Hamas reacts to Obama's speech

"We are looking for more than just mere words," the leader of the terrorist group says

By Salon Staff

Published June 4, 2009 7:01PM (EDT)

In the U.S. media, the reaction to President Obama's speech in Cairo is dominated by the usual reactions. Liberals -- for the most part -- liked it. Conservatives -- again, for the most part -- hated it, and are complaining that it showed a lack of backbone, or even a dangerous naivete on Obama's part. That's all well and good, but ultimately it's not the reaction here in the U.S. that matters, and Americans weren't even the target audience.

The important reactions come from people like Khaled Meshal, the leader of Hamas. Meshal spoke with Time's Joe Klein after the speech, and he was, unsurprisingly, not overwhelmed. But he did at least sound open-minded, Klein said, and that's a start.

"The essence of the speech was to improve the U.S. image and to placate the Muslims. We don't mind either objective, but we are looking for more than just mere words," Meshal said. "If the United States wishes to open a new page, we definitely would welcome this. We are keen to contribute to this. But we [believe that can not happen] merely with words. It must be with deeds, by changing the policy on the ground."

(Anyone else get a strange feeling reading that, like you're flashing back to the rhetoric from the presidential campaign?)

Meshal clearly isn't about to immediately accept Obama's perspective. It's not that the president would have expected the Hamas leader to do that, of course -- he emphasized that in the address -- but Meshal's words make it clear just how far the region will have to go before there's peace, how far both sides have to go in order to see the conflict from their opponent's perspective. "A Palestinian listening to the speech would have a simple question: where are the true actual issues that touch our lives?" he said. "A Palestinian listening didn't hear anything about the Israeli war in Gaza or about Israel's war crimes."

And when Klein asked about one section of Obama's speech condemning terror attacks, and about the deliberate targeting of civilians, a response from an aide to Meshal showed, further, the difficulty the U.S. has in being seen as the neutral arbiter it fancies itself.

"But civilians die in wars," the aide said. "You call it collateral damage."

Salon Staff

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