On May 13, 2008, Yuval Diskin, the director of the Israeli Internal Security Service, Shin Bet, met with U.S. Ambassador Richard Jones to discuss the prospect of a “cooling down” period with Hamas. The conversation was recorded in a government cable released by Wikileaks, and sheds some light on the military strategy that Israel has pursued in Gaza since 2008, including three major confrontations with Hamas: Operation Cast Lead (2008-09); Operation Pillar of Defense (2012); and Operation Protective Edge (2014).
I have pasted the relevant portion of the cable below:
¶15. (S) [Shin Bet chief] Diskin said that Israel does not like the tahdiya [truce] — seeing it as a means whereby Hamas and other groups can regroup and re-arm — but also dislikes the current situation. The ISA, he said, believes that the best option now is a large-scale ground incursion into the Gaza Strip that allows the IDF to take over the southern part of the Gaza Strip and to stop smuggling and increase pressure on Hamas. “If you do this, it will cause big problems for Hamas’ survival in the Gaza Strip,” he said. “We can do it,” he added. He continued: “None of us like the idea of a military operation in the Gaza Strip, but we also believe we cannot avoid it. I do not believe in this ‘cooling down’ that the tahdiya would afford. Even if it starts, it will not last long. The way we are now treating the current situation is not effective. It is a waste of time, money and life. A ground invasion may lead to loss of life, but would be more effective. We need to be ready to take over the southern Gaza Strip and hold on to it for as long as necessary. Months and years if need be. Strategically, all of us understand that we cannot avoid the Gaza Strip if there is to be a roadmap and a peace process.” Diskin added, “My job is to tell the inconvenient truth. I am glad that others are finally realizing that the situation in the Gaza Strip is intolerable and getting worse every day. The situation in Lebanon makes it easier for us to make our case. We need to be very tough in dealing with the problem of the Gaza Strip. Egypt will not resolve the problem for us, and Abu Mazen will not and cannot.”
The current strategy in Gaza seems to be more or less in line with what Diskin described in 2008. Against this backdrop, Israel has maintained that it is committed to the peace process, and that its actions in Gaza are somehow consistent with that commitment. As one hears time and again, the wars against Hamas are wars against a party dedicated to the destruction of Israel, “the Palestinian version of Al-Qaeda,” as Benjamin Netanyahu put it during his visit to Washington in 2011.
Is Hamas dedicated to the destruction of Israel? Its 1988 Charter, one is frequently reminded, makes that clear: “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through jihad (holy war). Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors. The Palestinian people know better than to consent to having their future, rights and fate toyed with.”
On the other hand, anyone who has spent any time at all paying attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict is quite aware that Hamas started distancing itself from this document within a few years of its publication. Today, after repeated overtures to the West and Israel that it will end the conflict in exchange for peace within the parameters of the Arab Peace Initiative, the Hamas charter has all the relevance of an adolescent anarchist phase in a politician’s history. Was that really Hamas? Sure. Is that Hamas today? No.
In the 1970s, Israel viewed the PLO in much the same way it views Hamas today. Its security services assassinated PLO figures to prevent back-channel diplomacy efforts between the Palestinians and the US. The preferred strategy has almost always been the one summarized in the cable above: “We need to be very tough in dealing with the problem…”
Here’s a quick round-up of statements made by Hamas officials over the past 15 years on the subject of peace with Israel. I’ll let you come to your own conclusions.
May 17, 1999 – “In an interview, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of the terrorist Islamic resistance movement Hamas, called last week for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for the first time suggested he might recognize Israel’s right to exist. But he threatened to continue terrorist activity if there’s no movement. In a major departure from all previous statements of Hamas policy, Yassin said Thursday that the conflict could be ended if Israel withdrew from Gaza and the West Bank of the Jordan River. Israel captured both areas in the 1967 Six-Day War. Yassin offered an immediate end to Hamas attacks on Israeli targets following such a withdrawal and said relations with Israel should be left to future generations to decide.”
