Gershon Baskin is the founder of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, an NGO and think tank established in 1988 to pursue a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Gershon Baskin’s efforts as a negotiator led to the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas in Gaza from 2006 to 2011. Through this work, Baskin came into mediated contact with Ahmed Jabari, commander of Hamas’s military wing. According to Baskin, Jabari had just been presented with the draft of a long-term cease-fire proposal, another effort of Baskin’s, when Israel assassinated Jabari on Nov. 14. The Israeli government was aware of Baskin's attempts, he says, but "decided not to take that path."
The targeted killing and accompanying bombings broke off an informal truce, mediated by Egypt, that had seemed to signal an end to escalation. Baskin wrote in The Daily Beast: “Jaabari is dead, and so is the chance for a mutually beneficial long term cease-fire understanding.”
I spoke with Baskin by telephone. We began by discussing the start of the latest flare-up of violence. He mentioned an attack on Nov. 8, in which militants blew up a tunnel, dug from Gaza into Israel. Three IDF soldiers had also been wounded by a bombing near the border on Nov. 6. In that same area, an IDF company commander had lost his left hand in an explosion the previous month. Baskin did not mention the death of 13 year-old Ahmad Abu Daqqa, who was fatally wounded when the IDF exchanged fire with the Popular Resistance Committees during an incursion into southeast Gaza on Nov. 8. Later that day, the tunnel detonation occurred, and Hamas cited Abu Daqqa’s death as the reason for it. Rocket fire from Gaza followed on Nov. 9, and an anti-tank missile struck an IDF jeep on Nov. 10, wounding four soldiers; the Israeli response killed four Palestinian civilians and wounded 25 others. More rockets ensued.
This last round of hostilities was different from most of the previous rounds, Baskin said, which began with Israeli strikes said to be launched to remove immediate threats. Baskin explained how this might be addressed:
Baskin: "Israel has usually taken pre-emptive actions against terrorist groups that, according to their intelligence, were planning attacks against Israel. Hamas says, 'It’s bullshit, it’s Israel’s imagination, and anyway resistance is legitimate because we’re occupied.' Israel says, “You get quiet for quiet. If Hamas does not take responsibility, as the governing body in Gaza, for making sure that there’s security for the people of Gaza, then Israel will act. If that means taking pre-emptive action, we do it.'"
"The cease-fire proposal I’ve been working on the past year was meant to address this very issue. The issue was not how to keep a cease-fire going, but how to prevent the next round of violence from starting. If it’s true what Hamas is claiming all the time, that they don’t want escalation, that they in fact now want to keep a cease-fire, then the only way of really validating that statement was by giving them a test. And this was the basic idea."
"If Israel has information about a cell planning or ready to attack, rather than taking pre-emptive action and killing those people, Israel would give the intelligence to the Egyptians, the Egyptians would give it to Hamas, and Hamas would have 24 or 48 hours to deal with it. And if they don’t take action, then Israel would have enough time to do their pre-emptive strike. But maybe if Hamas acted to prevent the attack against Israel, by whatever means — kill the people, arrest the people, convince them not to carry out the action — we would avoid the next round. And Hamas was telling me all along that they were ready to do it."
"You can say Baskin’s a naïve idiot, and maybe I am, but what I was saying is, I don’t believe Hamas: The only way to validate and verify what they’re saying is to test them. Not their words, their words don’t mean anything. I’ve always said that we don’t have to listen to what they say, we have to watch what they do. They are always going to speak their rhetoric against Israel, to say the things that are written in their covenant. What’s more important is the way they behave — if they’re controlling violence, maintaining a cease-fire, if they’re willing to prevent attacks against Israel. What matters to me is if they are willing to live in some sort of peaceful way alongside us — not if we can negotiate a treaty with them, we probably can’t. But we need to have some kind of modus vivendi where we’re not killing them and they’re not killing us."
Interviewer: "Russia Today posted an interview with you under the headline 'Long-term peace was within reach before Israeli attack.' That seems misleading."
Baskin: "No, that’s not what I said at all. I say very clearly, peace was not on the agenda. Hamas does not talk about peace. And Israel, quite frankly, is not prepared to make peace with Hamas either. We’re talking about a cease-fire and not more than that. When I did this Russia Today interview, I was listening to the reports that were on before I spoke, and I felt like getting up and leaving, because their reportage was so filled with lies. Even me as a leftist Israeli had trouble sitting there listening to their crap."
Interviewer: An essay in the American conservative journal Commentary claims 'the entire premise of Baskin’s ongoing efforts to try and broker agreements with Hamas serves the interests of the terrorist group, not that of Israel or of peace,' and that 'the status quo' you were 'helping Hamas preserve was an invitation to more terrorism, not a pathway to peace.'"
