James M. Dorsey
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The Gaza war is as much a battle to control the narrative as it is a brutal fight to the end, costing the lives of thousands of innocent civilians and turning much of the territory into a wasteland.
In many ways, Israel and Hamas have become mirror images of one another, competing to see who can make the most blood curdling statements.
Both have asserted that there are no innocent civilians. For Hamas, all Israelis are settlers and legitimate targets, irrespective of whether they live within Israel’s internationally recognised borders or in settlements on occupied Palestinian land. For many Israelis, including President Isaac Herzog, all Gazans are part of Hamas.
As far as Israel is concerned, the story of the war started on October 7 when Hamas fighters breached Israeli border security and went on a bloody rampage, brutally killing some 1,400, mostly innocent civilians. The attack, in Israel’s view, sealed Hamas’s fate as a murderous, terrorist organization that needs to be destroyed.
For Hamas and many Palestinians, the attack was the product of 56 years of Israeli occupation and de facto annexation of Palestinian lands and a 17-year-long siege of Gaza.
Talk in Israeli government circles of depopulating Gaza and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s most recent declaration that Israel will have to control Gazan security indefinitely have reinforced convictions that Israel’s intent is to remove them from their land and squash Palestinian national aspirations.
While nothing justifies the killing of civilians on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, cutting through the fog of war and the raw emotions that dominate Israeli and Palestinian attitudes is key to securing a sustainable ceasefire and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Few bring an understanding to the table of both sides that is grounded in having mediated between Israel and Hamas rather than only having engaged with one side or the other, particularly as Qatar negotiates a release of some hostages kidnapped by Hamas on October 7.
A hostage negotiator, former advisor to Israeli prime ministers, critic of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and an investor in East Jerusalem housing for Palestinians, Gershon Baskin is one of those few. In 2011, Mr. Baskin negotiated Hamas’ release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for 1,027 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.
Gilad Shalit salutes Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after landing in IDF airbase in the center of Israel. Photo: Israel Defense Forces Via Wikimedia commons
Mr. Baskin was in touch with Hamas leaders in Gaza until a week ago. He says the release by Hamas of women, children, and elderly hostages is being negotiated on three different tracks in Qatar, Egypt, and Lebanon, countries that host exiled Hamas officials and/or have a relationship with the group. The release could involve an exchange for Palestinians in Israeli prisons and/or a temporary silencing of the guns.
Gershon Baskin, welcome to the show.
Gershon Baskin (00:03:22):
Thank you, James. I appreciate all the compliments at the end of your opening, but there were many things that you said that I disagree with.
James M. Dorsey (00:03:29):
I'm sure that's true, and you are welcome to take issue with them as we proceed in during the podcast.
Before we get into your experience as a negotiator, explain the circumstances that enabled you to be the negotiator for Mr. Shalit's release. Did you have contact with Hamas prior to the capture of Mr. Shalit by Hamas, and if so, how did that come about?
Gershon Baskin (00:03:57):
Look, for 45 years I've been engaged in trying to build bridges between the Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel and between Israelis and Palestinians on finding a way for us to live together in this shared homeland. For 24 years, I founded and co-directed a joint Israeli-Palestinian public policy think tank that brought me into direct contact with many Israelis and many Palestinians from the mainstream of both societies. During those 24 years, we organized and ran, mediated, facilitated more than 2,000 working groups of Israelis and Palestinians. So, I'm a well-known personality in the field. I'm well known in Palestine and in Israel, and I think I've stayed fast to the principles that I believe in.
A year before Shalit was abducted in 2006 and one of my wife's first cousins was kidnapped and killed by Hamas. Sasson Nuriel was his name. My wife comes from an Iraqi Jewish family, a very large family, and Sasson was one of her first cousins, and when he went missing, the family asked me to help and find him with my contacts in Palestine. I was actually out of the country at the time and asked my Palestinian partner, Hanna Siniora, to try and help. He was not successful, and eventually they released a videotape of Sasson. He had been tortured, handcuffed, blindfolded, and he spoke Arabic and he read out a declaration declaring that Israel needed to release Palestinian prisoners for his life, and, I guess, the Israeli security were hot on their tails and a few days later they found his body on the side of the road in the West Bank.
He had been butchered. At his funeral standing over his grave. I swore to myself that if ever again someone approached me with a request to help save a human life, I would do everything humanly possible, and that was the background. Several months later, I was at a World Bank conference in Cairo on Mediterranean development. I was the only Israeli at the conference, and there were over a hundred participants from all over the Mediterranean, and a friend of mine from Gaza who was a professor of economics at the Fatah University, Al Azhar University in Gaza. Azar University approached me and said, Gershon, “I want to introduce you to someone,” and this professor, Mohammed Mikdad, he's a professor of economics at the Islamic University, Gaza. Mikdad was a student of mine and he's a member of Hamas and he came from Gaza to Cairo because he heard there might be some Israelis here.
He never met an Israeli before, and I, in more than 20 years of working with Palestinians, I had never met someone from Hamas yet. So it was that an opportunity. We spent the next two days, about six hours in dialogue. I suggested to him at the end of the conference that we meet again, that we try to form a dialogue group of Israelis and Palestinians that promised I would find countries that would host us outside. I found four countries in the end. This dialogue never happened, but in the interim, I went to Gaza. I met him and his colleagues at the Islamic University. This was after Hamas was elected. In 2006, we went to the Prime Minister's office of Hamas, sat for two hours with one of the advisors to the Prime Minister, one of the founders of Hamas. And our relationship developed, although our dialogue project never got off the ground because the Hamas leadership vetoed it, I did invite him to a conference in Istanbul that he came to with Israelis and Palestinians, his first time, and one week after Shalit was abducted, the professor calls me early in the morning and says, Gershon, we have to do something.
