by Robert Fisk
7 June 2011
Hamas leader Ismail Hanniyeh,
right, shakes hands
with senior Fatah official
Nabil Shaath during their meeting in Gaza in May
Secret meetings between Palestinian
intermediaries, Egyptian intelligence officials, the Turkish foreign
minister, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled
Meshaal - the latter requiring a covert journey to Damascus with a detour
round the rebellious city of Deraa - brought about the Palestinian unity
which has so disturbed both Israelis and the American government.
Fatah and Hamas ended four years of conflict in
May with an agreement that is crucial to the Palestinian demand for a state.
A series of detailed letters, accepted by all sides, of which The
Independent has copies, show just how complex the negotiations were; Hamas
also sought - and received - the support of Syrian President Bachar
al-Assad, the country’s vice president Farouk al-Sharaa and its foreign
minister, Walid Moallem.
Among the results was an agreement by Meshaal to
end Hamas rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza - since resistance would be the
right only of the state - and agreement that a future Palestinian state be
based on Israel’s 1967 borders.
“Without the goodwill of all sides, the help
of the Egyptians and the acceptance of the Syrians - and the desire of
the Palestinians to unite after the start of
the Arab Spring, we could
not have done this,” one of the principal intermediaries, 75-year old Munib Masri, told me.
It was Masri who helped to set up a ‘Palestinian
Forum’ of independents after the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority and
Hamas originally split after Hamas won an extraordinary election victory in
“I thought the divisions that had opened up
could be a catastrophe and we went for four years back and forth between
the various parties,” Masri said.
“Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) asked me several
times to mediate. We opened meetings in the West Bank. We had people
from Gaza. Everyone participated. We had a lot of capability.”
In three years, members of the Palestinian Forum
made more than 12 trips to Damascus, Cairo, Gaza and Europe and a lot of
initiatives were rejected.
Masri and his colleagues dealt directly with
Hamas’ Prime Minister Hanniyeh in Gaza.
They took up the so-called ‘prisoner swap
initiative’ of Marwan Barghouti, a senior Fatah leader in an Israeli jail;
then in the winds of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the youth of
Palestine on 15 March demanded unity and an end to the rivalry of Fatah and
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had
always refused to talk to Abbas on the grounds that the Palestinians were
not united. On the 16th, he made a speech saying that he was “thinking of
going to Gaza”.
Masri, who was present, stood on a chair and
“I thought Hamas would answer in a positive
way,” he recalls. “But in the first two or three days after Abbas’
speech, it gave a rather negative response. He had wanted an immediate
election and no dialogue. Hamas did not appreciate this.”
Abbas went off to Paris and Moscow - to sulk, in
the eyes of some of his associates.
But the Forum did not give up.
“We wrote a document - we said we would go
to see the Egyptians, to congratulate them upon their revolution. So we
had two meetings with the Egyptian head of intelligence, Khaled Orabi -
Orabi’s father was an army general at the time of King Farouk - and we
met Mohamed Ibrahim, an officer in the intelligence department.”
Ibrahim’s father had won renown in the 1973 war
when he captured the highest ranking Israeli officer in Sinai. The
delegation also met Ibrahim’s deputies, Nadr Aser and Yassir Azawi.
Seven people from each part of Palestine were to represent the team in
Cairo. These are the names which will be in future Palestinian history
From the West Bank, came,
Dr Hanna Nasser (head of Bir Zeit
University and of the Palestinian central election committee)
Dr Mamdouh Aker (the head of the
human rights society)
Mahdi Abdul-Hadi (chairman of a
political society in Jerusalem)
Hanni Masri (a political analyst)
Iyad Masrouji (businessman in
Hazem Quasmeh (runs an NGO)
Munib Masri himself
The Gaza ‘side’ were represented by
Eyad Sarraj (who in the event could
not go to Cairo because he was ill)
Maamoun Abu Shahla (member of the
board of Palestine Bank)
Faysal Shawa (businessman and
Mohsen Abu Ramadan (writer)
Rajah Sourani (head of Arab human
rights, who did not go to Cairo)
‘Abu Hassan’ (Islamic Jihad member
who was sent by Sarraj)
Sharhabil Al-Zaim (a Gaza lawyer)
“These men spent time with the top brass of
the Egyptian ‘mukhabarat’ intelligence service,” Masri recalls.
“We met them on 10 April but we sent a
document before we arrived in Cairo. This is what made it important. In
Gaza, there were two different ‘sides’.
So we talked about the micro-situation,
about Gazans in the ‘jail’ of Gaza, we talked about human rights, the
Egyptian blockade, about dignity. Shawa was saying ‘we feel we do not
have dignity - and we feel it’s your fault.’
Nadr Asr of the
intelligence department said:
‘We’re going to change all that.’