“Sheik Yassin is recognizing here for the first time Israel’s right to exist within the 1967 borders,” said Ehud Ya’ari, a leading Israeli analyst of Middle East affairs. “Until now, the sheik has only offered a 10-year recess in the conflict. He is now apparently suggesting deferring the resolution of the conflict to the decision of future generations.”
January 26, 2004 — “A top official of the main Palestinian militant group, Hamas, has said it could declare a 10-year truce with Israel if it withdrew from territory occupied since 1967. Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi said late yesterday Hamas has concluded it was “difficult to liberate all our land at this stage, so we accept a phased liberation…We accept a state in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. We propose a 10-year truce in return for (Israeli) withdrawal and the establishment of a state,” he said by telephone from hiding in the Gaza Strip.”
February 2, 2006 — “”One of the last surviving founders of Hamas”, Mahmud al-Zahhar, told a French newspaper that Hamas’s demands for Israel’s destruction was a “myth” invented “by the United States and the Zionist media”. It is “ridiculous” to assume “that a small organization like Hamas could destroy a state such as Israel, which has nuclear weapons”, Al-Zahhar said in an interview with the French newspaper Liberation website, published on 2 February. He said Hamas’s priorities include “the restoration of order and discipline”. “We will disarm the gangs and mafias that provoke chaos,” he said. Al-Zahhar remained defiant on the question of aid, saying: “If necessary, we will use our own resources.” He defended Palestinian “right to resist”, saying “Resistance will end once the violence of the occupation ends.”
February 9, 2006 –“Hamas yesterday offered a long-term ceasefire if Israel withdraws from all land occupied in 1967. The announcement by Khaled Meshaal, one of Hamas’s most senior leaders, was its clearest policy statement since winning the Palestinian general election last month. Mr Meshaal was speaking before a crucial Hamas meeting in Cairo on how the Islamist movement will form the new Palestinian government. While he promised a possible “long-term ceasefire” he refused to commit the organisation to a full renunciation of violence, which is demanded of Hamas by the international community and Israel.
Its charter warns that Israel faces elimination by Islam and calls for holy war or jihad against non-Muslim claimants of Palestine. Mr Meshaal said he wanted to send a message to the Israeli government that Hamas would be ready to talk if Israel met conditions that included a withdrawal to the 1967 boundaries. Hamas would then “possibly give a long-term truce with Israel”, he said.
February 27, 2006 — “In an interview with The Washington Post, Ismail Haniyeh, the top Hamas member in the Palestinian parliament and the man tapped to serve as prime minister, suggested that Hamas had no hatred of Israel and was prepared to consider recognition of the Jewish state as long as Israel pulls back to its 1967 boundaries and allows for the creation of a Palestinian state. Such recognition is considered a prerequisite by Israeli officials as well as much of the international community for Hamas’s place at any negotiating table.
But in the flurry of attention following the interviews indicating a more pragmatic bent, Mr. Haniyeh either retracted or clarified the statement, saying that his position had not been accurately portrayed.
Haniyeh told reporters in Gaza Sunday that he “did not tackle the issue of recognizing [Israel] in my interview with the Washington Post.” Rather, he restated the Hamas position that was outlined by the group’s founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and which other senior members of the organization have repeated in the weeks since the group’s surprise victory on Jan. 25: If Israel withdraws from land it captured in the 1967 war to make way for a Palestinian state and allows Palestinian refugees to return, Hamas would consider a long-term truce, or hudna.
May 24, 2006 — “Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s recent comment that peace was possible if Israel withdrew to the 1967 lines was a step toward recognizing Israel’s right to exist and was likely timed to coincide with a meeting of EU officials in Brussels to discuss funding to the Palestinians a European diplomatic official told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday.
Haniyeh in an interview with Ha’aretz Monday said If Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders peace will prevail and we will implement a hudna for many years. He said his Hamas-led government was “prepared to maintain a long-term cease-fire with Israel.”
