Maan News Agency

UK paper: Olmert relative passed messages to PM from Hamas

Bethlehem – Ma’an/Agencies – Members of the Hamas movement attempted to conduct “secret talks” with the Israeli prime minister before the 22-day war, a British newspaper said.

In an article published on Sunday, the United Kingdom’s Observer newspaper reported that Hamas sent messages to the Israeli leadership via one of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s family members.

According to the Observer, the confirmation of attempts by Hamas to establish a direct line of communication with Israel “fundamentally alters the narrative of the build-up to the war in Gaza.”

Even more notable is that at least one member of the Israel prime minister’s family apparently helped pass along messages over the case of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit. The Observer claims to know the identify of the family member but agreed not to reveal his or her name.

The paper reported that Gershon Baskin, an Israeli peace activist, “was at the center of attempts to open negotiations,” and that he is in touch with senior members of the Hamas movement, as well as high-ranking Israeli officials, including Olmert and members of his family.

Since the capture of the Israeli soldier, which continues to serve as a pretext for Israel’s economic blockade and military siege of the Gaza Strip, Hamas has continuously expressed willingness to discuss the matter with Israel, including terms for a new ceasefire, the papers said.

Hamas apparently had grown frustrated with Egypt’s role as chief negotiator between the two bitter enemies.

According to Baskin, Israel’s failure to consider Hamas’ offer for talks directly led to the loss of life and destruction during Israel’s 22-day assault, which left over 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead when both sides declared unilateral ceasefires in mid-January.

“Three times since Schalit’s kidnapping there has been the suggestion of opening a back channel through me. The first time that Hamas suggested to me opening a secret back channel was not long after Schalit’s kidnapping,” Baskin reportedly told the newspaper.
According to him, Olmert rejected any such offers, saying that Israel would not “negotiate with terrorists,” even though the terms of the talks are largely what Israel is seeking today; namely, that the issue of the captured soldier be linked to a ceasefire and end to the blockade, something Hamas now rejects.

According to Baskin, his “messenger” on the Israeli side was the anonymous family member: “I was getting messages to Olmert through [this person]. And what I was getting back from Olmert through the same route was: ‘We don’t negotiate with terrorists,'” the paper quoted him as saying.

Meanwhile, Hamas representatives offered a video proving Schalit was alive, which they were willing to exchange for the release of female and children prisoners from prisons, but Israel rejected the offer having already established that Schalit was alive. But the family member was able to secure a letter from the captured soldier to his family in Israel.

However, the channel of communication “was abruptly closed,” the paper said, after Israel’s Shabak intelligence agency tapped Hamas members discussing the identify of the Olmert family member involved in passing along the messages, “infuriating Olmert.”
A year later, the Observer reported, Baskin said he was given permission to continue secret talks with Hamas, in coordination with Israel’s envoy for the negotiations, Ofer Dekel, but then Hamas abruptly rejected talks, saying they would no longer be willing to link the issue of the captured soldier with an end to the siege or the creation of a new ceasefire.

Meanwhile, Olmert began to shut Baskin out of the negotiations, even though he was continuously in contact with many high-level officials, including Ghazi Hamad, an occasional spokesperson for the movement.

Two years following his original contacts with the Olmert family, the Observer reported, Baskin said he tried to use his Olmert family contact once again.
“I only involved [the person] one more time. I was desperate to get a message to Olmert,” he said, as “at this point war had already been decided on.”
Just two weeks before the Israeli assault began, Baskin said he arranged a meeting with his “key Hamas contact” in Europe, which resulted in a final offer to link Schalit to the lifting of the ceasefire.

“Nobody on the Israeli side replied to the final offer,” the Observer reported.

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