We have no electricity, we have no water. We're being bombed. I said, what can we do? He said, let's try to open up a channel of communication. And he went in his car to the Prime Minister's office. They called me half an hour later, and that started my last 17, 18 years of dialogue and negotiations with Hamas. That initial contact led to the conducting of a telephone call the same day between the soldier's father, Noam Shalit and Ghazi Hamad, who was then the spokesperson of the Hamas government. It led, two and a half months later, to receiving a handwritten letter from Shalit proving that he was alive and that we had a channel of communication leading to the people holding him, which eventually led to the Egyptians taking over control of the negotiations, which took place for about four or five months where they put down a proposal for the release of 1,000 soldiers for Gilad, and then all hell broke loose in Gaza between Fatah and Hamas.
The Egyptians left the negotiations between Israel and Hamas and focused on the situation in Gaza, which ended up in June 2007 with a full break between Fatah and Hamas, Fatah being thrown out of Gaza, Hamas in control, and the beginning of the full siege on Gaza by the Israelis and the Egyptians. It took another five years of trying to negotiate, not being recognized as an official negotiator, but always trying, never giving up. It took another five years before the Israelis were ready to negotiate seriously. The Mossad official who was appointed to be in charge of the case, decided to believe that I had an opportunity to reach to the people holding Shalit. My back channel became officially authorized by Prime Minister Netanyahu. I worked from May to 2011 until mid-July 2011 when we reached a breakthrough in the negotiations of a framework agreement for the deal and the terms of release of the Palestinian prisoners, and then the negotiations will move to the formal track of Egypt intelligence forces mediating between Israel and Hamas. On the list of names, on the terms of the release, it was slowed down because of Ramadan and the Jewish holidays and a terrorist attack across the Sinai border. But in October of 2011, Shalit came home. 1,027 Palestinian prisoners were released according to the same deal that was on the table in December, 2006 of 450 people from a list by Hamas plus an additional 27 women, and then a month later, 550 people on a list submitted by Israel.
James M. Dorsey (00:10:18):
I'm sorry to hear about your wife's first cousin. In many ways, the prisoner exchange, if I'm not incorrect, was personal. Personal for you in very different ways. Among those released were the four killers of your wife's first cousin.
Gershon Baskin (00:10:33):
James M. Dorsey (00:10:35):
One of the killers was reportedly among the leaders of the October seven attack.
In other words, you understand as much as anyone can, the presumably contradictory emotions involved for the relatives of the more than 200 people kidnapped by Hamas on October 7, and the balance between wanting a safe return of their loved ones and the risks of war. Perhaps you can elaborate on that from your own experience in terms of how a majority of the Israeli public will respond, what the risks are of the release of men committed to violence in the absence of a resolution of the conflict, and does that leave space for empathy with the loss of civilian life on the other side?
Gershon Baskin (00:11:19):
Yeah, this is obviously a very, very complex issue. Let's start with before we talk about the 240 hostages in their families. There are 559 Palestinian prisoners in Israel serving life sentences for murdering Israelis, some of them serving multiple life sentences for killing many Israelis, including some of them who are responsible for killing more than a hundred Israelis. So, for the families of those who were killed by these people serving in prison. The thought of these people being released is horrific, the thought that their loved ones will never come back and these murderers will go free and go home to their families is a thought beyond imagination. It must haunt them, just thinking about it, and in the Shalit deal, more than 300 of the 1m027 prisoners who were released were serving life sentences who had killed Israelis, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar. swas serving a life sentence.
He was 22 years in prison, but he never killed an Israeli. He had killed five Palestinians who were thought to be collaborators with Israel, and he was serving life sentence for killing five Palestinians, not even killing Israelis. It is very difficult. On the day that Gilad was released, the widow of my wife's cousin called me and screamed at me on the phone for 40 minutes. She and her children were amongst those who went to the high court of Israel to try and prevent the deal from happening. She cried that her husband Sasson will never come home, and the people who killed him are going free to their families. And I cried with her and felt her pain and her agony. In my mind, I was thinking all the time I couldn't save Sasson, but Gilad is coming home alive. I didn't say that to her, but that's what I was thinking.
She and her children have not talked to me since. Sasson’s sister has talked to my wife and myself at different family occasions, but we are non-talkable to Sasson's widow and his children, and I completely understand them. I don't blame them whatsoever. In the end of the day, prime Minister Netanyahu and 26 members of his government voted to release the 1,027 prisoners to save Gilad. It was supported at the time by around 80 per cent of the Israeli public. There were five years and four months to build the public support for that. We don't have five years and four months now. With regard to the current hostages, there has been a change in public opinion over the last month since the war began. Initially in the shock and trauma of the horrendous acts of terrorism committed by Hamas in Israel, killing infants, burning whole families alive, killing elderly people, taking, there are more than 30 children who are being held by hostage, the youngest, one of them nine months old, mothers taken with their children.
There are two children who witnessed their parents being killed in front of them and they were taken hostage. The most inhumane acts that you can imagine are experienced by the families of the hostages. And yet, in the early days of the war, the primary objective of the Israeli government, the society and the army, was to dismantle Hamas' ability to ever rule Gaza again, to dismantle their military, to kill all of their leaders, political and military, and to ensure that Hamas would never endanger Israel again, that no danger would come from the Gaza Strip to Israel. Again, the hostage issue was hardly talked about in the first days. Now, with the official level, the primary objective of the war is the dismantling of Hamas' ability to govern and threaten Israel and the return of the hostages. Now, there is a contradiction between those two goals.
