Ali Hamdan, Head of the Foreign Affairs Bureau - Amal Party: "Syria is not a foreign country for us - it is a friend"

Posted in Broader Middle East | 16-Apr-05 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

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The following is an interview regarding Amal's long-term friendly relations with Syria and Amal's position on the Palestinian problem.

WSN: Why is Amal called the pro-loyalist and pro-Syrian party?

Ali Hamdan: This label does not characterize us, although everyone uses it when talking about Amal. We are pro-regime, as in the legitimacy of the state, but not pro this or that regime. Also, we are loyal to the peace process and we support civil peace among the Lebanese communities in accordance with the Taef Agreement.

WSN: Sir, is Amal the Syrian hand in Lebanon?

Ali Hamdan: We have strong, friendly and strategic relations with Syria, and we are proud of this. However, some in the West or some in the so-called opposition talk about Amal as if it were a Syrian puppet, and for me this can only mean one thing: They do not know the history of Lebanon and the relationship shared by these two countries, or they know but prefer to ignore the historical background while spreading inaccurate information.

WSN: Why is Amal defending the Syrian presence and even interference in Lebanon?

Ali Hamdan: I think that no one can deny the support and the efforts the Syrians have made to unify Lebanon, to support the Lebanese army and to bring Lebanon back into international political life, as a political state. Major efforts were made by Syria, with modest contributions of the other Arab countries and the international community to reach the Taef Agreement. In the absence of all, we have found only Syria willing to help us. During the civil war, the Arab League decided that Lebanon needed approximately 40,000 troops to stop the violence and secure the country. The Arab countries agreed to send only 4,000 troops. It was only the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad who agreed to send the other needed military troops to Lebanon. He realized that from a strategic point of view, a weak Lebanon would further weaken and endanger Syria as well as the entire region.

WSN: Who requested the Syrians to intervene in Lebanon?

Ali Hamdan: It was an official request made by the Lebanese government, mainly by the Christian Maronites who saw their community at risk at that time. Amal cannot and will not forget that Syria saved us from total destruction.

WSN: Only the military factor is keeping Lebanon close to Syria?

Ali Hamdan: No, there are also social and cultural factors. We have a long border from north to south with Syria, and then we have the sea and Israel, who is our enemy. Between Israel and the sea, we only have Syria. Of course we choose Syria, with whom we have had brotherly relations since the (artificial) borders were decided by the French and the British.

WSN: How does Amal see post-withdrawal relations with Syria?

Ali Hamdan: We, of Amal look at the countries of the European Union and we see that they have a united foreign policy, common business ties, etc. and only internal affairs are kept separate. Thus, we wonder: Why are we not allowed to have this kind of a relationship with Syria? We hope to continue good relations with President Assad.

WSN: What is Amal's position toward the withdrawal of Syria's military and intelligence from Lebanon?

Ali Hamdan: Nobody in Lebanon wanted the Syrians on a permanent basis, but we already have the Taef Accord that stipulates the withdrawal. It is our own fault that we have not implemented all of Taef's points. In Lebanon, we do not like to recognize our own mistakes, so we blame others for them. However, Taef exists and it will soon be implemented at all levels.

WSN: Do you consider Syria's interference in Lebanon's political process to be foreign interference?

Ali Hamdan: Syria is not a foreign country to us -- it is a friend, an Arab country that is helping us in the framework of the brotherly relations that we share, without trespassing on our sovereignty. One should also not forget that Syria is helping us in terms of electricity, gas and with cheap labor for agriculture and construction. Some Lebanese complained about the presence of the Syrian workers here, but frankly you will not find any Lebanese working in what they consider to be menial jobs. Thus, we need workers to do the jobs that the Lebanese refuse to do mostly because of their pride.

WSN: What about the Syrian intelligence presence? What role does it play?

Ali Hamdan: Show me one country where the foreign secret services -- from the CIA, Mossad to the Russians or Chinese -- are not involved! Where the US has interests, you can find the CIA interfering, and so on and so forth. It is not a new practice. In the 21st Century, we need to redefine the meaning of sovereignty and independence, because I personally doubt there is one country in the world that is not influenced, or pressured by another country over its policy.

WSN: What is Amal's position on the Palestinian issue?

