‘Half a year after Gilad Schalit was kidnapped there was a deal with Hamas for
his release,” according to peace activist and Jerusalem Post columnist Gershon
Baskin. “The Egyptian- mediated deal that was put forward proposed the release
of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in two different waves.
Gilad remained in
captivity because there was no prime minister in Israel who wanted to agree to
Baskin, who created a secret channel for dialogue with
Hamas for Schalit’s release said that “Ehud Olmert, who was the prime minister
during Schalit’s kidnapping, convened the security cabinet on his last day in
office and voted against the agreement that was placed before him. The fact that
he did not bring about Gilad’s release was a clear failure of Olmert’s
And this was not the only failure Baskin points to in his
book, Freeing Gilad: The Secret Back Channel that he wrote following his
intervention in the efforts to free the kidnapped soldier.
established that the first days after a kidnapping takes place are critical, but
after the Schalit kidnapping the Israeli side was preoccupied with planning a
military operation and we did not think about the possibilities,” Baskin
“It was a failure that 50 days passed from the kidnapping until
Ofer Dekel, deputy chief of the Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency] was appointed
as the prime minister’s representative for kidnapped soldiers. Gilad was
forgotten amid the atmosphere of near hysteria surrounding the Second Lebanon
War and the Kassam rockets that were falling.”
Baskin’s intervention in
Schalit’s release began three days after the soldier was taken hostage, while
Baskin was attending a meeting of peace NGOs in Jordan. As the IDF pounded the
Gaza Strip in reaction to the kidnapping, Baskin received a telephone call from
Muhammed Makded, an economics professor and Hamas member from Gaza. The two had
met a number of months earlier in Cairo.
Makded requested that Baskin
answer a call from one Dr. Ghazi Hamad, then Hamas’s spokesperson and a
political adviser for Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
“Hamad insisted on
speaking with me in Hebrew, which he learned... in Israeli prison,” Baskin said,
adding, “On the same day when this telephone conversation took place, I
facilitated another telephone call between Hamad and Noam Schalit, the captured
This is how, almost spontaneously, a secret channel of
dialogue was opened with Hamas that remained open without interruption until the
soldier was released from captivity.
The connection with former prime
minister Ehud Olmert was formed through the efforts of his daughter, peace
activist Dana Olmert, and Baskin’s daughter.
But according to Baskin,
Olmert had his doubts about Baskin’s offers to be a voluntary mediator because
of an episode from two decades before when Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem. Back
then, Baskin published an outline for dividing sovereignty in the city along
demographic lines. “Olmert was firmly a right-wing politician then, and he has
hated me ever since,” Baskin said.
“A SOLDIER in the army for peace,” is
how Baskin, 57, who made aliya to Israel in 1978 from the US, defines himself. A
few years after his arrival in Israel he founded a state commission in the
Education Ministry to review education on democracy, and he founded the IPCRI,
the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information.
I met Baskin in
his study in the basement of his modest home in the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood
Hanging on the wall are memorabilia from the many
international conferences he has participated in, and meticulously labeled
binders document all of his actions in pursuit of Schalit’s release.
explain the driving force behind Baskin’s involvement in the Schalit affair we
must go back to nine months before the kidnapping. On September 21, 2005, Baskin
was in Switzerland at an international conference about the future of Jerusalem,
when he received a telephone call from his wife Edna. She informed him that her
cousin, Sasson Nouriel, had not returned home from his workplace in Mishor
Shortly afterward it was revealed that Nouriel had been kidnapped
by Hamas, who executed him less than a week later. His body was found in
“At his funeral, at the Givat Shaul cemetery in Jerusalem, I
made a vow that I would not allow something like this to take place again,”
The road to Schalit’s release led him to unimaginable
scenarios, such as entering Gaza during a period of violent instability along
with his Israeli government press pass, escorted by his partner at IPCRI from
east Jerusalem, Hanna Siniora. On that trip, the two met with Hamed for the
first time in Haniyeh’s offices. After the meeting, Baskin and Siniora went to
enjoy a fine meal at the exclusive Roots Restaurant on the Gaza
“As someone who visits all over the West Bank, the word ‘fear’ is
not in my lexicon,” Baskin says, adding, “Unfortunately, since 2007 and Hamas’s
rise to power in Gaza, the Strip is closed to Israelis. If Israel would permit
me, I would go to Gaza tomorrow.”
Baskin’s efforts on behalf of Schalit
crossed borders. He turned to the leaders of Hamas in Damascus, Khaled Mashaal
and Musa Abu Marzouk, on a number of occasions. Despite the fact that they did
not reply to the “pest” from Jerusalem, Baskin knew with certainty that his
messages reached them via a third party, Dr. Azam Tamimi, who lives in London
and is close to the Hamas leadership. Baskin even tried to recruit Norway and
Turkey as mediators in the days before the Mavi Marmara episode.