How do you destroy the enemy and kill all of their leaders and bring back the hostages safely and alive at the same time? I don't see how that's doable. In fact, I would say that the only way to bring the hostages home alive is through a negotiated agreement with Hamas. That would obviously be a huge victory for Hamas. And the only deal that's possible to do that if we're talking about bringing all the hostages home is the all for all deal, all hostages for all the Palestinian prisoners, some 7,000 of them, including the 559 murderers of Israelis plus another 130 terrorists who committed the acts of terrorism on the Israeli side of the border on October 7th, 30 per cent of the prisoners, about 30 per cent are members of Hamas. Only 3 to 400 of them are from Gaza, most of them from the West Bank. There are 2,000 of them about sitting in administrative detention, which means that they were arrested without charge and imprisoned without a trial.
Israel usually uses administrative detention because bringing them to court and convicting them would disclose sources that have enabled Israel to capture them and disclosing sources burns intelligence information. Literally, it prevents them from providing more intelligence information. So, this is a huge dilemma, and it's not one that I see the current government of Israel being able to rule on. Netanya is too weak a prime minister at this time. His government is too right-wing and too religious to accept this kind of deal. And I believe that there are people in his government, I know that there are people in government because they've said it, that think Israel needs to sacrifice the hostages. For me, that's an unthinkable thought. Sacrificing a decision to sacrifice the hostages in my mind, tears the moral fabric of the state of Israel into pieces that will be impossible to repair after this war is over.
That's how serious I think this is and impossible for Israel to simply say, we're going to sacrifice the hostages in order to achieve the larger goal of dismantling Hamas' ability to govern and to threaten Israel. So, I know that negotiations are going on on three different tracks now for a partial deal, a humanitarian deal of freeing the women, the children, and the elderly hostages in return for, I'm not sure exactly what Hamas wants. The leaders of Hamas and others have made it their life's mission to free all the Palestinian prisoners, even at the cost of death to themselves. They're not afraid of dying. In fact, it is their goal to be a martyr for Palestine, for Islam, for Al Quds, for Al Aqsa, for getting revenge for all the things that Israel has done to the Palestinian people over the last 75 years. So, they're not afraid of death, and there's no deterrence against them. They will not surrender; they will not run away. They will fight to the end. I'm not sure that they understand the severity of their situation and how their days are numbered. I think they're approaching that.
James M. Dorsey (00:18:37):
This is probably one of the points where we may or may not agree on. But nonetheless, I do need to ask you, do you feel that the civilian toll of the Israeli attack on Gaza in response to the October seven Hamas assault, does that undermine Israel's moral fiber?
Gershon Baskin (00:18:57):
Certainly, no question about it. There are even war crimes being committed by Israel. I have friends in Gaza. I receive WhatsApp messages from the few people who are able to get online in the evening. A young woman who I've been helping over the past year, who I encouraged her to leave her abusive husband. She has a nine-month-old baby. She's sleeping in a school yard somewhere in Gaza, and she writes to me last night, she wrote to me, I'm hungry. She's breastfeeding. She has nowhere to go and no family and no house. It's been destroyed. Some 1.5 million people in Gaza are homeless today, the third generation or fourth generation of refugees who lost their homes in 1948. What's happening in Gaza is a catastrophe and a tragedy. I think it's important to understand, even if not accepting, but it's important to understand that the enormous abusive non-proportional use of force by Israel in Gaza has a lot more to do with sending a message to Iran and Hezbollah than it does sending a message to Hamas.
And there's no doubt that it's helping the Israeli war effort on the ground with the land incursion destroying infrastructure and blowing out whole neighborhoods that makes it easier for the Israeli army to do what it has to do in Gaza. But the primary message to Iran and Hezbollah who may have thought that because Hamas had so easily breached Israel's defenses on October 7th, that Israel is weak and falling apart, and therefore what Israel is doing in Gaza is existential. Because if Iran and Hezbollah were to think that Israel is falling apart and Israel is weak, Israel would be in a life-threatening reality. But the message to Iran and Hezbollah was, don't mess with us. What we're doing in Gaza is nothing compared to what we'll do in Beirut if you attack us. So, there's a larger picture that one needs to consider. And with that, the Palestinian people are not the objective of this war.
It is Hamas, and despite the stupid statement of Israel's president that all Gazans are Hamas, this is not true. Many Gazans have suffered at the hands of Hamas for many years and have never supported Hamas. They did elect Hamas. That was a large result of Israel handing Gaza to Hamas because Hamas won the narrative on who threw out Israel. When Israel decided to leave in 2005, rather than negotiating with Mahmoud Abbas, who begged Ariel Sharon to negotiate with him to turn over Hamas to him as a diplomatic victory for those people who were willing to make peace, Sharon refused to negotiate with Abbas and handed Gaza over to Hamas who simply told the people, ‘Israel only understands the language of force and violence, and we kicked Israel out.’ I know Christians who voted for Hamas because they said, US negotiating with Israel hasn't produced anything. Our situation is worse today than it was when we started. And look, Hamas and Hezbollah later succeeded in throwing Israel out only through violence.
James M. Dorsey (00:22:31):
This is maybe a hypothetical, but nonetheless, if Hamas on October 7th had exclusively attacked Israeli military facilities, would the response have been as stark?
Gershon Baskin (00:22:46):
Definitely not. Hamas crossed the line. What Hamas did in Israel most Palestinians have never seen. They don't see the pictures of what Hamas did in Israel. When I tell Palestinian friends, they killed babies, they burned whole families alive. They say to me, no, no, Hamas doesn't do that. And I said, but they did. They did. We only see the pictures of the physical destruction of Gaza. We're not seeing pictures on Israeli television of the human suffering. And Palestinians have not witnessed what Hamas did inside of Israel. So, we're seeing two different pictures. But I believe had they attacked only army bases and even took soldiers as hostages that would be legitimate in the war that exists between Israel and Hamas. But they crossed a line and in crossing their line, they are no longer worthy in my eyes of existing anymore. They crossed a line between humanity and inhumanity, and I have been negotiating with them for 17 years, and I believed for many of those years that it was possible to arrive at a long-term ceasefire. I have never spoken about the possibility of peace with Hamas, but I did believe, based on their own theology, on their own understandings, that we could find long-term understandings, a ceasefire, on opening the siege on Gaza, on enabling people to have a more normal life, to get out of the horrific poverty that they'd live under and to begin to heal wounds that could lead to a different future at some time in the far distance.
