Unofficial middleman: Military pressure on Hamas endangers hostages. Zero trust and hope in negotiations

Matěj Skalický talks with Gershon Baskin, an unofficial middleman between Hamas and Israel


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6. 12. 2023 | Jerusalem

An unofficial middleman between Israel and Hamas. Gershon Baskin, the Middle East Director of International Communities Organisation. My guest today. How is the deal for the release of hostages being negotiated? Why do dozens of them still remain in tunnels under Gaza? And are secret agents abroad already on the hunt to kill Hamas masterminds?

Edited by: Janetta Němcová
Sound design: Jaroslav Pokorný
Researched by: Alžběta Jurčová
Text by: Tereza Jonášová
Hudba: Martin Hůla

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Israel has played a rather passive role in the negotiations with Hamas for the release of hostages. This is the first sentence of your recent post on the social network X. Why do you think so?

Well, Israel doesn't want to disclose what it's ready to give Hamas. That's why it never starts by making an offer. The Israeli assessment is that if they put their cards on the table and make an offer to Hamas, Hamas will just demand more. So why offer anything to Hamas when they know they're going to get a demand from Hamas and they'll respond to it? But this is very much unlike the mode of operation of Israel in almost every other affair that it's involved with, whether it be business or high tech or banking or whatever, Israel usually takes the initiative. And in this case, it doesn't.

But again: Why do you think so?

Well, as I said, Israel doesn't want to tell Hamas what it's ready to give. This is a very strange negotiation. We have to understand that we have two parties of a negotiation who don't talk to each other, whose ultimate goal of both sides is to kill the other side. So it's a negotiation where there's zero trust and zero hope of building any trust between the parties, because at the end they both want to kill each other.

Why is there zero trust now, when there was trust before?

No, there was never trust. There was trust between me and an individual in Hamas, Ghazi Hamad. We've known each other for 17 years. And during the first negotiation that we worked on, which took more than five years, there was a level of trust that built up between us that enabled me to make an offer to him: that we put our cards on the table and agree on the midpoint and present that to the officials on both sides as an agreed breakthrough solution for ending the case of the Israeli abducted soldier Gilad Shalit, which led to the freeing of 1027 Palestinian prisoners.

As you said, you have a lot of experience negotiating with Hamas from the past… Have you been involved in the current talks as well?

You know, I think that we're in a very different situation than we were in before, prior to October 7th. After October 7th, Israel and Hamas crossed lines that they didn't cross before. And after the atrocities that Hamas committed inside of Israel on October 7th, the Israeli side made a resolve, for the first time since Hamas came to power, to remove Hamas's ability to govern and threaten Israel ever again. Which means essentially that Israel has decided that this war does not end without killing every single leader, military and political leader of Hamas, and making sure their infrastructure no longer exists. That's not a situation on which you can build trust.

And have you helped in the current talks? And if, in which way?

I tried to help in the very beginning of the war. I presented to both sides and to the Qataris and the Americans and the Egyptians the idea that a deal, the low-hanging fruit deal, could be made of the women and children, elderly, sick and wounded, hostages in exchange for women and teenage prisoners inside of Israel. I collected the data of how many prisoners there were, where they were from, what crimes they committed for which they were in prison. And I thought from the very beginning, from day three or four, that this was a deal that could be made quickly. I put it down on the table. I gave information to all the sides. I tried to connect them by providing telephone numbers to the Qataris of Israeli ministers and the telephone numbers of the Qataris to the Israeli ministers. So yeah, I was helping. Now and then.

I sent out an idea to some of the Israeli decision-makers on another small deal that I think could be made if they're interested in making a deal. But, you know, I do what I can. I'm not an official. I'm not a negotiator. No one has appointed me. I have experience, and I try to make use of that experience to help bring the hostages home. That's my major cause. That's what I think needs to be done as soon as possible.

Who are the people involved in the talks?

Well, I know who the Israeli decision-makers are. I know the people who are in charge of the negotiations. We know who the people in Hamas are, although we can't get to them because they're in Gaza, underground in tunnels. I know who the Qatari mediators are and who the Egyptian mediators are. We also know the people on the American side who are putting pressure on the Qataris and others and trying to help. So yeah, it's not just a question of knowing who they are. It's also being able to get to them and getting to influence them as well.

The recent ceasefire was negotiated by Qatar, Egypt and the USA. How important is the role of these states in the hostage talks?

