Dr. Gershon Baskin is the chairman and founder of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) – an organization which promotes the two-state solution and other creative ideas for peace in the region. Baskin was also the initiator and person responsible for the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas that successfully negotiated the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
In fact, due to his firsthand knowledge of Hamas and his connections with its leaders, he may be the only Israeli worth listening to regarding the future and possible outcomes. That is why I decided readers of this blog, especially Israelis, may be interested to read an interview with him on the current situation and future prospects for peace.
The interview was published on the Israeli BizPortal Website in Hebrew. I apologize in advance for any information lost in my translation.
As we continue to confront Hamas, what don’t we know about the organization that we should know?
The way I see it, we know nothing about this organization. Hamas grew on the misery and distress of the Gaza Strip and as an organization focused on catering the real needs of its people – education, welfare and health. When the Palestinian Authority was founded, Hamas was already deeply involved in helping the poverty-stricken communities in Gaza. They handed out rucksacks to poor children with books and other studying equipment. They received the people’s support by taking care of their needs and they were clever about it. Working with businessmen and chambers of commerce, they brought in computers way before any of the officials began to think of the idea.
The leaders of the organization are highly educated. Many of them received their education in the West. They are very religious. This is not only external , it runs deep. Their belief is fundamental. It is a stream of Islam that believes that serving Allah can be done by dying for Palestine. It is a Palestinian movement and not only an Islamic movement. As opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood which aspires to establish Muslim control over the entire world, they are first and foremost a Palestinian organization wanting to free Palestine from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.
So this is an organization which is unwilling to compromise, and it will not recognize the State of Israel no matter what?
Correct. Hamas does not operate with a stopwatch in its hand. Meaning, if Israel cannot be disposed of today, then they will wait. They are willing to reach agreements with Israel. Ahmed Yassin spoke about a renewable Hudna agreement that could last ten years. But as far as they are concerned such an agreement would mean Israel returning to the 1967 borders, completely dismantling all settlements and a full return of refugees – these are absolute terms. In the last few years, we have seen agreements that we call ‘regularization’. After operation “Pillar of Defense” there were talks on the ground and the ‘regularization’ was handled by a third party. There is absolutely no direct contact between Hamas and Israel. I was the only exception to this rule.
And how did that happen?
It started with an Economics Professor from the Islamic University who I met at a conference in Cairo. He wanted, out of his own volition, to contact Israelis since he had never met an Israeli beforehand. We began talking and tried to establish a dialog forum. Four countries agreed to host the forum, but eventually Hamas vetoed the idea. But, six days after Gilad Shalit was kidnapped, he called me and said: “Gershon, we have to do something, the situation is bad and it is only going to get worse”. Right after finishing the conversation with me, he got into his car and drove to the office of Ismayil Haniya. After half an hour, the director of the Prime Minister’s office called me and I was put through to Hamas’ spokesperson at the time, Razi Hamad.
He proposed establishing a channel of communication for solving this issue. I was not an official, and Hamad contacted me without authorization. He quickly understood I was not going to give up and that I was focused on bringing Shalit back home. Over the years, this channel was used for cease-fires and other humanitarian purposes. Eventually, Ahmad Ja’abri gave his permission to talk with me since he knew I held no official capacity.
Was this connection severed?
I have had no contact with them for two weeks now. I have been in contact with a relation of senior Hamas members, and he in turn has been in touch with Hamas fighters. Their phones are turned off now. Their system may be shut off or maybe they do not want to turn them on. I don’t know. I do talk to the Economics Professor every day.
The last time you spoke with Hamas, what did they say?
The last time I actually spoke to a Hamas official was on the 4th of July, when I spoke to Razi Hamad, and he passed me the same demands they insist on today. I promised to pass them on to Israelis officials and I also said they would laugh at these demands, something that did indeed happen. Later, they asked me not to intervene.
After almost a month of fighting, has their position not changed at all?
Not at all. As far as they are concerned, they are winning. Israel has destroyed infrastructure, buildings and killed many innocent people. For them, this is a victory picture for the world to see – the picture of Israel’s cruelty and Israel as the war criminal. Their human resources have hardly been damaged. A relatively small amount of Hamas fighters have been killed. I presume that the number of rockets they hold has been substantially reduced. Most of the tunnels system in Gaza is intact while the tunnels leading to Israel were destroyed. The leadership is completely intact. No one was hurt. Their houses were destroyed but this benefits them since they can tell the citizens that they were hurt as well.