“At 7.0 pm, we came back and saw Khaled Orabi again.
I told him:
‘Look, I need these things from
you. Do you like the new initiative, a package that’s a win-win
situation for everyone? Is the Palestinian file still ‘warm’ in Cairo?
He said ‘It’s a bit long - but we like it. Can you pressure both Fatah
and Hamas, to bring them in? But we will work with you. Go and see Fatah
and Hamas - and treat this as confidential.’
We agreed, and went to see Amr Moussa (now a
post-revolution Egyptian presidential candidate) at the Arab League. He
was at first very cautious - but the next day, Amr Moussa’s team was
‘Give it a chance - we said that
the Arab League was created for Palestine, that the Arab League has a
big role in Jerusalem’.”
The delegation went to see Nabil al-Arabi at the
Egyptian foreign ministry.
‘Can I bring in the foreign
minister of Turkey, who happens to be in Egypt?’
So we all talked about
the initiative together. We noticed the close relationship between the
foreign ministry and the intelligence ministry.
That’s how I found out that ‘new’ Egypt had
a lot of confidence - they were talking in front of Turkey; they wanted to talk in front of Turkey. So we agreed we would all
talk together and then I returned with the others to Amman at 9.0 pm.”
The team went to the West Bank to report - “we
were happy, we never had this feeling before” - and tell Azzam Ahmed
(Fatah’s head of reconciliation) that they intended to support Mahmoud
Abbas’s initiative over Gaza.
“We had seven big meetings in Palestine to
put all the groups there and the independents in the picture. Abbas had
already given us a presidential decree. I spoke to Khaled Meshaal (head
of Hamas, living in Damascus) by phone.
‘Does Abu Mazzen (Abbas)
agree to this?’
I said that wasn’t the point. I went to
Damascus next day with Hanna Nasser, Mahdi Abdul Hadi and Hanni Masri.
Because of all the trouble in Syria, we had to make a detour around
Deraa. I had a good rapport with Meshaal. He said he had read our
document - and that it was worth looking at.”
It was a sign of the mutual distrust between
Hamas and Abbas that they both seemed intent on knowing the other’s reaction
to the initiative before making up their own minds.
“Meshaal said to me:
‘What did Abu Mazzen (Abbas)
I laughed and replied:
‘You always ask me this - but what do you want?'
We met with Meshaal’s colleagues, Abu Marzouk,
Izzat Rishiq and Abu Abdu Rahman.
We reviewed the document for six and a half
hours. The only thing we didn’t get from Meshaal was that the government
has to be by agreement. We told him the government has to be of
national unity - on the agreement that we would be able to carry out
elections and lift the embargo on Gaza and reconstruct Gaza, that we
have to abide by international law, by the UN Charter and UN
He asked for three or four days. He agreed
that resistance must only be ‘in the national interest of the country’ -
it would have to be ‘aqlaqi’ - ethical. There would be no more rocket
attacks on civilians. In other words, no more rocket attacks from Gaza.”
Meshaal told Masri and his friends that he had
seen President Bashar Assad of Syria, his vice president Sharaa and Syrian
foreign minister Moallem.
“He said he wanted their support - but in
the end it was the word of the Palestinian people. We were very happy -
we said ‘there is a small breakthrough’.
‘We won’t let you down.’
said we would communicate all this to Fatah and the independents on the
West Bank and to the Egyptians.
In the West Bank, Fatah called it the ‘Hamas
initiative’ - but we said no, it is from everybody. After two days,
Meshaal said he had spoken to Egyptian intelligence and they like what
we have offered.”
The talks had been successful. Meshaal was
persuaded to send two of his top men to Cairo.
Masri’s team hoped that Abbas would do the same.
Four men - two from each side - travelled to Egypt on 22 April. A year
earlier, when there was a familiar impasse between the two sides in Egypt,
the Mubarak regime tried to place further obstacles between them. Meshaal
had fruitlessly met with Omar Sulieman - Mubarak’s intelligence factotum and
Israel’s best friend in the Arab world - in Mecca.
worked for the Israelis. Now all had changed utterly.
On the day Abbas and Meshaal went to Cairo, everyone went except the two
rival prime ministers, Fayad and Hanniyeh. Hamas agreed that over the past
four years, the Israelis had seized more of Jerusalem and built many more
settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Meshaal was angry when he thought he would not
be allowed to speak from the podium with the others - in the event, he was -
and Hamas agreed on the 1967 border, effectively acknowledging Israel’s
existence, and to the reference to the ‘resistance’; and to give Abbas more
time for negotiation.
If Hamas was in the government, it would have to recognize the State of
But if they were not, they would not recognize anything.
“It’s not fair to say ‘Hamas must do the
following’, Masri says.
