Sat 15 Jun 2024 11:17 am - Jerusalem Time

Hamas open to direct channel on cease-fire, says former hostage negotiator

By Elizabeth Hagedorn

After months of failed talks, Israel's former back-channel negotiator Gershon Baskin says it’s time to bypass the mediators and open a direct line of communication with Hamas.

Shortly after the Oct. 7 massacre, Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin cut off contact with Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official with whom he maintained a back channel for 18 years. 

“I never want to speak to you again,” Baskin wrote in a Nov. 1 open letter to Hamad, his counterpart in the negotiations over the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006. 

But as the Gaza war dragged for several months, Baskin had a change of heart. 

“I wrote to him, saying that if our channel of communication could save human lives, I'm ready to renew it. He wrote back to me about a month later, and we renewed it," Baskin said. 

With the two sides still far apart over a US-backed cease-fire deal mediated by Qatar and Egypt, Baskin believes now is the time for Israel to open a channel with Hamas similar to the one he used to help free Shalit after five years in captivity. 

“There are better chances of reaching compromises and understandings when communication is direct, when answers are given back and forth quickly and we don't have to wait two weeks to get an answer,” Baskin said. 

He described indirect talks between Israel and Hamas as more complicated, where "third parties have their own interests and their own styles." He added, "When you control the process, you can be a lot more creative."

About a month ago, Baskin said his Hamas contacts indicated to him they would be open to a direct channel: “an ongoing, non-stop-until-the-white-smoke-comes-out-of-the-chimney kind of arrangement.” 

The Israeli negotiating team rejected the idea. “In their view, it wasn't a problem of communication, but that the issue was the goals of the two sides were diametrically opposed,” Baskin said. 

Baskin said Hamad stopped returning his Telegram messages last month. 

Two weeks after President Joe Biden unveiled a three-phase plan for a “durable end” to the war in the Gaza Strip, a cease-fire remains a distant prospect. Asked by reporters Thursday if an agreement would be reached soon, Biden answered, “No,” but added, “I haven’t lost hope.”

In its formal response this week, Hamas put forward “amendments,” some of which Secretary of State Antony Blinken said were “not workable” and go “beyond positions that it had previously taken and accepted.”

Blinken declined to characterize what differed in Hamas’ counterproposal, but said the last-minute additions makes one “question whether they’re proceeding in good faith or not.”

Hamas demands enduring cease-fire 

Israel's commitment to a permanent cease-fire is a primary sticking point for the militants. Hamas official Bassem Naim told Al-Monitor the group is "looking for guarantees that the negotiations will lead to [a] permanent cease-fire and total withdrawal."

Specifically, Naim said Hamas wants assurances of the Israeli military’s withdrawal from Rafah and the Philadelphi corridor, a buffer zone separating Egypt and Gaza, in phase one and its full withdrawal from all of Gaza in phase two. 

“My experience with Hamas is that they negotiate on the margins,” Baskin said. “They put out their positions way at the beginning, and they stick to those positions.”

“The bottom line, which is uncompromising, is ending the war, the withdrawal of Israel from Gaza and exchange of hostages for prisoners. That's been out there since the beginning of the war.”

Negotiators have tried for months to reach an agreement to halt the war that the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run territory says has killed more than 37,100 people, a majority of them women and children. Israel launched its war in retaliation for the militants’ killing of 1,200 people and taking 250 hostages during its unprecedented cross-border attack on Oct. 7. 

For the Biden administration, the goal is for Hamas and Israel to at least implement the six-week cease-fire outlined in phase one, during which Hamas would release women, elderly and severely wounded hostages in return for scores of Palestinian prisoners and Israeli troops would withdraw from Gaza’s heavily populated areas. 

The second and third phases call for the release of male and deceased hostages, a permanent cessation of hostilities, the full withdrawal of Israeli troops and the reconstruction of the devastated Palestinian territory. 

US officials say they will try to bridge the gaps between the deal endorsed by the UN Security Council on Monday and the changes proposed by Hamas a day later. But time is of the essence to reach a deal. 

Israeli authorities believe at least 41 of the 116 hostages who remain in Gaza are dead. Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan told CNN Thursday that “no one has any idea” how many are alive. He reiterated that any deal to free them must involve guarantees of a permanent cease-fire and full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. 

In 2011, the deal brokered for Shalit’s release had been on the table for nearly five years: his freedom in exchange for some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, including Hamas' current leader Yahya Sinwar.

Baskin worries the haggling over the current hostage deal could similarly go on for years. 

“The hostages don't have years,” Baskin said. “I can't believe we're already eight-and-a-half months into this war and the hostages aren't home yet.”


Share your opinion

Hamas open to direct channel on cease-fire, says former hostage negotiator