Secret Israeli-Hamas talks said to be progressing
Gaza City - Indirect secret talks between Hamas and Israel over a truce in the besieged Gaza Strip are purportedly progressing despite Tel Aviv’s insistence that it is not engaged in such negotiations and the militant group’s assertions that an accord is “immature”.
The talks, however, have left more moderate Palestinians in the West Bank anxious that their status as being the only viable negotiating partner with Israel was threatened.
The deal being discussed would secure a halt to Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israeli cities for up to ten years in exchange for Israel lifting a crippling blockade on Gaza and allowing it monitored maritime trade, according to Hamas leaks to the media in Gaza. The moves would usher in an implicit Israeli recognition of a group it has long considered a terrorist organisation bent on the country’s destruction. Hamas has opposed any peaceful settlement with Israel. While the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank insisted and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal admitted there were covert negotiations conducted through former British prime minister Tony Blair, Israel denied such talks were taking place.
“Israel is officially clarifying that it is not holding any meetings with Hamas, neither directly, nor via other countries or intermediaries,” the Israeli prime minister’s office said in a statement.
The truce being discussed is based on a framework that resembles a memo of understanding that brought an end to Israel’s 51-day war on Gaza in August 2014. More than 2,200 Palestinians – mostly civilians — and 73 Israelis – mostly soldiers – were killed in the fighting, according to the United Nations. The leaks about the secret talks drew outcry from the PA, which ruled Gaza until Hamas seized it in 2007, bringing about the blockade and shattering Palestinian ranks.
The PA, whose negotiations with Israel are deadlocked, is concerned that Hamas will emerge a winner from a prospective deal with Israel, supporting the argument that Hamas’s hard-line approach wins over that of the moderates.
The PA is also anxious that a Hamas-Israel deal could separate the Palestinian territories and damage the Palestinians’ ultimate goal of an independent state in Gaza and the West Bank, with its capital in East Jerusalem.
“Covert negotiations are ongoing and our information is that the two sides are on the verge of reaching an agreement on a truce for eight to ten years,” PA Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki told The Arab Weekly.
Malki said he was not sure when a deal would be announced. “It could be tomorrow, next week or in a month,” he said, insisting that there were “mediators who are doing their best to broker this accord”.
He was referring to Blair, who resigned as special envoy of Mideast mediators — the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia — known as the Quartet. Arab media speculated that Blair had been banned from contacts with Hamas under his previous post and quit to be able to negotiate freely.
Since his May 27th resignation, Blair has had at least two meetings with Meshaal in Doha, according to a PA official who spoke to The Arab Weekly but declined to be identified, citing the delicate nature of his information.
Meshaal said Blair was leading negotiations on reaching a long-term truce with Israel. “The talks are positive but we haven’t reached an agreement until now,” Meshaal said in early September remarks published in Arab and Israeli media.
“We talked about five major problems facing the population in Gaza,” Meshaal maintained. He said they were Gaza’s reconstruction, ending the Israeli siege, reopening border crossings Israel sealed off to stifle Hamas as well as allowing Gaza to open an airport and be given access to maritime trade. Details of the proposed agreement have since been leaked to reporters, including The Arab Weekly, in Gaza. According to the leaks, Gaza would be allowed to import merchandise through a “floating port” to be set up about 3 kilometres off its coast.
An intermediary port would be established on Cyprus, where Gaza-bound merchandise would be scrutinised by NATO representatives.
Hamas’s Al-Resalah newspaper in Gaza said Israel wanted the deal to incorporate the exchange of “living and deceased Israeli prisoners” held by Hamas, a reference to Ethiopian-Israeli citizen Avraham Abera Mengistu and a Bedouin Palestinian who entered Gaza illegally. It also included the remains of Israeli soldiers killed in 2014. In return, dozens of Hamas militants jailed in Israel would be released.According to the leaks, Israel would resume importing labour from Gaza, where unemployment has hit a record 43%. Hamas would in exchange agree to stop firing rockets at Israel and digging tunnels under its Israeli border for at least eight years.
Two Hamas leaders in Gaza insisted that a deal with Israel was not yet ready. Zeyad Zaza, a senior Gaza-based Hamas leader, said “there are discussions, dialogues and proposals that didn’t reach the maturity stage yet”.
A former deputy prime minister, Zaza insisted that Hamas was adamant to see “all crossing points reopened, to allow in material needed for reconstruction and to have a seaport that will be Gaza’s gate to the world”.
Ahmed Yousef, another senior Hamas official in Gaza, said, “Nothing solid has been achieved in the negotiations so far.”
“It’s just papers and ideas are being presented for discussions,” he said.