The view from Yemen [Archives:2008/1143/Opinion]

April 3 2008

By: The Media Line Staff
For a brief moment it appeared that a major breakthrough in negotiations to reconcile Fatah with Hamas had been achieved with the signing of an agreement in Yemen. It appeared that the only remaining question was whether or not the agreement meant that there would be a full return to the unity government in both Gaza and the West Bank that existed before Hamas took over the Gaza Strip.

The Fatah faction of Mahmoud 'Abbas has now repudiated that agreement. In the early moments following the signing of that agreement, The Media Line spoke with the Yemeni Foreign Minister Dr. Abu Bakir Al-Qirbi.

Q: What exactly did you think the agreement meant at the time it was signed?

A: What Yemen has provided is an initiative comprised of seven points, which we hope will cover the existing situation and also the reasons that have led to these situations. We've asked both parties to initiate negotiations so they can discuss the initiative, the points in the initiative, agree on implementation and start implementing what they agreed upon.

Q: Is there an understanding that there's going to be a return to the status quo that existed before the Hamas takeover of Gaza?

A: This is a major point that we spent a lot of time on, that the situation in the Palestinian territories should return to the situation that existed before June 13, 2007, which means they will have to be under the authority of the president, the elected government and the parliament, the three organs of rule in the country, and it will be based on the constitution and the laws of the Palestinian state.

In order to achieve that, they will have to look at the reason the situation in Gaza has evolved and it is related to the issue of security; maybe go from there to the area of preparing for elections for the president and their parliament. So there are a number of issues in the initiative that have to be discussed and negotiated.

Q: Media reports have been strong in saying that Fatah refused to accept the idea that it applied to all of the Palestinian areas and what you're saying is that there is an agreement on both Gaza and the West Bank, all of the institutions, which would imply that there's a complete return to the pre-Hamas takeover.

A: The institutions in the West Bank are still what they were before the Gaza incident. What we have seen is a lot of changes in Gaza and therefore one has to address the changes in Gaza in order to put them under the control of the Palestinian state and the president's office.

Q: I'm sure you saw the TV pictures of senior members of Fatah disagreeing with one another about what was actually agreed and whether it had the blessing of Mahmoud 'Abbas. Was that public argument at all embarrassing for the government of Yemen?

A: Not at all. The government of Yemen understands there are different positions on how to resolve the existing Palestinian state and how Fatah and Hamas should start negotiating. There are those who do not want them to start negotiating at all, from within the Palestinian areas and from without, and therefore Yemen expected this sort of response. But in the end it is the responsibility of the leadership of both Fatah and Hamas to stand up to all these vocal statements we have heard and make their decision, because in the end Yemen tried to help Hamas and Fatah to get together, to start negotiating on this Palestinian situation, resolving their differences for the benefit of the Palestinians. But our concern is the Palestinian people, who are under great suffering as a result of the conflict between Fatah and Hamas.

Q: Why is it that Yemen has seemingly succeeded at least to some extent, where others, including the mighty Egypt have failed, simply to get some form of an agreement between Hamas and Fatah?

A: I suppose it's because Yemen is considered by both Hamas and Fatah as an honest mediator. They realize that Yemen's interest is in the interest of the Palestinians and not in the interests of Fatah or Hamas and I think this has created great pressure on the Palestinians because they know the Palestinian people are expecting them to heed to Yemen's initiative and be responsible for the benefit of the Palestinian people.

Q: Have you discussed with Fatah and Hamas a reasonable time frame for getting that next step of the agreement together, the step where they will decide exactly what happens to institutions in both Gaza and the West Bank?

A: I don't know whether you heard President Salih's statement after the signing of the agreement. He said he was taking the initiative now to the Arab summit in Syria; he wants it to become an Arab initiative and not a Yemeni initiative. Therefore, I think after we return from Damascus after the summit we'll start on the second step and that's the beginning of the negotiations.

Q: Are you concerned that given Syria's track record in Lebanon, that perhaps Syria is not the address that should be the address of record for this?

