The European Union and the United States are threatening to cut off economic aid to the Palestinian Authority unless [Hamas] swears off violence and recognizes the state of Israel. How do you respond and how will you deal with these economic sanctions? With the help of God, we won the elections and with the help of God we will deal with this problem, if it arises. The Palestinians are not a society of beggars. We don’t have any hostile disposition toward the United States and the European Union, but we will also not accept them as a third-party force on how to solve the problem of foreign occupation of our territory. If they stick with violence, the only result will be to provoke rage in all the Arab and Muslim world. Finally, the Palestinian Liberation Organization authorities – the Palestinian Authority later on – recognized Israel and what did they accomplish? The wall dividing Israel from the West Bank? The settlers? The murders and imprisonment of leaders of all organizations? The checkpoints along the entire West Bank? The only good in our uncompromising battle was that the Israelis left Gaza and will leave some day from the West Bank. The 10-year truce From the moment your goal is the destruction of Israel, how can there be a peace process? That’s the problem today? Does anyone believe that with guns we can destroy a country that has F-16 fighter planes and 200 atomic warheads? Are we destroying Israel or is Israel destroying us? As for the future of peace, since 1988 Sheikh Yassin had offered… a truce with Israel for 10 or 15 years. This proposal is renewed today. Let them withdraw to the borders of 1967, let them free political prisoners and we will abstain from every act of violence. Let’s see in this period if Israel respects the truce and if we can have trust in them. Today, of course, we don’t have it.