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Azzam Tamimi was a conduit between veteran Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin and Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Hanniyeh during the most delicate phases of indirect talks between Israel and the Hamas leadership.
Baskin, formerly head of the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information thinktank, told the Jewish News: “Azzam Tamimi was a great help. He used his close ties with Ismail Hanniyeh – they are childhood friends – to keep channels open even in the darkest moments when everybody else had given up. Every time I sent a message through Tamimi and Hanniyeh to those holding Gilad, I got a response.”
Baskin was in London this week to meet MPs and communal organisations to discuss the peace process and his crucial role in the release of the Israeli soldier after more than five years in captivity last October, in exchange for 1,040 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
However, Baskin said his role was born out of unfortunate circumstances about a year before Shalit was captured on the Israel-Gaza border. “A cousin of a friend was abducted in Ramallah and his family asked me to use my contacts in the Palestinian Authority to get him released,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the kidnappers killed the man before I could do anything. I was so devastated, that I vowed there and then that if there was a repeat abduction, I would do what was humanly possible to help get the person released from captivity.”
He added: “At about the same time, I met a Palestinian professor of economics, Muhammad Migdad, who was a Hamas member. He had never met an Israeli and I had never met a Hams member, but we spoke for six hours and agreed to have continued discreet meetings. Unfortunately, both the Hamas and the Israelis vetoed any continued talks, despite the fact that four countries were willing to host talks.”
When Shalit was kidnapped, “Migdad phoned me and said we had to do something and that’s how the back-channel talks started.”
There were many ups and downs, with Baskin being told repeatedly by the previous Olmert government (despite having close ties with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s daughter Dana) – “don’t interfere, because the Egyptians and the Germans are working on a deal”.
He did manage, however, to “arrange a deal whereby Hamas would deliver a letter from [Gilad's father] Noam to Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal in return for information that Gilad was alive”.
It was only when Benjamin Netanyahu’s government took office that the Israelis started to take Baskin more seriously.
“First, the government-appointed mediator Haggai Hadas resigned his position and was replaced by David Meidan, who decided to verify my claims that Hamas wanted to do a deal. Netanyahu then gave the green light for the back-channel talks as long as they remained secret, which they did.”
Meidan, said Baskin, had “very good ties with the Egyptians because he was born there and got on very well with the Egyptian intelligence officer who was in charge of the case in Cairo.”
By July last year, “Hamas and I had agreed a document of principles for the exchange and in October, Gilad was freed.”
There was, Baskin said, a lesson for the future in all of this. “Hamas wants to deal with Israel and kept out of this week’s tit-for-tat attacks. The rocket attacks were by the extremists of Islamic Jihad and the Popular Committees, not Hamas.”
Both sides, he noted, would find it hard to talk to one another. “We are dealing with the unimaginable for both sides. But let’s not forget that no one would have dreamed a few years ago that Israel and the Palestinians could get to such a high level of security co-operation on the West Bank that both sides share intelligence and the PA hands over to Israel weapons it confiscates from the extremists.”
Meanwhile, in Israel, Gilad – who will be released from military service at the end of the month – has received extensive help from Amos Levitov, an Israeli pilot who was shot down during the 1970 War of Attrition with Egypt and was a PoW for more than three years. Levitov, in the UK this week for a Magen David Adom speaking tour, told the Jewish News that the processes he helped “develop after my return from being a PoW have helped Gilad with his struggle against post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]. For example, we exposed him to stimuli gradually. First, he was allowed only limited access to TV, radio and the papers. Now he’s allowed more and has his own Facebook page.” The army, he added, “has been very helpful. It will continue to pay his salary and fund his treatment until later this year. He plans on studying, but he hasn’t decided what yet”.
Gilad is being given “space by the Israeli media, too. It has agreed that it will not pursue him or ask for interviews while he is recuperating.”Gilad's release: the untold story by Joseph Millis