James M. Dorsey (00:24:27):
That parlays well to my next question, which is trying to take a step back. You've known Hamas leaders for now decades. You spoke to your primary Hamas contacts, Ghazii Hamad more than a thousand times. You met him four times and unsuccessfully tried to meet him again in 2021. On the day of Mr. Shalit's release, Mr. Hamad predicted, “Next time we will negotiate peace.” Today, Mr. Hamad calls for more October 7 attacks and the annihilation of Israel. Talk us through what Hamas' position was when you first entered into negotiations with the group, and how it evolved and what dynamics within Hamas got us to where we are today.
Gershon Baskin (00:25:16):
Hamas is a movement that's been evolving over time, and there were elements within Hamas over time who have become more pragmatic. Ghazi Hamad was one of them, but not the only one. They agreed to what was called the Prisoners’ Document that was negotiated by the Palestinian prison Marwan Barghouti in prison, which among, I think it was 2009, I have to check the date, but sometime around then. The Prisoners’ Document was an agreement between prisoners from all the Palestinian factions in Israeli prisons. It stipulated that any discussions with Israel would be based on the Arab Peace Initiative. The Arab Peace Initiative was issued in March of 2002, and it basically said that if Israel withdrew from territories that occupied in 1967, allowed for the creation of a Palestinian state in the territories occupied by Israel with East Jerusalem as capital, and an agreed and just solution to the Palestinian refugee issue, that all Arab states would make peace with Israel and have normal relations.
It was ratified by the entire Arab League, and later it was ratified by the entire conference of Islamic Cooperation. Fifty-six Islamic countries signed onto the Arab Peace Initiative and Hamas agreed to it. That was in the background. There were also statements made over the years by Khaled Mishaal when he was the head of the Hamas Political Bureau, that Hamas would agree to a Palestinian state in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 without recognizing Israel or making peace with Israel and demanding a right of return for all the Palestinian refugees to their homes, which means that Israel would essentially no longer be a Jewish state, it would be a binational state, but that was the evolving Hamas position in 2018. I believe it was the Egyptians, after being victorious on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, forced Hamas to change its covenant to remove the blatant, anti-Semitic statements in their covenant and to accept the Palestinian state in the 67 borders. So, Hamas changed its covenant, whether it was real or not, it was obviously giving into Egyptian pressure. Egypt forced them to do it, there's no doubt about it. But Egypt was also forcing Hamas to stop cooperating with ISIS in Northern Sinai and to turn over ISIS wanted people who were taking asylum in Gaza to the Egyptians, and they ended up turning those people over to Egypt as well.
What's happened over the last two years obviously, is that Hamas leaders have played Israel on a double game. They encouraged Israel to believe that they were deterred. They led Israel to believe that Sinwar and the leadership were pragmatic and were willing to talk about long-term arrangements while at the same time they were busy planning what they did on October 7th. They in fact sat out on two rounds of violence between Israel and Gaza that were between Israel and the Islamic Jihad and Islamic Jihad fought against Israel and shot rockets in Israel, and Hamas did not join in, and Hamas notified the Egyptians that they would not join in the fight at that time. And that was all part of this larger strategy of putting Israel to sleep. And it worked. Hamas was very smart. They planned the operation. They could have never imagined the ease at which they would breach the Israeli borders, and 3,000 Palestinians crossed the border that day and went into Israel, not only Hamas, Islamic Jihad and PFLP and other individual armed militia and people who came in to steal and burn houses and steal televisions and cars and tractors and you name it, and do the bloodiest terrorism that's ever happened in the state of Israel in 75 years.
James M. Dorsey (00:29:17):
So, in your mind, was the changing of the charter in 2017 part of the deception or was that a brief period in which there was an opportunity?
Gershon Baskin (00:29:28):
Well, today, I believe it was part of the deception and Ghazi Hamad, who was the most moderate person, and I don't use the word moderate when I talk about Hamas, but he was the most moderate person in Hamas. Listen to the statements that he's making today. And this coward is not even in Gaza with his people. He's in Beirut, and he was obviously sent to Beirut to be the primary spokesperson for Hamas during this war that was planned. So, he had to be part of the deception. I've been talking to him regularly. I've been trying to convince him over the last months to meet with me in Cairo for us to brainstorm together to figure out how to break the deadlock between Israel and Hamas. And until he finally said two weeks before the war that he simply can't, he's not allowed. He wasn't even in Gaza at that time, and I only learned that he was in Beirut after the war started.
When I asked him, I heard your house was bombed by the Israelis, and he confirmed for me that his house was bombed. And I asked him, how was your family? I was worried about his family. And then it turned out that his privileged family is with him in Beirut and not even Gaza. And then he came out with these horrendous statements justifying, first he denied to me in private, he denied we didn't do it. “It wasn't us. We didn't do all that damage. We don't kill civilians.” And then he not only stopped denying it, but he also admitted it and justified it and said we would do it over and over and over again until we annihilate Israel. And that's when I broke all ties with him and wrote to him a letter which I published for everyone in the world to see.
James M. Dorsey (00:31:05):
And we'll come to that. One other aspect of this period where Hamas was either moderating its position or being deceptive is there's some who have argued that Hamas drew the conclusion from the Oslo peace process that Palestinians had no interest in playing their trump card, recognition of Israel, and an end to the arms struggle upfront, and should only do so once the terms of an agreement had been negotiated. Is that a position that you think was one that Hamas at any one point had adopted?