June 28, 2006 — Hours before Israeli troops moved back into Gaza last night, Hamas, the militant Palestinian movement, made a historic policy reversal by signing up to an agreement implicitly recognising the right of the Jewish state to exist.
Hamas hailed the policy U-turn as ending weeks of tense negotiations with the other main Palestinian political force, Fatah, which had spilt over into violent clashes on the streets.
”It is the beginning of a new era in common and united work on all political questions, the resistance and the internal situation,” Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas spokesman, said.
Various Hamas spokesmen stressed that there was no outright recognition of Israel, although they could not deny the historic importance of the agreement.
April 21, 2008 — Hamas said today it would accept a Palestinian state on land occupied in the 1967 war, but it would not explicitly recognise Israel.
Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, said the group would “respect Palestinian national will even if it was against our convictions”, an apparent reference to a referendum on a peace deal.
His comments came at a news conference in Damascus, Syria, after a rare series of meetings between the former US president Jimmy Carter and Hamas Islamists in the West Bank, Cairo and Damascus.
At an earlier press conference, Carter said Hamas would accept a two-state peace agreement with Israel as long as it was approved by a Palestinian referendum or a newly elected government.
May 5, 2009 — “The leader of the militant Palestinian group Hamas said Monday that its fighters had stopped firing rockets at Israel for now. He also reached out in a limited way to the Obama administration and others in the West, saying the movement was seeking a state only in the areas Israel won in 1967.
”I promise the American administration and the international community that we will be part of the solution, period,” the leader, Khaled Meshal, said during a five-hour interview with The New York Times spread over two days in his home office here in the Syrian capital…
… [He] urged outsiders to ignore the Hamas charter, which calls for the obliteration of Israel through jihad and cites as fact the infamous anti-Semitic forgery, ”The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Mr. Meshal did not offer to revoke the charter, but said it was 20 years old, adding, ”We are shaped by our experiences.”
December 2, 2010 — “Hamas would respect any peace deal reached between Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, provided it is approved in a global Palestinian referendum, the top Hamas official in Gaza said Wednesday.
In a rare news conference for foreign media, Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of Gaza’s Hamas government, staked out seemingly pragmatic positions. He said Hamas seeks dialogue with the West and wants to be “part of the solution, not the problem.” He also denied Israeli allegations that Al-Qaeda operates in Gaza and that Gaza militants planned to carry out attacks in neighboring Egypt.
February 2, 2012 — “Khaled Meshaal, 55, the Hamas leader in exile long based in Syria, went to Jordan to see Western-backed King Abdullah, whose father made peace with Israel in 1994. He may move his headquarters there or to the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, which brokered his first visit since Jordan expelled Hamas in 1999.
From the Gaza Strip where he serves as Hamas’ Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, 48, set off for talks with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President Israel’s sworn enemy.
Iran is displeased with Hamas’ failure to support Tehran’s main Arab ally Syria in its crisis. A diplomatic source says Iran has provided no funds to Hamas since August.
Analysts believe Mr. Meshaal has decided to end his close association with Syria to pursue reconciliation with the pro-peace Fatah movement of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President, and to soften his anti-peace stance.
“Meshaal has been showing a tendency towards more flexibility. He is sincere about accomplishing reconciliation and he was flexible about President Abbas’ peace moves,” said Hani Habib, a Gaza political analyst. “His position did not go down well with Gaza leaders.”
Israeli analyst Matti Steinberg of Haifa University says Mr. Meshaal “quite clearly wants to advance reconciliation with Fatah” and to speak about a Palestinian state within the lines created by the 1967 Middle East war, rather than recovering the Palestine that existed before Israel’s creation in 1948.
He is also ready to suspend the jihad against Israel and go along with Mr. Abbas’s idea of “popular resistance” through non-violent mass protests, Mr. Steinberg said. Hamas hardliners insist on the right to “armed resistance.”