Israeli side did not receive Baskin warmly, either. Early on in the efforts to
release Schalit, Ofer Dekel said that he had had enough of the Egyptians as
mediators and asked Baskin to go away.
“This was like receiving a punch
in the stomach,” Baskin said. “It especially pained me that Dekel led the
Schalit family to believe that I had nothing to do with the letter from Gilad,
the first sign of life that they received from their son, which was due to my
Incidentally, the Egyptian intelligence official, Gen.
Nader al-Aser, advised Baskin to disobey Dekel’s request to end his role in the
Baskin speaks favorably of Egypt’s role as mediator in the
deal to free Schalit.
“They knew how to soften... [Hamas military head]
Ahmed Jabari’s positions, which sometimes gave the impression of posing
insurmountable obstacles for the negotiations.”
In November 2012, a year
after Schalit came home, Jabari was assassinated by the IDF in what was
considered to be the opening salvo of Operation Pillar of Defense.
assassination prevented the realization of a long-term cease-fire agreement that
I drafted with Razi Hamed, one month after Schalit was freed,” Baskin reveals.
“In my opinion Jabari’s assassination did not have any deterrent effect, and,
aside from Jabari, we did not harm their leadership. People came out from their
hiding places after the assassination and declared victory,” Baskin
Now, Baskin is convinced and wants everyone to know that
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is a true partner for
“The Israeli public does not know the extent to which Abbas is
committed to peace. From our perspective, Abbas is Israel’s man with regard to
Gaza as well. It is irrelevant for us that the regime in Gaza does not accept
Abbas’s authority. Contrary to Abbas, at least at this stage, Hamas is not able
to abandon the armed struggle.”
IT IS hard not to wonder if Baskin has
become obsessed with the deal to free Schalit.
“I have wondered to myself
if I went overboard with my around-the-clock activity to free Schalit,” Baskin
admits, saying that, at night, he could not stop thinking about what else he
could do for the cause. “The effort even affected my health, causing me neck and
back pain, but I continued my life as normal.”
His worry for the captured
soldier increased as the days passed.
“When I saw, on television, the
return to Israel of the coffins of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, I could not
erase the image of Gilad’s coffin returning from Gaza. My worry became acute
during Operation Cast Lead in 2008. I worried that if Gilad was not killed by an
Israeli bomb, Hamas would kill him in revenge.”
When Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu was elected in March 2009, Baskin was certain the saga was
coming to an end.
“A moment before Netanyahu’s election I wrote to Khaled
Mashaal, and I said that it would be wise for Hamas to act, because Netanyahu
said he would not negotiate with terrorists. Mashaal was not convinced. In the
end it was Netanyahu who brought Schalit home.
Netanyahu appointed Hagai
Hadas in place of Dekel, and Hadas pushed me out of the
“Hadas’s replacement, David Midan, said Hadas had made a
big mistake by excluding me,” Baskin said.
What in your opinion was
whispered in Midan’s ear about you?
“There were those who sang the old song:
Peace activist, anarchist, anti- Zionist, Arab lover and more. It is fortunate
that he did not believe them.”
In your book you emphasize your Zionism.
Is this coming from a feeling that people don’t trust you?
It stems from a
misunderstanding. In the past there was a Zionist Left in Israel which included
people like Luba Eliav, whose book Land of the Deer became my second bible. But
the Zionist Left has disappeared, and in its place have come the extreme Left
and the concept of post-Zionism. These ideas do not speak to me. I believe that
so long as more and more people believe that my motives are positive, I will be
able to contribute more to peace in the region. This is what I want. I am not
WHEN THEY met for the first time, Midan was curious to
know if Baskin would be seeking payment for his efforts, but all he asked for
was the opportunity to be present when Schalit was released.
In the end,
Baskin had to watch the historic event on television like everyone else. “I was
disappointed,” he admits. But Baskin got over his emotions, and on the day of
the release, congratulated Netanyahu in a letter for showing “courage and
leadership in his decision to authorize the secret negotiating channel that I
opened with Hamas.”
After eight days, Netanyahu replied to Baskin in an
official letter in which he thanked him for his commitment to the cause of
freeing the soldier. Apparently no one considered receiving Baskin in person to
shake his hand.
Baskin continues to stay in touch by telephone with
Hamad, today deputy foreign minister of Hamas in Gaza.
for Hamad and his wife to visit Al-Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem was
Baskin is still friends with Midan, who is in private business
Sasson Nouriel’s family angrily protested the mention of their
deceased relative in Baskin’s book.
Baskin argues that he feels
compassion for the family’s feelings, but could not agree to their request to
leave the story of the tragic death out of the book.
“I identify with
their tragedy, but in its wake, I helped prevent an additional
The connection with the Schalit family has become weaker over
the years, but the family came to the launch of Baskin’s book.
I are friends on Facebook,” Baskin notes. “When he posts photos of his travels
around the world, I click ‘Like.’” Translated by Nathan Wise.
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