Gershon Baskin (00:31:45):
Well, Hamas came to life in the wake of the Oslo peace process. That's when it came above ground and became a movement of resistance, not only against Israel but against the Palestinian Authority. They opposed Oslo from the beginning. They thought that the PLO had given into Israel's demands and recognized Israel, and they refused to do that, and they opposed it always. They participated in elections in 2006 because the demand that had existed previously that parties could only participate if they recognized the Oslo process.
Nonetheless, there was a contradiction in Hamas' own policies because the creation of the Palestinian Authority and those elections were under the Oslo framework, they decided to take advantage of the Oslo framework in 2006 and exploit it for getting elected in representing the Palestinian people. They demanded to have 50 per cent representation within the bodies of the PLO. And when the PLO resisted and refused to do that, they decided they would try to take over the PLO through the election ballot, and they used the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as their victory card in those elections.
So yeah, I mean, Hamas opposed the Oslo agreement. I think that the people who were behind the Oslo agreement within the PLO never imagined that it would be an open-end process without ever having a conclusion to it. The assumption of the Palestinians who negotiated Oslo was that there was a five-year interim period at which would end with the creation of the Palestinian independent state next to Israel, and with open borders and commerce and full relations with Israel, that settlements would not continue being built. I mean, the Israelis and the Palestinians signed six agreements. Not one word in any of those agreements that settlements wouldn't continually build. Palestinians never imagined that Israel would continue building settlements when they're supposed to withdraw from those territories and give them over to the Palestinians. The Palestinians understood that before they even started talking about permanent status issues, that Israel would have withdrawn from more than 90 per cent of the occupied territories.
That was their reading, their correct reading of what was written in the Oslo agreements. It was Israel who interpreted differently and didn't believe that they needed to withdraw from 90, more than 90 per cent of the territories before permanent status negotiations begun. No one could have imagined everything bad that happened in the Oslo process that basically destroyed it. Who could have imagined that Prime Minister Rabin would be assassinated by an Israeli Jew because of trying to make peace with the Palestinians. Who believed Netanyahu in 2009 when he made his famous speech and supported the two-state solution? That that was all propaganda. He never had any intention of allowing the Palestinians to have a state of their own and created this situation of the two-headed Palestinian governance with a weakened Hamas in power, which he supported, and an illegitimate Palestinian Authority in the eyes of their own people in Ramallah in order to say to the world for the past 18 years that we have no Palestinian partner.
James M. Dorsey (00:35:04):
Indeed, you just referred to it, many believe that prime Minister Netanyahu prior to October 7th saw Hamas' rule in Gaza as a way of keeping Palestinians divided, even though there were repeated moments of rocket attacks on Israel and Israeli responses.
Gershon Baskin (00:35:19):
No question about it. This was Netanyahu's strategy and it worked beyond imagination. Netanyahu removed the Palestinian issue from the international agenda and from the Israeli agenda. We went through five rounds of elections in Israel without the issue of Palestine ever being discussed. And it is the only existential issue facing the state of Israel that defines itself as the democratic nation state of the Jewish people. While, in reality, it is neither the majority of people living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea are not Jewish. There is a small Palestinian majority, and the majority of those people, Palestinians, don't enjoy democracy. So, we have been able to lie to ourselves for decades that we are the democratic nation state of the Jewish people, when in fact we are we running a system of apartheid, a new form of apartheid, for many, many years, and Netanyahu’s strategy put the world to sleep.
We have countries around the world, important countries, the United States and most of the OECD nations, who for 20 years can say two-state solution, two state solution, and only recognize one of those two states and think that that's legitimate. So, this is a period right now. This war has to be a wakeup call that we have to go beyond this delusion that we can hold another people under occupation for 56 years and expect peace or lock two million people in Gaza and expect to have quiet. The conception that has collapsed in Israel is not that we can build a billion-dollar border and be secure, or that we can continue to police the Palestinian people with our army and be secure. We have to wake up from this delusion that we can have peace in this land and not recognize that there's another people living here who have the same right to the same rights that we claim.
James M. Dorsey (00:37:14):
Looking back, can you describe what your impressions of the dynamics between the Israeli government and Hamas prior to October seven, certainly in the six years of your mediation effort?
Gershon Baskin (00:37:28):
Well, there's been no direct contact between Israel and Hamas ever except for the contact that I had. They were never legitimized and never authorized to have any direct contact. We've always had to use third parties in most of the times, the third parties were the Egyptians. In the last years, the Qataris have played a very strong role, and this is absurd because Qatar is essentially a state that supports terrorism. They have funded Hamas, they have hosted the Hamas leadership for years, their mouthpiece in Arabic, Al Jazeera Arabic, is a very different station than Al Jazeera International in English, which is like the BBC. They're not pro-Israel, but they're not supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Al Jazeera Arabic is a station that is the mouthpiece of the Muslim Brotherhood and a strong supporter of Hamas. And Qatar is a state that funded Hamas with more than a billion dollars over the last years.
And because America has interests as Centcom, the largest American military base in the region, is in Qatar, they have interest. So ,they have not penalized Qatar for being a state supporting terrorism. But Israel has dealt with Qatar, with Hamas through Qatar, through the Egyptians, have kept them down, have kept the false belief that I've argued against for since 2008, that you can deter Hamas. This is what the Israeli military believed. And in television studios in Israel sitting in panels with retired generals, I have argued that you cannot deter Hamas. Hamas is a distorted view of the theology of Islam, which sanctifies death and believes that our life on this planet is short. And the road to paradise is through being a martyr, being a shahid for Allah, for Islam, for Palestine, for Al Aqsa, for Al Quds. And they have recruited people from bereaved families in Gaza since 2008, or families who have had their homes demolished by Israel and recruited young children into their elite fighting forces and have indoctrinated them with this distorted view of Islam that rather than sanctifying life, sanctifies death and guarantees them the paradise of their martyrs.
