Ahmed Jabari, Mahmoud al-Zahar and Raad Saad

To save lives – negotiate with the devil

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Israel does not negotiate with terrorists. This “truism” is one of the biggest spins in the history of spinning. Israel has always negotiated with terrorists and will continue to negotiate with them as long as we continue to cherish (Jewish) human lives.

Israel is negotiating with Hizbullah for information about its two kidnapped soldiers. Israel is negotiating with Hamas for the release of Gilad Schalit. If it were possible, Israel would hold direct negotiations with Hassan Nasrallah and Khaled Mashaal themselves. But the two of them are not willing to conduct direct negotiations, and third-party mediators are carrying Israel’s offers back and forth. Almost no one in Israel criticises the basic idea of negotiating with these terrorists for the release of kidnapped soldiers. Most Israelis will be willing to pay a very high price for their release.

Why would negotiating with Hamas for a cease-fire – that has the potential to save tens, perhaps hundreds of lives in Israel – be any less legitimate than negotiating with Hamas to save one human (Jewish) life?

Hamas’ leadership in Damascus and in Gaza have both sent messages that they are interested in a cease-fire with Israel. In order to be clear, they are speaking about what they call tahadiyeh or a “calming down,” and not what is referred to as a hudna, or a long-term cease-fire based on Islamic history and teachings.

The tahadiyeh is thought to be relatively short-term in nature (about a year), although there are no rules on the time frame and it could be more or less. It could also be extended beyond the initial agreement.

Hamas’ leadership has stated in public and in private conversations that it is willing to guarantee that the tahadiyeh will be observed by all factions in Gaza. The leaders have also stated that they want the agreement to be a package deal that will include a prisoner exchange and the release of Schalit, and an agreement on the opening of the Gaza border crossings, particularly the border with Egypt.

Hamas understands that it must have a deal for a cease-fire before it reaches an agreement for the release of Schalit, because once Schalit is out of Gaza there is nothing that will provide any protection for Hamas leaders from Israeli fire. It is, therefore, more than likely that there will not be any deal for the release of Schalit that will not include a cease-fire. This is something I tried to make clear to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert days after Schalit was kidnapped, when I was first approached by Hamas leaders with the offer of a cease-fire (more than 600 days ago!).

Hamas also wants a deal on the borders because without an arrangement that will provide for the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, the population there will once again break the borders by force, with potentially horrific consequences.

Israel’s economic sanctions policy has been used against the population in Gaza with the hope that the population will turn its anger toward the Hamas leadership. This policy never really had big chances of success. It might have worked better if the Palestinians in Gaza had suddenly seen a significant contrast with developments in the West Bank under Mahmoud Abbas’s leadership. But since Annapolis, not even one important checkpoint has been removed. And with the exception of Ramallah, there is no visible economic improvement anywhere in the West Bank—in fact quite the opposite is what people see and feel.

The breach of the Rafah border planned and implemented by Hamas achieved a surge in public support for its government. The chances that economic pressure from Israel would change that is nil; such pressure will now only boomerang against Israel and against Abbas, who is viewed by many Palestinians as an Israeli collaborator. That is why the Palestinian president and his prime minister are now speaking out in public and in private against the economic sanctions.

A senior official in Abbas’ office told me that Abbas is now interested in a cease-fire arrangement with Hamas. It is true that he has his own conditions for such an arrangement. Mainly, Abbas demands that he be a party to the negotiations and to their outcome, so that it be clear to all that he is president of all of Palestine, including Gaza. It would certainly not be a surprise if he were to demand from Israel that the cease-fire arrangement include the West Bank as well.

From the point of view of reaching a cease-fire that will put an end to the rocket attacks on Sderot, it is important to include the West Bank because if Israel does target and kill a Hamas or Islamic Jihad political or military leader in the West Bank after the Gaza cease-fire goes into force, it is likely that there will be a response of rocket fire from Gaza in retaliation, and then the cease-fire agreement will become very short-term.

Without a cease-fire arrangement, the eventuality of a large-scale Israeli ground operation in Gaza is quite clear. Eventually a Qassam will hit a significant target—a school bus, or a kindergarten or shopping centre, God forbid, and the number of casualties will be significant and the government of Israel will have to respond. In that case, the number of casualties of Israeli soldiers as a result of Qassams will increase from zero to only God knows how many.

The causalities among the Palestinians will probably be in the hundreds—and many of them will be innocent civilians finding themselves in the line of fire.

Throughout the fighting inside Gaza, Hamas and the other forces there would continue to shoot rockets, at an increased pace, into Israel; and probably on the same day that Israel decided to leave Gaza more rockets would be fired, just to show that all the might and force of the IDF is not enough to break the Palestinians’ will to fight.

A military attack against Gaza will not achieve the strategic objective of ending the attacks from there against Israel. Only an agreed on cease-fire with Hamas will stop the Qassams.

Photo: Ahmed Jabari, Mahmoud al-Zahar and Raad Saad

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin is one of the most recognizable names in the Middle East Peace process. His dedication to creating a culture of peace and environmental awareness, coupled with his impeccable integrity, has earned him the trust of the leaders of all sides of the century old conflict. Few people have such far-reaching and positive impacts on promoting peace, security, prosperity and bi-national relationships.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.
Gershon Baskin