Hostages Israel, Shalit’s negotiator: ”In contact with Hamas, priority is civilian release”

For Gershon Baskin it is “a difficult negotiation, in exchange for the civilians Hamas is asking for a temporary ceasefire. It will negotiate for the ‘soldiers’ at a later date and will ask for the release of the 7,000 Palestinians detained in Israel”

Negotiate the release of ”women, children, elderly and sick people held hostage” by Hamas in the Gaza Strip after the attack on Israel, because ”it must be the absolute priority to save as many lives as possible”. And do so by granting ”a temporary ceasefire, before the ground incursion into Gaza, because then it will be practically impossible to negotiate an exchange of prisoners or the release of civilians”. This is what Israel should do to get back, or at least try to embrace, the approximately 200 people captured by Hamas last October 7, including around thirty children and around twenty elderly people. ”At this moment there are no negotiations underway through official channels”, explains to Adnkronos Gershon Baskin, the Israeli-American pacifist activist who is ”talking to Hamas” and whose role, as an unofficial mediator, is was instrumental in the release of soldier Gilad Shalit more than 10 years ago.

On that occasion Baskin managed to open a secret channel with Hamas and bring home Shalit, who had been held hostage for five years and four months in the basement of a house in the Gaza Strip. In exchange for Shalit, Israel released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, but this time according to Baskin ”I don’t think Hamas wants the release of civilian prisoners. Three times, with three different voices, they said they wanted a ceasefire in exchange for the release of the civilian hostages”.

Now, he states, ”I am speaking with some Hamas contacts, with one of the founders in Gaza and with the main interlocutor in the negotiations for Shalit”, he explains, but ”the situation is completely different from that of Gilad. He was just one person, a soldier ” and ” they treated him very well, he was considered a sensitive and valuable subject ”, while this time ” there are hundreds of hostages ” and ” they are scattered across the Strip of Gaza ”.

‘for the ‘soldiers’ Hamas will negotiate at a later date asking for the release of Palestinian detainees in Israel’

Furthermore ”we know that they are not all in the hands of Hamas, but also of Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and ordinary citizens who have individually taken Israeli civilians hostage”. What Baskin, ”tired, angry and sad”, is trying to do is send a message to the Hamas militiamen, namely that ”it is against the Koran and Islam to hold women, children, the elderly and sick people. So what they are doing is against their own religion”. On the other hand, the former Jerusalem Post columnist is asking Israel to negotiate directly with Qatar, which could play an important role, ”but the Israelis are not doing it. They ask Washington to speak to Doha on their behalf”.

Just in the last few hours Baskin ”asked a Hamas leader in Gaza what they plan to do with the hostages they define as ‘soldiers’, who are probably young, women and men, and he told me that the negotiations for them will take place in a second moment”. And this is because, Hamas said, in the case of the ‘soldiers’ ”their objective is to obtain the release of all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, which number over seven thousand people”. But ”what Israel will have to do for these hostages will be to try to save them during military operations, after the ground operation begins” in the Gaza Strip, he believes.

Another difference compared to the operation that led to Shalit’s kidnapping is that, Baskin explains, he had been ”captured in an operation conducted by a military force against an army base during which two soldiers were killed” Israelis and ”a soldier was taken”. But ”this time it’s about terrorism, what they did on Saturday 7 October was to behave like ISIS. They burned people alive, they killed newborns, the elderly. They went to a music festival and killed 207 people. This is an act of terrorism”. So ”it is very different from the Shalit case and it is the most dramatic event in the history of Israel”. And it is for this reason, states the founder of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), that after the massacre suffered ”Israel will no longer allow Hamas to govern territories near the Israeli border” and ”it will not I can imagine a scenario in which Hamas continues to remain in Gaza”.

‘Israel will no longer allow Hamas to rule Gaza, but must recognize Palestinian rights’

The one launched by Hamas therefore seems like a suicidal operation, which puts the future of the group in the balance. ”If this is not the end of Hamas, the people of Israel will turn against their government like never before,” the analyst says. ”The people who live near the border with the Gaza Strip have for years been educated to open their doors to give work to Palestinians from the enclave and to contribute to the economic development of Gaza”, but ”the people who live in Gaza and along the border on the Palestinian side have been instructed by their leaders to ‘kill as many Israelis as possible” and ”the resulting trauma is enormous”. Baskin recalls that it is estimated that ”1,400 people have been killed” by Hamas in southern Israel and ”every day there is a funeral, every day they discover and identify other victims. And we don’t know where the hostages are, or how they are doing. Every day we see photos of hostages or read their stories”. After what happened ”I don’t even think that the Israelis want revenge, or maybe they do, but even more they want to be able to live”.

For years engaged in talks with Hamas to reach a lasting ceasefire, ”a ceasefire that Hamas has asked for three times in recent days in exchange for civilian hostages”, Baskin believes that ”now the time has come for Israel to understand that you cannot live in peace if you keep another people in a state of siege for 56 years. You cannot keep 2.2 million people in an open-air prison in Gaza and expect to live peacefully”. Therefore, ”it is time for the Palestinians of Gaza to recognize that Israel has the right to exist here and for the Israelis to realize that they cannot occupy the Palestinian population and at the same time expect to live in peace”. The activist believes that there is a ”need to accept that there are two peoples”.

‘we need a new generation of Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the current ones are responsible for what happened’

When he founded IPCRI in March 1988, Baskin had in mind that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be achieved on the basis of “two states for two peoples”. Today, he says, ”I don’t know if we need two states, maybe we need three or ten, it doesn’t matter. What matters is to recognize that everyone has the same rights, there is no one who has more rights than another and both parties must recognize the other’s right to exist”. In particular, ”Israelis must understand that Palestinians have the right to live in a dignified, respectful way and have the right to have a future, a chance to live a decent life”. According to Baskin, what is needed is ”a new generation of leaders, both Israeli and Palestinian”. Because the current one ”on both sides is responsible for the current situation and therefore must be swept away”. And he asks the international community to be ”serious” about this. ”The world and above all the majority of European countries, as well as Italy, have been asking for a ‘two peoples for two states’ solution for 25 years and then recognize a single state. Why? Why doesn’t Italy recognize a Palestinian state?” he asks.

”We need new people, new voices, new dreams, new hopes, new visions,” he reiterates. People who have ”the ability to live together”. This ”will not happen in a moment, it is a process and it takes time, but the time has come” because ”for the Palestinians it is the Nakba, a catastrophe” while ”for the Israelis it was the worst trauma since birth of Israel, our security, our life, our history has been shattered”. For the analyst ”it wasn’t like September 11th” for the Americans, ”it’s ten times September 11th”. And ”now we have to say enough with everything that came before”. Therefore ”it is necessary for Israelis and Palestinians to sit at the same table and decide their future”, whether they are two states or ”a federation, a confederation, the important thing is that there is a political outline. And that the same fundamental rights are recognized, this is the basis”.