[News] Revealed: the untold story of the deal that shocked the Middle East

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Jun 8 10:52:32 EDT 2011

Revealed: the untold story of the deal that shocked the Middle East

Exclusive by Robert Fisk
Tuesday, 7 June 2011

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 Paslestinian 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 2006. “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 Hamas. 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 clapped.

“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 
books. 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 
pharmacuticals); Hazem Quasmeh (runs an NGO) and 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 landowner); 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); 
and 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 very 
positive. We said: ‘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. “Al-Arabi said: ‘Can I 
bring in the foreign minister of Turkey, who 
happens to be in Egypt?’ So we all talkled 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 
(italics: 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. He said: ‘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) say?’ I 
laughed and replied: ‘You always ask me this – 
but what do you (italics: 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 natiuonal 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 resolutions. 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’. Meshaal said: ‘We won’t let 
you down.’ We 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 Moubarak 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. Sulieman effectively 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 
recognise the State of Israel. But if they were 
not, they would not recognise 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 ageeeing on the formation 
of the government. That government will abide by 
UN resolutions – and international law. It’s got 
to be mutual. Both sides realised they might miss 
the boat of the Arab spring. 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 Jordan.

* 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 minister.

* 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 450,000 Palestinians.

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 
social programmes. 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 Western-led boycott. 
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 West Bank. 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 favourable 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 vigour of the Arab 
Spring that finally led to the historic handshake.Loveday Morris

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