A: If course there are always concerns, but if we depend, in our moves and our decisions, on these concerns, we will not take any action. Therefore, we decided we should make this initiative irrespective. We hope that the Palestinian people will be behind it and that Fatah and Hamas will realize they have a responsibility not to their own parties but to the Palestinian people. This is what we're banking on.

Q: From the pointy of view of negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, do you believe that any rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas will hinder that peace process or help the peace process?

A: It depends on Israeli policy makers. For now I think the reality among many European countries is that Hamas can't be excluded from any solution to the Arab Israeli conflict and therefore I think if they are sincere about the peace settlement, they realize the benefits to Israel, they should welcome a renegotiation between Hamas and Fatah so that a strong Palestinian administration is established to control the Palestinian territories. This will lead to the security of both a Palestinian state and Israel.

Q: Regarding the battle between Yemen and the Al-Houthi rebels, where does this situation stand and where does Yemen fall within the Western war on terror?

A: There is an initiative on resolving the Al-Houthi confrontation. The government of Yemen is working on implementing this and there is progress on the ground. There are difficulties that are exaggerated because there are people who are always trying, unfortunately, to derail any agreement. But the government of Yemen is committed to implementing the Qatari agreement and we're working on it. As far as Yemen's role and commitment to fighting terrorism, I think this is part of Yemen's [obligation] to ensure not only Yemen's stability but also as part of its responsibility towards peace and security.

Q: The Media Line's correspondent in 'Sana just sent a report suggesting there is a rift in the last few weeks between Yemen and the U.S. over the release of Al-Badawi. Would you agree that you're going through a difficult time in your normally warm relations with Washington?

A: Always on issues of terrorism there are some problems, because there are issues that relate to strategy and issues related to tactics. As far as strategy, I think we and the Americans, and the world community in general, are working towards the same objectives, trying to confront and eliminate terrorist groups. But the tactics have to be different, because we're living in different cultures, with different geographical situations. Government abilities and capabilities are also different and therefore everyone has to develop his own tactics to confront terrorism.

Q: Does that mean you think that perhaps the American war on terror has adopted certain misguided policies when dealing with day-to-day matters in the Middle East?

A: This is in part [true], but I think what we are really talking about in Yemen in fighting terrorism is that we are trying also to look at the roots of terrorism and I think that unless we look at that important point we will never be able to eliminate terrorism. I think we have to look at the causes of it and I think this is where not much attention is being given, and this is one of our failures in fighting terrorists.

Q: How are relations between Yemen and Saudi Arabia when it comes to the fight against terrorism, because both of you have suffered, both of you have lost lives. Often we hear accusations and counter accusations that the terrorists, if it's an attack that happened in Yemen, have come from Saudi Arabia and if it's an attack that happened in Saudi Arabia the claim is that it's come from Yemen. Where is this situation between the two of you?

A: I think on a government basis, on a security agencies basis and ministries of interior, our relations are excellent. It is this cooperation and exchange of information and working as a team that has given both Saudi Arabia and Yemen the success that we achieved. Of course, there are problems because our borders are about 2,000 kilometers long and terrorists will always try to escape from one side to the other. This is the difficulty we're facing on how to increase our capabilities on the borders to control such movement of terrorist groups, not only with Saudi Arabia. We also have concerns about the exodus of refugees from the Horn of Africa to Yemen and how we can monitor and control our coastline, which is more than 2,200 kilometers long. You can see the enormity of the challenges Yemen faces in combating terrorism with very limited financial abilities to be able to have the best technologies and the best capabilities to control it.

Q: Do you think therefore that if Yemen were to be allowed to join the Gulf Cooperation Council – and we know that Kuwait and maybe Saudi Arabia have their reservations about this – do you think that, especially given that the GCC is trying to form its combined military, that would actually help you in your defense and your fight against terrorism?

A: I think the security of the Arabian Peninsula cannot be achieved without Yemen being an important party in it. Yemen, with the largest population in the Arabian Peninsula, with the challenges, with the poverty, with the very low economic development, I think it's important for the security of the Gulf states. This is what we've always raised with our brothers at the GCC. I'm sure you've read a lot about it and the success we have achieved because there is more and more commitment by the GCC countries to Yemen, the development of Yemen and the stability of Yemen.