And against that kind of attitude, belief in theology, you cannot have deterrence. Hamas has dictated when they fight, when they shoot, how much they shoot and when they declare a ceasefire. And Israel has been a puppet over these years to Hamas' control of the dynamic. But because Mr. Netanyahu's primary political goal was to prevent there being a Palestinian state next to Israel, he allowed Hamas, he enabled Hamas to continue to exist in Gaza in a weakened form while they were gaining a lot of strength internally in planning and being very, very smart about how they work, building weapons and smuggling weapons in through the Sinai Desert and leading us to where we got to on October 7th.
James M. Dorsey (00:40:30):
Presumably any negotiation over the more than 200 hostages kidnapped by Hamas on October 7th is going to be different from your successful mediation effort. What are the differences and what are the lessons that can be drawn from your experience for efforts to free the hostages that are now being held? And do you believe that there will be a differentiation in the negotiations between civilians and captured Israeli military personnel?
Gershon Baskin (00:41:01):
The second question is easier, so I'll answer that first. Yes. Hamas distinguishes between those that they define as soldiers and those that they do not. Even now when they're talking about the humanitarian release of children, infants, children, women, and elderly people, they have apparently, from the information I have not agreed to include women soldiers in the category of women, but rather they're keeping them in the category of soldiers. And I think that this is tragic. I mean, Hamas knew very well to demand the release of all the women prisoners in the Shalit deal, all of them. And that's how it became 1,027, not a thousand because an additional 27 women were found on the list of prisoners after they had already closed the deal. So, rather than opening it up and removing 27 names, Israel just said, take all the women. So, I think Hamas needs to include the women. These are young girls, soldiers, not combat soldiers, who are sitting in front of video screens along the Gaza border watching monitoring. They want people with guns and people who are killing Palestinians. So, I think they really need, from a humanitarian point of view to be treated as women. That's the deal that's being talked about. Another difference between then and now is that we don't have five years. We have days.
The large number of hostages they're holding, 240 or more, enables hostages to be expendable, where Gilad was an extraordinarily valuable asset and they kept him well, and they kept him healthy as much as they could for those years. They knew what his value wa. When they're holding 240 hostages or more, and some of them are problematic, some are infants. Do they have the ability to take care of infants who need baby formula and diapers? Do they have the ability to take care of elderly people who have diabetes and need medication? All kinds of people with special needs. The Israelis have put together a list with people's private doctors in terms of what medication they need and have been trying to get the Red Cross to enable the sending of medicine to the hostages. And Hamas refuses, to the best of my knowledge, the negotiations that are taking place on three different tracks right now in Qatar, in Egypt and in Lebanon are all talking about the humanitarian lease release of women, children and elderly.
It not very clear what Hamas is demanding other than a ceasefire. The Israelis are not ready to grant a ceasefire right now. It is said overtly that there will be no ceasefire without a release of hostages. So, it's kind of a Catch 22 of who takes the first step, who breaks out of line and who agrees to what But also with the Israeli army deeply embedded in the center of Gaza, now in Gaza city, a ceasefire would place Israeli soldiers in very dangerous positions because no one can guarantee that Hamas will keep to the ceasefire. There are soldiers in tanks and armored personal carriers and bunkers in the middle of Gaza city and surrounding Gaza City, they are in very vulnerable positions. So, a ceasefire would also require a redeployment, a withdrawal to a certain extent of Israeli forces. And that's dangerous for the Israeli military mission, which is taking place. And there are people who believe in the Israeli government in the military, that we are putting pressure on Hamas, now deep pressure that will soften their position on the hostage issues. I'm not a partner to that idea. I think it makes the negotiations for hostages more difficult, not easier, but I'm not a military expert then My opinion doesn't really matter.
James M. Dorsey (00:44:38):
What you're essentially saying is that release of hostages is contingent on a ceasefire. If I'm not incorrect, you've been in contact with Hamas leaders, not in Gaza, but elsewhere since October 7, is that correct?
Gershon Baskin (00:44:57):
Until a week ago, I was in contact with Hamas leaders in Gaza, in Beirut, and in Qatar They stopped talking to me or responding to my messages about a week ago.
James M. Dorsey (00:45:07):
And do you have any sense of why?
Gershon Baskin (00:45:11):
Either because someone told them to or because something very serious is happening in negotiations and they often go silent when things are serious and critical or because they got fed up with me bothering them.
James M. Dorsey (00:45:27):
Coming back to Hamas. In the balance between the military and the political wing and the balance between those in Gaza and those elsewhere in the Middle East, which way does the pendle swing in terms of the balance of power?
Gershon Baskin (00:45:48):
Let's put it this way, the cowards who are sitting in Doha in five-star hotels and red carpets and bodyguards provided by the Qatari government are irrelevant, are a lot of hot air that have no real critical decision-making power in what's happening in underground Gaza today. There are very small chances that they have any ability to communicate with underground Gaza. In my estimation, they have zero ability to negotiate on behalf of underground Gaza, and they are cowards to their people who have the gall to make fiery belligerent speeches from the luxury of hotels in faraway Doha while their people are being bombed in Gaza. They are despicable human beings who have no right to call themselves leaders. That's my opinion of them, and I think they're irrelevant. I think that the United States has to put pressure on Qatar to expel them from Qatar, let them go to Tehran, let them go somewhere else.
They shouldn't be allowed to live the lives of luxury that they're living, making the speeches that they make. The decision making is happening or will happen or has to happen underground in Gaza where the people who are responsible, directly responsible for what they did on October 7th and bear responsibility for the horrendous catastrophe that their people are undergoing today, they have taken the Palestinian cause back 75 years. They are directly responsible. Not only is Israel responsible for the massive bombing. The Hamas leadership has brought their people to this catastrophe, and they need to be held responsible for it by their own people and by the world.