They're essential, because Israel and Hamas don't talk to each other. So we need the third parties. My personal opinion is that the Egyptians are the most important link because they're right next to Gaza. They have the ability to get messages to the military leadership of Hamas underground in the tunnels. The Qataris are important because the Hamas political leadership is sitting there and because the Americans have influence over the Qatari government, and the Qatari government can put influence over the Hamas leadership. The United States has weighed in to put pressure on Qatar, and that has apparently been effective. I think the United States also has weight of persuasion over Israel because Israel can't run this war without American support, both military support - providing more and more bombs that Israel's dropping on Gaza - as well as the political cover that Israel needs when the whole world is ganging up against Israel right now.

Let’s talk about the negotiation in detail.  How is it being done? Some people call each other, meet somewhere, come up with numbers and names...?

Yeah, I think that it's mostly being done face-to-face with the outside parties. The head of the Mossad went to Qatar several times. The head of the Shin Bet went to Cairo several times. The Qataris talk directly with the Hamas leadership in Doha. They somehow communicate, probably by satellite telephone with people in Gaza or passing messages physically from one person to another. It's very convoluted. It's a very difficult communication. It's not direct. It takes time to pass messages on, and at least on the Hamas side, there's no clear decision-making process. We don't really know who's making the decisions at the end of the day. It's assumed to be one major person in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, but it's probably others as well. On the Israeli side, there's a competition of interest, where there are two competing interests at play within the Israeli cabinet: one on the war effort, on completing the war effort, on dismantling Hamas' ability to rule and to kill their leadership, and the other competing interest is bringing the hostages home. There's a competition over which of those interests comes first.

So on the Hamas side, Ghazi Hamad is not involved anymore?

I don't think he's involved in the negotiations. I don't think he has a say in the decision-making. He was sent to Beirut before the war to be the spokesperson for the war from Beirut, and that's what he's doing. He doesn't seem to me to be within the inner circle of the decision-makers. That's my impression. There was also my conclusion from talks with him during the first two weeks of the war when I tried to push through this idea of the negotiation for the women, the children, the elderly, the sick, and the wounded in exchange for the women and teenager prisoners in Israel. He was giving me information that was not the same information that was being given by the Qataris to the Israeli side, and then I understood that he was outside of the loop of decision-makers.

He is a senior member of Hamas. How hard was it to negotiate with him and Hamas?

Negotiating with Ghazi Hamad is negotiating with Hamas. For eight years, we tried to find a solution that would bring home the bodies of two soldiers who were killed in Gaza in 2014 and two civilians who are alive in Gaza since 2014, who are both not mentally well and ended up in Gaza on their own, and they've been held there. For eight years, I tried to negotiate with Razi Hamad. In fact, I was negotiating with Yahya Sinwar or with the higher leadership. Razi was just a middleman, but he was not the decision-maker. While we managed to make progress in those negotiations over eight years, we reached a dead end that was unbridgeable. I then tried to convince Razi, more than two years ago, for us to spend a couple of days together somewhere and brainstorm on how we change, how we break this deadlock between Israel and Hamas, how we change the situation inside of Gaza, how we begin to open up the blockade on Gaza and change the reality for the two million people living there, but we never got to do that. He was too resistant, and apparently he already knew about the planning of some major attack against Israel by that time.

What is the diplomatic role of secret agents in the talks?

Well, the Mossad in particular, which is the intelligence organization that works outside of Israel, has for 30, 40, 50 years had contacts throughout the Arab world with countries that Israel doesn't have diplomatic relations with. And they can fly in under the radar and meet with people, and there are people on the ground and agents that work all over the world. And so it's the premier agency that you would turn to to engage in negotiations that are very secretive, very classified, and where there are no leaks. You can depend upon your intelligence agencies to do the job in a way that will not enable leaks to get out. The only leaks that get out are the ones that are planted there in order to deflect what's really going on inside negotiations.

Dozens of Israelis are still being held hostage in the tunnels underneath the Gaza Strip. How does Hamas treat the hostages? I’ve read and seen their testimonies, sometimes it's really terrifying.. horrifying.

That's right. The hostages came back with horrific stories of how they were treated, both from when they arrived in Gaza and they were displayed in public and people hit them and really tortured them, to the conditions they were put in, whether it was underground, in tunnels, or in homes. They all came back malnourished, they didn't have enough food, they didn't have basic medicines that they needed, people who were wounded were never treated, people were physically abused. And what we're hearing now is that the reason why the deal broke off and Hamas did not return the remaining women, who are all young women, is because they've been badly sexually abused and raped and Hamas doesn't want them to go back, which probably means that either they're continuing to be sexually abused and raped, or they've already been killed, or will be killed.

The government is ignoring us, it has time for anything else but the families of hostages, it is a shame, said Daniel Lifšic on Monday - his grandmother has been already released, his grandfather is still among the hostages in Gaza. Do you think that the Israeli government is ignoring the families of hostages?