Ali Hamdan: Amal, like any other Lebanese party believes that rights of the Palestinians should be recognized and implemented without any further delay. The US wants to implement UN Resolution 1559 in two months. What about the UN resolutions that acknowledge the rights of the refugees? The Palestinians have waited for more than 50 years to have their problems solved by the international community, and therefore we suggest to President Bush to start with the Palestinians and then come to Lebanon, or any other Arab country.

WSN: Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Sharon engaged in direct dialog. What is likely to be the outcome?

Ali Hamdan: Everything that is happening now in the region is a reaction to 1948, when with the blessing of the US, the Europeans moved the Israelis into Palestine, killing or forcing the local inhabitants to leave the country. Now, all they want is to have UN Resolutions 242 and 194 implemented and live in peace. If Mahmoud Abbas can secure the Palestinians' rights and land, we wish him good luck.

WSN: What about the Palestinian terrorist movements?

Ali Hamdan: When Arafat was alive, the PLO was a terrorist organization. Then they assassinated Arafat, and now Hamas and Islamic Jihad are the terrorists. All that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are doing is resisting Israeli aggression toward them - nothing more or less.

WSN: You know the poor living conditions in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Why is there this state policy and why did Amal support it, if you are so concerned about the Palestinians' fate?

Ali Hamdan: We know that the conditions are terrible, but we are not the ones who created the problem. Therefore, we are not the ones to solve it. Also, we cannot accept that the Palestinian refugees remain in Lebanon because of the fragile balance we have here between the Christians and the Muslims. If we were to grant them all Lebanese citizenship, the Maronites and the Christians would accuse us of wanting to transform Lebanon into an Islamic country. But, to continue my initial thought -- we are not here to solve the problems of the Israelis. Are we their slaves, now? The ones who put the Israelis in the region, together with Sharon should solve the Palestinians' problems.

WSN: Is there any practical solution?

Ali Hamdan: We often hear about the democratic regime in Israel -- therefore, let them bring the Palestinians inside the country, apply the democratic rules and let the majority decide the future of Palestine (Israel).

WSN: Will there be an Israel if all the Palestinian refugees get their right to return?

Ali Hamdan: I do not know -- maybe there will be, maybe not. Either way, we as Lebanese and we as Arabs are not responsible for the existence of the Israelis. The Palestinians are very weak as a people, but this does not mean that they do not have rights. Let me give you an example from the former Soviet Union. As you know, the communist regime was an atheist one -- but after 70 years of communism, the people of the Eastern European countries did not forget their God, or their beliefs. Are the Palestinians supposed to forget the rights that were taken from them in 1948 by the Israelis?

WSN: Is it very common for the Arabs to differentiate between Israeli and Jewish people?

Ali Hamdan: Yes. It is. We have no problem with the Jewish people; we have them in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq and even in Iran. In Iran, the Jewish community has a representative in the Iranian parliament. We can live side by side with them, on an equal basis. We cannot live side by side with the Israelis whose main goal is to take all our land and eventually to exterminate us.

WSN - Should President Bush's plan to modernize the Arab world through democracy start in Lebanon?

Ali Hamdan: If President Bush wants to spread democracy in the region, he should start with Israel. The Arab Israelis are treated as second-class citizens in Israel -- so imagine how the Arabs are treated. The US is ruling the world by the logic of power, not the power of logic. We see a great difference between leading the world towards democracy and imposing your rules on others. If the US wants to lead us, we have no problem, but if it wants to dominate us, then we have a serious problem.

WSN: Are the Arabs eager to have peace with Israel?

Ali Hamdan: I do not know if we are eager, but we are willing to sit and talk with them. We have had the Madrid, the Oslo and the Beirut peace conferences, where we repeated our call to have negotiations and give land for peace. Who refused us? The Israelis. Even Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that he is ready to discuss the Golan Heights issue with Prime Minister Sharon. So far they are ignoring or refusing our initiatives.

Since 9/11, the US and the Israelis are accusing the Arabs of being the troublemakers of the region, under the title of terrorism. Therefore, although our rights are violated, our countries attacked and our land stolen; we are the terrorists. If things continue to move in this direction, the outcome will not be positive - neither for us nor for them.