Baskin: "That’s very nice to say, from them writing in New York or Boston or wherever they are. I have a kid in the army and another one going into the army next year, and I lived through the Second Intifada in Jerusalem, with buses blowing up all over the place. I have seen friends and relatives killed. My wife’s first cousin was kidnapped and killed by Hamas in 2005. And if we can have a year of quiet, where no one in Israel is getting killed and no one in Gaza is getting killed, then I’ll take that over anything else that they propose. They don’t have to lecture me on these moral issues."
"And I’m not working alone. Gershon Baskin doesn’t negotiate on behalf of Israel, there is a government, there are responsible people. All I can do is offer them options, and the Israeli government can only thank me. When I offered them in the past to negotiate the release of Gilad Shalit, it took them five years to answer me, and when they did, it was a matter of months before Shalit was home. It was a government decision, it was a decision of Netanyahu."
Interviewer: "On Democracy Now!, you described Jabari as a deeply religious Muslim devoted to the Hamas ideology, which includes a desire for the destruction of Israel — a man who viewed truces as time to rearm. Are these views held by the entire Hamas leadership? According to Haaretz, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has said that his government would accept a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders."
Baskin: Haniyeh is definitely in the camp that was developing in Hamas of a more pragmatic approach. I don’t use the word moderate, but I do use the word pragmatic. Haniyeh, Khaled Mashal, Mousa Abu Marzook, Razi Hamad, Ahmad Yusif and Jabari were all beginning to take more pragmatic approaches toward life in general, toward their rule, toward looking at other options. I don’t believe that any of these people, in their hearts, in their minds, in their prayers dropped the dream of eliminating Israel. They say that at the same time they demand the full right of return of all refugees, meaning that Israel would not be Israel.
"The words aren’t important to me at this point. What is important is that they are pragmatic. By not keeping a cease-fire, they’re being counterproductive to themselves, they’re hurting their own people. The point they made to me was that in every round of rocket fire, they would end up with 20 to 25 dead Palestinians in Gaza, and they wouldn’t kill any Israelis. What was the point of a strategy that made them the enemies of the world and didn’t bring any results to their people? "
Interviewer: "Mohammed Omer has said that Jabari, who was very careful about his personal safety, would not have been moving in Gaza City had there not been an informal truce. Is it possible that the decision to kill Jabari had already been made when the cease-fire began, that there was a kind of trap?"
Baskin: "The decision on targeted killing is made as close to the time of the operation as possible. The military option of doing this was probably on the desks of the prime minister and the defense minister for days, but the final decision was probably made at the very last minute. Maybe the option of killing him was there on Monday, when the cease-fire went into effect, maybe it wasn’t, I don’t know."
Interviewer: You’ve spoken of a key person in the Egyptian General Intelligence Service, someone who “is probably responsible for saving more lives in Israel and Gaza than anyone else in this region.”
Baskin: "Egyptian intelligence has been the main link between Israel and Egypt certainly since the fall of Mubarak, and with the takeover of the Muslim Brotherhood even more so than before. The Muslim Brotherhood and their leader, Mohammad Morsi, have said they don’t want to have direct contact with Israel, but Egyptian General Intelligence has maintained contact."
"Any time there’s a flare-up they have stepped in, trying to negotiate a cease-fire. They are serving the interest of Egypt and the interest of all of us. I know these intelligence officers have a lot of respect for Israel, that there’s a very good relationship."
"Part of the problem with killing Jabari is that there are some people in Hamas who believe that Egyptian intelligence assisted in the killing. I’m not sure that the Israeli side considered well enough the fall out, both with regard to the status of Egyptian intelligence and in total the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. It could jeopardize the peace treaty and we’ve seen it, Morsi said it, they withdrew the ambassador and there could be other consequences if the military operation deepens and there are more casualties in Gaza. It’s going to be very difficult for the Egypt of 2012, where the voice of the people is hard in the squares of the city, for the Muslim Brotherhood to let this go on."
"Egypt was cooperating with Israel recently, in the past months, in taking control of Sinai, which was a huge weapons smuggling area, weapons from Libya coming from Sudan, and Al Qaeda groups and other jihadi groups have taken over a lot of that kind of trade. They infiltrated the Bedouins in Sinai and there was definitely a Salafi jihadi presence there. We have the incident where 16 Egyptian army officers were killed from within Sinai by an Al Qaeda cell. And one of the big worries of Israel over these last months is that if there’s an attack on Israel from Sinai, Israel doesn’t have the same freedom to just go into Egypt as they do in Gaza. That could end up leading to the withdrawal of the peace treaty. And there are forces in Egypt which would be very happy for that peace treaty to be ended. If there are terrorist attacks that take place from Sinai, Israel is in a very difficult position."
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.