BEIRUT: Hamas remains in contact with Hezbollah to ensure the neutrality of the Palestinian refugee camps in any conflict and will block any threat to Lebanese security emanating from them, a senior official in the movement told The Daily Star.
Hamas and other Palestinian factions will also be in charge of security at the Yarmouk refugee camp outside Damascus temporarily as part of a deal to lift the siege on the beleaguered neighborhood and allow Palestinians who fled the violence for Lebanon to return, he said.
In a wide-ranging interview, Ali Barakeh, the Hamas politburo official in Lebanon, distanced his movement from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and said his party was not involved in the unrest there. He also discussed the security situation in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and the party’s relationship with Iran and Hezbollah.
Barakeh said the Yarmouk deal would see securityin the camp handed over to the Palestinian factions, who would ensure that neither the regime nor armed rebels could use it as a base for operations.
“We don’t want the camp to be used by either side, whether the opposition or the regime,” Barakeh said. “Therefore, this is a transitional phase in which the Palestinian side will be responsible for security.”
“The camp is under Syrian sovereignty but for this transitional phase, the Syrian army will not enter the camp so there are no problems.”
The security arrangement appears reminiscent of the 1969 Cairo Agreement that devolved responsibility for the security of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon to the Palestinians.
Barakeh said that in coming days technical experts would sweep the camp for mines, paving the way for Palestinian refugees from Syria in Lebanon to return to their homes. An internal assessment deemed that 80 percent of the homes in the camp were suitable for habitation.
Hamas estimates that 50,000 Palestinian from Syria now live in Lebanon, down from a peak of 80,000. Those who have remained lack shelter and live in overcrowded refugee camps or flimsy nylon tents in the north, many of which were uprooted in a recent snowstorm.
Barakeh said the fundamental solution was to keep the Palestinian refugee camps in Syria neutral in order to allow Palestinians to return to their homes there, despite the ongoing civil war.
“Lebanon’s situation is already difficult on the security, economic and social level,” he said, adding that a return to their homes in the Yarmouk camp outside Damascus would be better for the refugees than staying in Lebanon without jobs.
But Barakeh criticized what he said was “incitement” against the Palestinian population of the camps by the media, which he said falsely implicated Palestinians in recent bombings in the country linked to the Syrian crisis.
“Whenever there is a security incident in the country, they always point the finger at Ain al-Hilweh,” he said.
Barakeh said that only one Palestinian was shown to be involved in any recent bombing – the one targeting the Iranian Embassy in Beirut – but that even he did not live in a camp.
He said the accusations were part of a plot to force Palestinians to emigrate and abandon their “right of return” to historical Palestine.
Recent proposals for a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement put forward the option of granting citizenship to refugees in Arab countries and helping them emigrate to the West rather than return to Palestine. Hamas rejects this, backing the right of return for those who originally fled Palestine in 1948 and their descendants.
Israel objects to the right of return, saying it would swing the demographic balance and threaten the state’s Jewish character.
“As Palestinians in Lebanon, we have no designs on this country,” Barakeh said. “Our project is singular, and it is the return to Palestine.”
He said the Palestinian factions in Lebanon would combat any attempt to destabilize Lebanon, saying they have reorganized in recent months and achieved “80 percent stability.”
“Any Palestinian who wants to target Lebanon’s security, the Palestinian factions will uncover him and will not allow him to remain in the camps,” he added.
Barakeh said the Lebanese factions ought to engage in dialogue and remain neutral from the crisis in Syria, instead using their war experience to help their neighbors reach a solution to the crisis.
Hamas backs a political solution in Syria that the party says will fulfill Syrian demands for freedom, end the bloodshed and preserve Syria’s unity.
While the party disagrees with the decision of Hezbollah and other Lebanese to interfere in the Syrian crisis, “dialogue and engagement continues with Hezbollah,” he said.
On the political level, such engagement is often concerned with keeping the refugee camps neutral during crisis and coordination with the resistance of the Israeli occupation, he said.
But Barakeh said that relations with Iran had soured due to Hamas’ position on Syria. Material and financial assistance from Iran has “declined but did not cease.”
Barakeh also broached the accusations against his movement of interference in Egyptian affairs. Officials and media in Egypt have accused deposed President Mohammad Morsi of conspiring with Hamas, and some suspect the movement of being involved in a spate of bombings there.
Barakeh condemned any attacks targeting Egyptian cities or the military and distanced Hamas from the Muslim Brotherhood, saying his movement is independent and is not involved in any violence in Egypt.
“The Egyptian intelligence services know that Hamas is not involved in the events in Egypt, whether in the January 25 revolution or afterward,” he said. “We are not sending fighters to Egypt, we need fighters and weapons in Palestine.”
Barakeh said that relations with the Egyptian regime had worsened since the removal of Morsi, even though the group remained in contact with Egyptian intelligence officials.
“The current regime in Egypt wants to prosecute Hamas with the assumption that it is the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said. “ Hamas does carry the Brothers’ doctrine, but it is an independent Palestinian movement of national liberation that operates in the Palestinian arena and fights on Palestinian land.”
“It does not fight outside of Palestine, whether in Sinai or Syria or Lebanon,” he said. “Our battle is with the Zionists.”
Barakeh said the Egyptian leadership “must differentiate between its internal differences with the Brotherhood and the relationship with Hamas and the Palestinians.”
“Whether the Brotherhood reconciles with the military or falls out, that is an Egyptian internal issue,” he said. “We are independent, and our decisions do not come from Egypt or the [Brotherhood’s] Guidance Bureau.”
Barakeh said that the incitement against Hamas had led to a tightening of controls around Gaza and that Israel was preparing for an extensive military operation against the area to take advantage of this isolation.
“The time is ripe for Israel to attack Gaza,” he said.
Barakeh described the Gaza Strip as a first line of defense against any Israeli invasion of the Sinai in a future conflict with Egypt, since the resistance now controlled it.
“Israel can occupy Sinai in six hours, but the presence of Gaza and the resistance there will prevent an Israeli advance because they cannot pass through Gaza toward Sinai,” he said.
“Gaza is the first line of defense for Egypt, and its security is part of Egyptian national security.”
Barakeh admitted that Islamists had made mistakes in the wake of the Arab uprisings due to lack of experience after years in the opposition.
“The Islamists are not angels,” he said, adding that the Brotherhood should not have sought the presidency in Egypt and instead ruled through consensus.