Secret Israeli-Hamas talks said to be progressing

Friday 18/09/2015
Secret mediator? Former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair (C), as he visits a UN-run school sheltering Palestinians, last February in Gaza.

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.