Israel's Gaza expert: The IDF officer who had coffee with Arafat, Yassin and Hamas

David Hacham has spent hours over coffee with Arafat, in jail cells with terrorist leaders, and meetings to discuss potential peace deals with the founders of Fatah.

January 19, 2017 22:59
A masked Palestinian boy wearing the headband of Hamas's armed wing

A masked Palestinian boy wearing the headband of Hamas's armed wing takes part in a rally marking the 28th anniversary of Hamas' founding in Gaza City. (photo credit: REUTERS)

On December 14, 1987, Col. David Hacham was sitting in his office in Gaza City when he heard a knock on the door. A member of the IDF Arab Department that he oversaw was bringing Hacham a pamphlet that had just hit the streets of Gaza, announcing the establishment of a Palestinian organization with an unheard of acronym: it was called Hamas.

Hacham, who had arrived in Gaza a year earlier, had his offices in downtown Gaza City. Those were the days when Israel didn’t just sit in Gaza, it controlled Gaza, everything from the health system to the schools and roads.

Hacham’s job was to be Israel’s eyes and ears on the ground. To study the civilian population, analyze trends, decipher people’s everyday frustrations, and look for ways to advance a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

Six days before Hamas’ founding, a car accident involving Israelis and Palestinians took place at the Erez checkpoint.

Four Palestinians were killed. Later that day, at the funerals, Gaza started to burn. It was a rolling effect: the protests started in the north of the Strip in the Jabalya refugee camp, and subsequently swept up the rest of Gaza. The first intifada had erupted.

Hacham was there to see it all. During his nearly 10 years in Gaza, Hacham developed close ties with a range of Palestinian leaders, including the infamous Sheikh Ahmed Yassin – Hamas’s wheelchair-bound founder and spiritual leader – who referred to him fondly as “Col. David.”

In 1987, for example, Hacham brought Israeli poet Haim Gouri to Gaza to meet Yassin. The meeting took place in Hacham’s office. Gouri asked Yassin how he viewed the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

"Look," Yassin responded, "throughout history, there have been many empires and kingdoms – the Romans, the Persians, the British and the Ottoman-Turks - but where are they all today?" It is just a matter of time, he continued, before Israel meets the same demise.

In 1992, when Hamas kidnapped border policeman Nissim Toledano, Hacham went to see Yassin – who was then in jail – and convinced him to hold a news conference and publicly call on the captors to take care of their captive and enter negotiations with Israel. Unfortunately, they didn’t listen and two days later, Toledano’s body was found in the West Bank.

I SAT DOWN this week with Hacham since there are few people in Israel who know the Palestinians like he does. Hacham has spent hours over coffee with Arafat, in jail cells with terrorist leaders, and meetings to discuss potential peace deals with the founders of Fatah.

For most of the last 15 years since retiring from the IDF, Hacham has served as a senior adviser to consecutive Israeli defense ministers. His specialty is Egypt, Jordan and the Gaza Strip. A few weeks ago, he published a book called Gaza in the Eye of the Storm, in which he tells the story behind the first intifada, how it got started, how it eventually ended, and what contributed to its escalation.

In 1989, for example, he was the one who brought Assad Saftawi, one of Arafat’s partners in founding Fatah, to meet then-defense minister Yitzhak Rabin. It was the height of the intifada, and attacks were a regular occurrence throughout Gaza and the West Bank. Hacham could no longer roam the streets without an armed convoy.

Saftawi came to him one day with a 10-page plan for peace that bypassed Arafat and the PLO , and instead offered Israel to negotiate a deal with the local leaders in the territories.

Impressed, Hacham brought Saftawi to Rabin, who was looking for ways to quell the intifada without having to engage the PLO .

Saftawi left the meeting with what he understood to be Rabin’s acquiescence to the plan. He traveled to Tunis and discussed it with Arafat. In the meantime, Israel began drafting a leaflet for distribution throughout the territories that would be based on Saftawi’s model.

The plan never took off, and Saftawi would eventually meet a violent end: while sitting in his car a few years later waiting to pick up his nine-year-old son, masked men shattered one of the windows and shot him at point-blank range.

IN HIS BOOK, Hacham follows the history of Hamas and looks to see if there was anything Israel could have done differently when it learned of the organization’s existence that December day in 1987.