James M. Dorsey (00:47:47):
There are some people who argue that expelling Hamas leaders from Istanbul, from Doha, from Beirut, or for that matter from Kuala Lumpur, would only force them to move to Tehran, and then communication would become even more difficult. What you're essentially arguing is there's no need to communicate with them. It doesn't matter where they are, they're not the players.
Gershon Baskin (00:48:20):
They need to be taken out and removed from any ability to influence anything. They shouldn't have the right to live in Qatar. Turkey is a member state of NATO and they hold refuge for hundreds of Hamas families. This should not be legitimate, and any country that supports Hamas should be called a country that supports terrorism. I
James M. Dorsey (00:48:50):
One issue of course is that if Qatar were to expel the exile Hamas leadership, it probably would then also undermine its ability to mediate in the current situation.
Gershon Baskin (00:49:06):
I would say don't mediate, don't support, take care of your own house. Stop supporting terrorism. If you want to be a member state of the international community, they're busy buying up companies in Nasdaq and Silicon Valley and sports teams and property in London. If you want to be part of this international global economy, then act like a responsible state and stop supporting terrorism and Al Jazeera's support of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and do something to make yourselves a respectable state. They tried to do that with the World Cup. We know the price that foreign laborers paid in Qatar for building all the stadiums they built in Qatar and the human rights abuses in this country. I have a Qatari friend who's a member of the royal family, and he's gay, and he lived in exile for years. He went back to Doha a couple of years ago, and he's very, very careful. He cannot live the life that he wants to live. He's a gay man. He cannot say that in open. He cannot go to gay parties. He cannot have a man lover living in his own country. This is a country that should not be accepted with red carpets in the international community.
James M. Dorsey (00:50:27):
In your open letter to Mr. Hamad, you recalled how many Palestinians would tell you that Hamas cared only about itself and not about Palestinians as such. Can you elaborate on that?
Gershon Baskin (00:50:39):
Sure. Ghazi Hamad was in the last years the Minister for Social Welfare. His job was to help the poor people in Gaza. I'm known in Gaza as someone who's helped a lot of Palestinians in Gaza. I've done fundraising campaigns for both institutions, groups, and organizations in Gaza, as well as helping individuals. I helped raise money to send a young woman to university to study computer science. So, I get people who come to me all the time from Gaza, legitimately poor people who don't have food, who don't have work, who don't have money, who have a very difficult life. And the first thing I do is tell them first, go to your local mosque because mosques collect charity. There's zakat in Islam where a certain percentage of your income is supposed to go for charity and go to Hamas. I've given people Ghazi Hamad's phone number.
He's the Minister of Social Welfare. Go to him. I've spoken to Ghazi about individuals and said, help these people. They need help. And every single one of these people, who I've sent to Hamas to get help, come back to me and say, either I'm afraid to talk to them. I don't want to talk to them, or I talk to them, and they only help their own people. And this is a message I've heard tens of times, if not hundreds of times over the years about Hamas. They help you if you're a part of them, you can get, and we see how the high lives of the leaders of Hamas, not only in Doha but in Gaza, the leaders of Hamas who have villas and houses and parties for their children and live a life of privilege while 80 per cent of their people live in utter poverty. So, yeah, they don't care about their people. They care about themselves, and they have led their people to squalor and poverty for these years. They have built tunnels and bunkers and weapons and haven't built a single school or a single hospital or a single shelter for their people. They built bomb shelters for themselves underground and a network of hundreds of kilometers of tunnels using cement that should have been used for building houses and schools and hospitals, but they didn't do any of that.
James M. Dorsey (00:52:51):
Obviously during much of your hostage release negotiations, you were not on the ground in Gaza. Even so, do you have a sense of how embedded Hamas is in Gaza? In other words, does physical destruction of Hamas mean an end to what it represents?
Gershon Baskin (00:53:09):
No. Israel can defeat Hamas militarily in terms of its leadership, in terms of its infrastructure, in terms of ability to produce weapons. We can destroy the infrastructure that enabled Hamas to govern, but you can't destroy an idea and an ideology with weapons. The only way to destroy an idea and an ideology is with a better idea and better ideology. And that has to be the thinking now of the day after this war ends. We need to help Palestinians have freedom and independence and control of their own lives. There needs to be a period of stabilization and a lot of money pouring into Gaza that they will control its development. There needs to be deep democratic reform in the Palestinian Authority government before they can take over ruling Gaza as well as the West Bank. They need to have elections and a democratically elected leadership coming to power and then removing the corruption that exists in the Palestinian government, both of Hamas and the Palestinian authority.
There are many things that need to happen. There needs to be an Israeli commitment to end the occupation and an international commitment with pressure on Israel and the Palestinians to face each other at a negotiating table, which is not bilateral, but is regional, involving Egypt and Jordan and Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and Bahrain to create a regional architecture of stability and security and economic development and chances of prosperity. There's a lot of moving pieces in this puzzle of international efforts that need to be done immediately. They need to be planned now. We need to remove statements like Netanyahu that Israel is going to have to have a long-term stay in Gaza, protecting Israel's security that cannot be a solution, that will be an explosive boomerang for Israel and will damage the chances of Palestinians ever having freedom. So, there's a lot of work to do that needs to be done, and those things will defeat Hamas.
Hamas' ideology is embedded within the Palestinian society, but at no point before this war could they have achieved more than 30 per cent success in democratic fair elections. In fact, Hamas before the war was less popular in Gaza than it is in the West Bank because the people in Gaza have lived under their rule and saw their corruption and their brutality and their oppression. A majority of people, a large majority of people in Gaza, if they had the choice, would've gotten rid of Hamas a long time ago. But every movement that rose up against Hamas over the last 18 years was crushed by Hamas with bloody weapons against their own people. They were not allowed to rise up. There was a movement just three, four years ago called Nurid An’naiesh, We Want to Live, and tens of thousands of people took to the streets and Hamas took out the guns and killed them, killed people, and scared them away and removed them from Facebook and Twitter and removed the ability of this movement to grow.