Well the hostage families have put a lot of pressure on the government and yes, they have not given this a priority. They should be holding at least one weekly meeting with the families of the hostages to tell them what's going on. It seems to me that with the breakdown of the pause that was enabling the release of hostages, with this breakdown and the return to the war, that there is a decision of the Israeli government to push forward with the war effort and the hostages have been put to a lower flame of importance right now in the day-to-day operations of the war. There is this belief in Israel, which I do not share, that the military pressure on Hamas will enable a better deal, will force Hamas to release more hostages more quickly. I don't share that opinion. I think it's wrong. I think that people who are saying it are only guessing that what they're saying is true. It goes across the entire national security establishment of Israel that everyone, almost no one is saying differently that the military pressure on Hamas will release the hostages. I think it endangers the hostages, quite frankly.

That's what Mr. Gallant, the Minister of Defence, said.  He thinks that the military operations in Gaza put Hamas under pressure and thus there is a higher chance of releasing more hostages. So you don’t think the same as Mr. Gallant...

No, I don't think the same. This is what they said also before the first agreement was made, and my personal opinion, my assessment, is that the deal could have been made two or three weeks earlier, but it was the military pressure on Hamas that actually delayed it.

What should Israel do next? Can Israel free the hostages and destroy Hamas at the same time?

I think that the only way to bring back hostages safely and assuredly is through a negotiated agreement. There is what's called the all-for-all deal, which I don't see happening, which is releasing all the hostages in exchange for all the Palestinian prisoners in Israel. This is the deal that Hamas wants. This is the holy mission of Yehoshua to free all the Palestinian prisoners, but we're talking about more than 7,600 prisoners, including 559 who are serving life sentences and another 130 of the terrorists who were caught in Israel on the day of the attack on October 7th, and another 300 or 400 Hamas fighters who were taken out of Gaza since the war began.

This is something that I don't think could happen, but I think that there is a possibility of making a deal with Hamas for the remaining civilian hostages, which includes the women, if they're still alive and they're willing to make a deal on them. Plus the elderly, the sick and the wounded. I think that Israel could make a generous offer to Hamas to release hundreds, even thousands of prisoners, including perhaps some of those who are serving life sentences. I think this is a deal that could be made, and I think that Israel should make it. I have different ideas of how it should be done, but I think that fighting the war and relying on search and rescue operations not only puts the hostages at great risk, it also puts the soldiers at great risk.

Is Hamas capable of harming hostages in case the negotiations don’t go as expected?

Yeah, at the very beginning of the war, the Hamas people in Gaza said that they would execute hostages, and then a few days later, the leadership in Doha, Qatar, walked that back and said they wouldn't. But Hamas has to soon begin to understand their situation on the ground in Gaza. If they didn't realize it until now, they are finished. Their day of reckoning with their God will come soon. Israel will find the leadership of Hamas, either by chance or by intelligence, and they will execute them. And this is the reality that Hamas needs to face, and I think when they do begin to face that reality, we might actually see them executing hostages. I believe that they already have. We know that there are hostages who have been killed after they were taken. We've seen Israel retrieve some bodies from Gaza of hostages who were alive going into Gaza and who were found dead. And they weren't killed by the Israeli bombing, although some of the hostages may have also been killed by Israeli bombings.

The Israel-Hamas truce talks were canceled a few days ago? Do you see a chance to renew them in the foreseeable future?

There'll only be a truce again if there's another hostage release, the two of them come together. A hostage release cannot be done without the truce in place. So if Hamas wants a truce, then it's going to have to agree to another hostage release. If not, Israel will just carry on and move further and further south and surround the city of Ham Yonis and the city of Rafah and begin to do its underground operations of searching for hostages and searching for the Hamas command.

And my last question: Do you think that Mossad intelligence officers have been already on a hunt to kill Hamas representatives abroad?

For sure, from day one of the war and probably beforehand. I think that if you look back in history, every person in Hamas who had anything to do with the abduction of the soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006, or keeping him held hostage over five years and four months, is no longer alive. Israel over the years managed to get to every single person who had anything to do with the abduction and the keeping of Gilad Shalit. And I think that's their intention with regard to the entire Hamas leadership, both the leadership in Gaza, the leadership in the West Bank, and the leadership abroad, wherever they may be at any time, none of them should feel safe.

The podcast used sounds from CNN News, ABC News and YouTube channels Deutsche Welle, Guardian and NBC News.

Matěj Skalický

Související témata: Vinohradská 12, podcast, Izrael, Hamás, Útok Hamásu na Izrael