“The resistance must also be reciprocal. But
as long as they are not in the Palestinian government, Hamas are just a
political party and can say anything they want. So America should be
prepared to see Hamas agreeing on the formation of the government. That
government will abide by UN resolutions - and international law. It’s
got to be mutual. Both sides realized they might miss the boat of the
It wasn’t me who did this - it was a
compilation of many efforts. If it was not for Egypt and the willingness
of the two Palestinian groups, this would not have happened.”
In the aftermath of the agreement, Hamas and
Abbas’ loyalists agreed to stop arresting members of each side.
The secret story of Palestinian unity is now revealed. Israeli prime
minister Netanyahu’s reaction to the news - having originally refused to
negotiate with Palestinians because they were divided - was to say that he
would not talk to Abbas if Hamas came into the Palestinian government.
President Obama virtually dismissed the
Palestinian unity initiative. But 1967 borders means that Hamas is accepting
Israel and the ‘resistance’ initiative means an end to Gaza rockets on
Israel. International law and UN resolutions mean peace can be completed and
a Palestinian state brought into being. That, at least, is the opinion of
both Palestinian sides.
The world will wait to see if Israel will reject
it all again.
Profile - Munib Masri
The Masri family have been in the
Palestinian resistance all their lives. As a small boy Munib Rashid
Masri, from a respected family of Palestinian merchants, was
demonstrating against British rule in Palestine and plans for the
creation of Israel.
Three of his children fought with
Arafat's PLO in southern Lebanon during the 1982 Israeli invasion.
"All our family believe it is our job to bring Palestine back," he
says. "I gave all my life to Palestine."
He was introduced to Yasser Arafat in
1963 by the PLO leader's deputy, Abu Jihad - Khalil al-Wazzir, later
murdered by the Israelis in Tunis - and helped to smuggle money and
passports to the guerrillas, but got on well with King Hussain of
With Arafat's permission, he briefly
became Jordan's unpaid Minister of Public Works after the collapse
of Palestinian forces in Black September in 1970; he rebuilt one of
the largest Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan when the fighting
ended. Much later, he would three times refuse to be Arafat's prime
After the Oslo accords were signed in
1993, Masri encouraged 15 Palestinian business people - he was one
of them - to set up a $200m company called Padico.
The investment company is now valued at
$1.5bn, running telecoms, tourism and a stock market, responsible
for the wellbeing of 27 per cent of the Palestinian economy - and
Q & A - The events
that led to the historic handshake
Q: How did the split come about?
The rift between Fatah and Hamas, known
among Palestinians as "Wakseh", meaning ruin or humiliation, emerged
when Hamas won a sweeping majority in the 2006 elections. Hamas ran on a
change-and- reform ticket and had garnered broad support through its
Anger with corruption within Fatah, and
frustration with President Mahmoud Abbas's lack of progress on the peace
process helped propel them to victory. The election result stunned US
and Israeli officials, who had repeatedly said they would not work with
a Palestinian Authority which included Hamas, and led to sanctions and a
Security forces, still under Fatah's
control, refused to take orders from the government and the US continued
to fund Fatah. In 2007, the two sides briefly formed a unity government
but it collapsed as masked gunmen took to the streets of Gaza. A state
of emergency was announced and President Abbas dismissed Hamas's Ismail
Hanniyeh as Prime Minister, swearing in a new emergency cabinet in the
Hamas seized control of Gaza, while Fatah
held on to the West Bank, leaving a de facto split as both sides traded
accusations about the legality of each other's rule.
Q: What was the impact of the rift on the peace process?
The split between Hamas and Fatah
effectively stalled the peace process, with Israel refusing to negotiate
with a divided Palestinian leadership, which was forced to focus on
putting its own house in order. However, with both sides reunited the
prospect for peace is not necessarily more positive.
The "Palestinian Papers", diplomatic cables
leaked to Al Jazeera in January, showed Mr Abbas had offered
far-reaching concessions during talks with Ehud Olmert's government, but
to no avail. It is unlikely concessions so favorable to Israel will
make it to the negotiating room again if Hamas has a seat at the table.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,
who had used the rift as a reason not to negotiate, now says he will not
speak to Mr Abbas if Hamas is included in the Palestinian government.
Q: What were the details of the agreement?
In Gaza, dozens took to the streets to
celebrate the Egyptian-brokered pact, signed on 4 May, which brought an
end to four years of bitter rivalry. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said he
was ready to "pay any price" to reconcile the factions.
The deal envisaged a caretaker government
with the task of preparing for parliamentary and presidential elections.
Egypt has set up a committee to oversee the deal, but the unity
government has a rocky road ahead, with potential pitfalls over how to
integrate Hamas's military wing into the security services.
For years, Egypt sponsored reconciliatory
talks in Cairo - but to no avail. It was the renewed vigor of the Arab
Spring that finally led to the historic handshake.