James M. Dorsey (00:56:07):
Former Palestine authority, Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad recently suggested that Palestinian President, Mahmood Abba’s Palestine Liberation Organization, the PLO, should be restructured and incorporate Hamas. That would presumably encourage the Authority to take responsibility for Gaza once the war ends. Would that be a realistic option?
Gershon Baskin (00:56:32):
Not Hamas, as we know it. I don't think that the Palestinian people and its leadership or the international community shall allow any Palestinian party to be part of a democratic process that doesn't have limitations on it. Democracy and free speech is not the right to go into a movie theater and shout fire. There are limitations and borders around democracy, and one of the limitations in borders around democracy is what they did in the first round of elections in 1996 when they said, those parties that want to participate in elections have to agree to the framework of Oslo. That was the framework that created the Palestinian Legislative Council. In new elections in the future, they need to say, assuming that what the international community is going to support is what the Palestinian leadership supports, still is a two-state solution, that parties joining the electoral democratic process have to support a two-state solution and support the position that the PLO has advocated for 20 years, that the Palestinian state will be non-militarized.
It will have a police force, it will have law order, but it will not have the ability to fight Israel. Because what's the point? As Palestinian leader, Faisal Hussein, the late Faisal Hussein, the great leader of Palestine from Jerusalem, said, “Why would we want to erase our resources on building a Palestinian tank when there's no one that we can use it against? If we're at war with Israel, we are going to lose. Israel will always be stronger than us. We need to invest our resources,” as Faisal said, “in the Palestinian computer. We need to invest our resources in our human capital. That's where we can excel. We need to invest in education. We need to invest in medicine. We need to invest in creating prosperity for our people, not in an army.”
James M. Dorsey (00:58:23):
Finally, in some ways, it's a $64,000 question.
Gershon Baskin (00:58:28):
Money? Who wants $64,000, $64 million? Question?
James M. Dorsey (00:58:33):
Fair enough. Fair enough. Do you still think that a two-state solution is viable? And what would that entail?
Gershon Baskin (00:58:42):
If you asked me before the war, I would've said, no, it's not been viable for years. But the two-state solution since October 7th is being talked about more in the international community than it has in 20 years. And its viability might be put back on the table if the partners in the international community are serious about it. If, for example, they say that they recognize the state of Palestine, even they say it conditionally, we will recognize the state of Palestine when they have democratic elections and elect a new government. Let Mahmud Abbas be president for life. Let him be a ceremonial president. We don't want to get rid of him. Let him hold on whatever he is and be there, but a democratically elected government. We will recognize the State of Palestine and grant Palestine full membership in the United Nations. Iif those conditions are met and they put pressure on a new government of Israel because the current government of Israel will not last.
It will have its day of reckoning when this war is over, and all the leaders who brought us to where we are will pay the price of their failures. So, we will have new governments selected here, and the international community needs to say to the Israelis that the two-state solution is what's going to happen. You are going to end the occupation over the State of Palestine. You are going to negotiate with the State of Palestine in state to state negotiations supported by the region to create security and stability and economic development. But you don't have a choice in this. And the United States needs to say that to Israel and Europe, and everyone else needs to say that to Israel.
James M. Dorsey (01:00:18):
If a two-state solution were seriously being discussed, what's the future of Israeli settlements?
Gershon Baskin (01:00:28):
Eighty per cent of Israeli settlements could be included within the state of Israel with an annexation of four-and-a half per cent of the West Bank. In exchange for equal territory from within the state of Israel, settlers should be allowed to stay within the State of Palestine as citizens of Palestine or full-time residents of Palestine allowed to protect their identity by having separate schools, if they want protected in some way in an interim period by some kind of secure security mechanism that would prevent massacres of Israelis who would stay in Palestine. I don't think many would stay in Palestine. They could move back to Israel proper.
They could move back to the annexed areas. We're talking about the population of settlers who are the most extremist, most religious, most messianic, and most difficult. So, it'll be a huge challenge. But I believe that if the people of Israel, if the majority of people thought that peace was genuine, that the Palestinians really wanted peace, that they recognized Israel's right to exist, even in this post-war trauma, we would find a majority of Israel would accept it, understanding that peace doesn't happen tomorrow. This is a process. It will take time to develop peace and reconciliation, and there are concrete steps that need to be taken on the road toward peace that would first deal with issues of security and legitimacy of both peoples.
James M. Dorsey (01:01:56):
What you are saying is that probably 20 per cent of the settlements would have to be dismantled or agreed to be under Palestinian sovereignty. In terms of the 4.5 per cent of land that the 80 per cent of the settlements are located on. Would that involve a land swap?
Gershon Baskin (01:02:20):
Yeah. Yeah, that's what I said. A territorial swap of one-to-one of equal territory from within the state of Israel proper today. Take into account that the majority of settlers are ultra-Orthodox, living in communities that are very close to the green line. That's more than 50 per cent of the settlers are in two cities, in Beitar Illit and Modi in Illit, and they're not the most political or most right wing. They've moved there out of convenience and out of economic considerations because they wanted to stay in ultra-orthodox communities, and that's where the government of Israel built them. So, you're taking care of a majority of the settlers with just those two cities.
James M. Dorsey (01:03:05):
Gershon, we could go on for hours. Unfortunately, time is not our friend. I wish that we had more time to follow through. Nevertheless, thank you. Thank you for joining the show today and for sharing your unique insights. I wish you all the best.
Gershon Baskin (01:03:22):
Thank you very much.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
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