The way they see things, they managed to cause many difficulties for Israel, they managed to shutdown Israel’s international airport, they fired rockets on Haifa and Tel-Aviv. They will present themselves as winners, but the question is whether the people buy the story when they see the disaster Hamas brought upon them.
You assume Hamas cares about the suffering of its people…
This is an Israeli misconception. While it is true that it serves Hamas’ interests, it hurts them to see the damage and the killing. It hurts them considerably.
Don’t they see that they brought it upon themselves? Breaking the cease-fire agreements…
They do not see it that way. The way they see it is Israel attacked them in the West Bank. They say: “Israel offers quiet for quiet and expects us to accept living our lives in jail?” Under these circumstances, for most people in Gaza, dying is better than living. From a Palestinian perspective, they are now stronger than ever. Of course, this is solidarity under war. We do not know how people will see things in a month from now. Currently – everyone is Hamas. Palestinians I know in the West Bank say to me today: “There is no Fatah and Hamas now – we are all Palestinians being attacked by Israel”.
It sounds as if we’re in an impossible loop with no viable solution…
This is simply not true. There is a solution. For once, Israel’s interests are aligned with those of the moderate Sunni states, including Abu Mazen. We can fight radical Islam with the help of Egypt. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Abu Mazen at their head. But Israel must accept the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. This can be the foundation for negotiations that will end the occupation and found the Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. The Arab League can be asked to take care of rehabilitating and disarming Gaza.
Would Hams be willing to disarm itself under these terms?
Of course not. But Hamas objecting to the Arab League and the Arab world is an entirely different situation.
So who will disarm this organization?
A multi-national Arab force, led by Abu Mazen, and supported by all the countries I mentioned, including the Palestinian people. Facing these forces, Hamas will lay down its arms, because the Palestinians will support it. I repeat- Abu Mazen must enter Gaza as the supreme leader of a demilitarized independent Palestine consisting of the West Bank and Gaza, and not the head of the Palestinian Authority.
What use is any signature of Abu Mazen worth? Israel even believes that his control over the West Bank is also superficial…
You know what? That is bullshit. He has power, and I’ll tell you why. But say for the sake of argument you are right. Israel takes a tremendous risk in these wars. We send our children to fight and be killed – so I ask you – we’re willing to take this risk but not the risk of making peace?
I can counter that claim easily – we are afraid that if we go for such a move, we’ll receive precisely what we got after withdrawing from Gaza in 2005. They will arm themselves again and this time the danger will be much closer to home…
There was no agreement when we left Gaza. Sharon signaled to Abu Mazen that he was nothing, and by that, handed Gaza to Hamas. So two years ago we went to war and exited with an “agreement” – did anything change? Two years ago I said that we did not achieve deterrence. Deterrence is not created when confronting an organization whose fighters want to die. So we’re willing to take risks for nothing , but are not willing to take risks for something that may really change reality?
Understand, I’m against the IDF folding. Israel must continue to defend itself and its borders. On the contrary – only a strong country can make peace. It follows, that such an agreement must be given a chance.
Going back to Abu Mazen – we’re told that if the IDF pulls out of the West Bank, Hamas will take control. But see what happened – after the kidnapping and killing of the three boys Israel mounted an operation with thousands of soldiers in the West Bank to “dismantle the Hamas infrastructure”. What was the result? We arrested five hundred people, collected 2.5 NIS million, closed some clinics and schools and confiscated 300 Hamas flags. This is the infrastructure that we found – the infrastructure Hamas will use to take over the West Bank if the IDF pulls out.
This is propaganda and bullshit. The fact is that during twenty eight days of fighting in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority has controlled the situation and prevented riots. There were even riots where Palestinian forces opened fire to prevent another intifada. If we leave Gaza without defeating Hamas, the next intifada is really just a matter of time. To avoid this we must stop treating Abu Mazen like he is a nobody.
So the current Israeli government is to blame?
There is no blame, only responsibility. Israel has the responsibility to protect its interests. We can alter the geo-strategic situation using this war. The risk of not taking the political opportunity is 1000 times more than the risk we would take if we finally make a political move.
You know what frightens me the most? Israeli vanity. The fact that we think that eight years of quiet on the northern border is due to deterrence. It frightens me greatly. Yesterday, I heard generals joking on Channel 2 that Nasrallah hasn’t taken care of his sun tan for years now, and I couldn’t help wonder what Nasrallah has been up to over the past eight years. I wonder about the one hundred thousand rockets and missiles we allowed him to stockpile. From war to war, our situation gets worse. There are more and more victims and casualties. In this war t here were more casualties than in the two previous confrontations combined.