The original sin, he told me, dates back to 1979, when a group called Mujama al-Islamiya – The Islamic Center – received official Israeli approval to operate in the Gaza Strip.

The group was established as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and played a central role in social activities in Gaza – day care, blood banks, youth clubs and medical clinics.

To operate out of Gaza, the group needed Israeli government approval, which it received since it was not viewed then as a threat. The founder of Mujama al-Islamiya though was Ahmed Yassin, the same sheikh who six years later would hold a meeting in his home and create a spin off called Hamas.

“Israel did not establish Hamas, but what was done in 1979 eventually led to what we know today as the terror organization,” Hacham said. “That was the original sin.”

Looking at Hamas’s evolution in the almost 30 years that have passed, Hacham is rarely surprised. Yassin, he says, had a long-term vision. “He planned everything from the beginning.

He didn’t just want to engage in social work, so when the intifada broke out he jumped at the opportunity.”

So, I asked, is there any hope for the future? Is there any chance that Hamas will one day change and be willing to accept Israel, a state it explicitly calls in its charter to destroy? The usually jovial Hacham turns serious. Hamas, he explained, can be split into two layers of thinking – ideology and tactics. On a tactical level, Hacham said, Hamas would be willing to reach short-term hudnas or tahadiyas – cease-fires – with Israel, but nothing more.

“On an ideological level, Hamas will never change and will never be a partner for a peace process,” he said.

So what does this mean for a resolution to the conflict? “The chance to advance something with the Palestinians today is slim to nil,” he says. “Under the current reality, there is no room for optimism.”


No matter where you stand politically, it is hard to shake a feeling of sympathy for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In 1996, when he was first elected prime minister, he clashed with Bill Clinton, who reportedly asked his advisers after their first meeting in the White House: “Who the f**k does he think he is? Who's the f**king superpower here?” In 2009, when Netanyahu returned to the Prime Minister’s Office after years in the political wilderness, he found Barack Obama in the White House and set off on a course toward eight years of tension and hostility. If only he could have been prime minister a few years earlier, he told his advisers at the time, and had the opportunity to work with president George W. Bush, a Republican.

In November, Netanyahu could barely contain his excitement when Donald Trump won the election. Now, for the first time in Netanyahu’s long career as prime minister, he has a president who is not only a Republican, but also a close friend.

But then, just as Netanyahu was about to reach the promised land, the investigations came. One called Case 1000 focuses on suspicions he illegally received various benefits from a slew of foreign businessmen. The other probe, called Case 2000, is about an alleged attempt by Netanyahu and Yediot Aharonot publisher Noni Mozes to weaken Israel Hayom in exchange for favorable coverage of the prime minister.

Within the Israeli journalism world, the news has been startling.

During the last election, Netanyahu referred to Mozes as his arch nemesis. The fact that the two were secretly meeting to coordinate coverage raises serious ethical questions about the objectivity of Yediot’s reporting, but is also an opportunity for soul searching by the entire Israeli press.

The media’s role in public life is to serve as a watchdog, to ensure that politicians and governments remain within the legal lines, that the public – the real sovereign power in a democracy – has all of the necessary information it needs to ensure that its leaders are accountable for their actions.

Deals made by publishers and editors with politicians or other interest groups raise serious questions about the stories you will read tomorrow in those same newspapers. Yediot, for example, was known to have an anti-Netanyahu slant just as Israel Hayom – owned by Netanyahu’s close friend Sheldon Adelson – is known to have a pro-Netanyahu slant. But until now, the public had no idea that in recent years, at least, Yediot’s coverage might have been the result of the breakdown in the secret talks between the paper’s publisher and the prime minister. In other words, it might be tainted journalism.

I am not trying to patronize Yediot. It plays an important role in Israeli society, and has some of the country’s finest journalists within its pages. It has also not shied away from the news of its publisher’s involvement in this affair, and publishes almost daily - on its front page - the latest news of the investigation. It is trying to contain the damage and prevent subscribers from fleeing, but it is also being accountable, and that is to be commended.

But what is next for the Israeli press? Over the years, the media here has been highly politicized. At times, it seemed that some politicians had their papers, some had their TV channels, and others had their radio stations. After the recent revelations of the alleged Netanyahu-Mozes deal, the public’s trust in the press will continue to deteriorate. For Israel’s democracy, it is important we all work to ensure that doesn’t happen.

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