This is a long piece – but every word is important and contains most of what I have been thinking about Hamas over the last few years – about our conflict, about peace and about our way forward. It may take some time to read this, but I believe it has a lot of wisdom that has been generated over a very long period.
I have negotiated with Hamas, on and off, since 2006. Some of the time I was actually negotiating officially, acting as a private citizen but in full coordination with Israeli authorities. Most of the time I did this without official backing, while also always informing officials in Israel what I was doing and seeking to achieve. There was never any Israeli objection to my talks with Hamas leaders. Most of the time I was encouraged to continue to talk with them.
Most of the past eight years were focused on attaining the release of the bodies of Israeli soldiers killed in 2014 in Gaza Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, as well as the living Israeli civilians Avera Mengisto and Hisham A-Sayed. I have spent hundreds of hours in talks trying to bring them home. Over eight years, progress was made and compromises were accepted by both sides. The bottom line is that the deal never happened because Hamas demanded that among the prisoners that Israel would have to release – several hundred – there had to be those serving the longest periods of time in prison. That meant Palestinians convicted of killing Israelis. This was a red line for Israel that would not be crossed. For several years those negotiations have not made any progress.
When I understood that the negotiations were at a point of unbreakable deadlock, I tried other tactics. The Israeli officials proposed that I suggest to Hamas economic incentives – water, electricity, even cash payments. Hamas responded that those issues are not connected to prisoners and that they should be granted regardless of the prisoner issue because they are basic human rights and should be provided under Israel’s responsibility as it controls, together with Egypt, all of Gaza’s external borders.
I then thought that we should try what is done in classic negotiations theory – expanding the pie. I proposed that we go back to what I tried to do in 2012 which abruptly ended with the assassination by Israel of Ahmad Jabari, the head of the Hamas military wing. At that time, Ghazi Hamad from Hamas and I were drafting texts for a proposed long-term ceasefire and opening the civilian blockade of Gaza. We had gone through several drafts, one of which I shared with then Minister of Defense Ehud Barak and with the UN Secretary General’s special envoy. On the morning Jabari received the last draft we were working on; he was assassinated by Israel. Jabari was the key person behind the abduction and the captivity of Gilad Shalit.
I retrieved that draft from my computer and shared it once again with Hamad in Gaza about two years ago and since then I have tried to convince him to spend a few days with me either in Norway, Switzerland or Egypt, where we would brainstorm on how to change the relations between Israel and Gaza. Hamad initially agreed to meet and I was making arrangements for him to be able to travel to Norway. The Norwegian authorities sent someone to Gaza to speak with him and he grew scared that too many people knew that he would be traveling to meet me. It turns out that the Norwegian Foreign Minister decided that she had to inform the Israelis about the planned meeting in Norway, and I then canceled the plans and told the Norwegian officials that we would not be meeting.
After that, I made plans for us to meet in Switzerland. I received an invitation from a Swiss NGO for Ghazi Hamad, as the Swiss authorities requested so that they could prepare a national visa for him only for Switzerland. I told Hamad that we would tell the Swiss that we would be meeting in Geneva, when the actual plan was for us to meet in a private flat in another Swiss city. But Hamad grew scared and suspicious and said that he did not receive permission to meet me in Europe from Yahya Sinwar – the head of Hamas in Gaza.
Over the past months, I continued to push him to meet with me in Cairo and stressed that no one had to know about it. He said that he could not. I now think that by that time he must have been privy to the secret of an impending military attack on Israel – that is my assessment. This does not mean that he knew all of the details of what was planned and implemented, but I believe that the Al Qassam forces could not have done what they did without the knowledge and agreement of the top political leadership in Gaza.
For years I believed that it was possible to negotiate a long-term “hudna” (ceasefire) agreement with Hamas that would have opened the siege on Gaza and reintegrated Gaza into the economy of the West Bank, Israel and the world. Students from Gaza could have attended universities in the West Bank or around the world. Doctors could have come to Gaza to treat cancer patients in Gaza’s hospitals. New businesses could have been opened. The more than 2 million people in Gaza could have had some kind of horizon of a better life. Young people could have had some hope of seeing the world, not solely on the screens of their phones. There were seven working universities and colleges in Gaza before this war but no work for the graduates. Unemployment among young people in Gaza was more than 60% and even those who were employed did not make enough money to escape poverty.
Keeping Gaza poor and under Hamas’s control was part of the strategy developed by Netanyahu and implemented with the attitude that a weakened Hamas served Israel’s interests in having a government controlling half of the Palestinian people that was dedicated to destroying Israel. It was a government with whom no negotiation was possible, and so it was a government with whom negotiations were not necessary. So, Netanyahu even facilitated and allowed for the funding of Hamas rule with cash coming from Qatarm a state that openly supports Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
In conjunction with the policy of delegitimizing the rule of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, but allowing and encouraging the preservation of enough capital and other interests in the West Bank to ensure that the PA would continue to coordinate security with Israel, Netanyahu’s strategy of preventing pressure on Israel to deal with the Palestinian issue was completely implemented.
In the eyes of most Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority worked for Israel and protected settlers while providing no security for Palestinians. The PA lost most of its legitimacy in the eyes of most Palestinians years ago. This political split with Hamas on one side and the Palestinian Authority on the other, enabled Israel to continue to claim that there is no partner for peace, while Netanyahu and other Israelis, including Bennett, Gantz, Lapid and basically the entire Israeli leadership, stated that they would not engage in any peace process with the Palestinians. The Abraham Accords then completely removed the Palestinian issue from the Israeli agenda which did not appear at all in any of the repeated rounds of Israeli elections. Since former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s attempts to negotiate with the Palestinians in 2008, there have been no serious Israeli efforts to find solutions on how to live together in relative peace on the Land between the River and the Sea.
This comfortable 2-decade-long situation for Israeli society has enabled settlements to expand with Israel taking control over more and more land in the West Bank. Netanyahu promised the US that he would not build new settlements – so they built “new neighborhoods” of existing settlements, some many kilometers away from the existing settlements. Wild, violent, religiously fanatic settlers took possession of Palestinian-owned land and continued to push Palestinians off their land. Violence against Palestinians and vandalism against Palestinian property increased, all protected by the Israeli army and border police.
Palestinian violence, in Jenin, Nablus and elsewhere, whether organized or by individuals, was a natural response against Israeli tactics to expel Palestinians from Palestine – all right out of the Smotrich-Ben Gvir playbook, with Netanyahu at their side. The straw that broke the camel’s back, the one that always unites Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims against Israel, is what they perceive to be the attacks against the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The constant changing of the “status quo,” which is that Al-Aqsa – the whole of the Haram a-Sharif/Temple Mount compound – is for Muslim prayer only and the Kotel is for Jewish prayer, is perceived by Palestinians and Muslims to be part of a grand scheme of Israel to remove the Mosques and to rebuild the Temple. Israeli assurances that this is not going to happen are not believed and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron is the example that they give to show how the Jews took possession of the place and with force and divided the holy place with plans to eventually prohibit Muslims from praying there. Al-Aqsa is the raw “nuclear” nerve of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and when it is touched, explosions happen.
There is no legitimacy whatsoever for what Hamas and others did inside Israel on October 7. These were inhuman, inexcusable crimes that will never be forgotten or forgiven. Hamas has forfeited its right to exist as a government of any territory and especially the territory next to Israel. Had Palestinian elections been held prior to October 7, it is highly doubtful that Hamas would have gained more than 30% of the vote – even less in Gaza than in the West Bank because in Gaza they have experienced 17 years of Hamas rule. Hamas behaved like ISIS in their attack against Israel, and even though Hamas is not ISIS (there are many differences between them) Hamas now fully deserves the determination of Israel to eliminate them as the political and military body that controls Gaza.
We Israelis must finally begin to confront the delusion that we have been living under for decades with almost total acceptance. It should become clear to us all that you cannot occupy another people for 56 years and expect to have peace. You cannot lock more than 2 million people into what is a human cage and expect to have quiet. The Bennett-Lapid government’s policy permitting the entry of 17,000 Palestinian workers into Israel was a good start, but it was far too few and much too late to begin to change the reality in Gaza and to create real interests in keeping relative calm.
The failed conception that Hamas had been deterred is finally being understood but for the wrong reasons. I have spoken against the idea of the possibility of deterring Hamas during and after every round of fighting with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. I have repeatedly gone on record, saying in Israeli TV interviews that Israel cannot create deterrence against Hamas. Not only are Hamas fighters and leaders not afraid to die, they recruit Hamas fighters from early ages from bereaved families immediately after each round of conflict. They are then educated in the (distorted) Islamic values of dying for Palestine, for Allah, for Islam, for Al-Aqsa and to get revenge for the death of their father, brother, mother, sister, etc.
They truly believe that life on earth is short and only has true meaning if you become a martyr, a shaheed for Allah, Palestine, Al-Aqsa, Islam and to get revenge. Becoming a shaheed is the guarantee to eternal paradise which is so much more important than the short life in this world. How can you build deterrence against this? But the retired generals in the TV studios never agreed and never listened, nor did the generals and politicians who make the real decisions about what Israel does.