An Israeli official denied on Monday a Hamas report that confidants of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had approached the Islamist movement, requesting a ceasefire agreement lasting 5-10 years.
Hamas website Al-Resalah reported on Sunday that elements within the movement were responding to direct Israeli overtures, bypassing the Egyptian intelligence services which have been overseeing ceasefire talks in Cairo between Israeli and Palestinian delegations. Al-Resalah’s “knowledgeable sources” said that Israel had decided to turn to Hamas directly after realizing that Egypt is a stumbling block for any agreement between Israel and Gaza, with “Cairo pursuing its own particular interests more than Israel’s.”
Responding to a query by The Times of Israel, an unnamed Israeli official said the report was “not true.”
Israel has long maintained it does not negotiate directly with Hamas, which it considers a terror group, though the two sides have come to a number of deals in past years, including a 2012 ceasefire after Operation Pillar of Defense and a 2011 deal to swap captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Even if Israel is not directly in contact with Hamas, the Al-Resalah report indicates mounting Hamas displeasure with the role of Egypt as mediator in ceasefire talks aimed at ending over a month of fighting in Gaza. Hamas has been wary of Egypt’s role from the start, but has rarely addressed it openly.
Read as a fabrication, the report could be an implicit invitation by Hamas to engage with Israel directly, a move it had been reluctant to undertake in the past.
Hamas, an offshoot of Muslim Brotherhood, has been distrustful of Cairo since then Egyptian defense chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi rousted Brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi from power as Egypt’s president, kicking off a sweeping crackdown on the group.
Hamas enjoyed close relations with Morsi, who is now being tried for conveying sensitive information to Hamas and Hezbollah with the intent of harming Egypt’s national security.
On Monday, as another 72-hour ceasefire came into effect, an Israeli delegation comprising senior defense official Amos Gilad, Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s associate Yitzhak Molcho, Maj.-Gen. Nimrod Sheffer, the head of the IDF’s Planning Directorate, and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Yoav Mordechai came to Cairo to hold indirect talks with a Palestinian delegation headed by Fatah but including members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Fearing the imminent possibility of talks in Cairo failing, the article in Al-Resalah spoke of “concern, shared by the Americans, that things may reach a point of no return.” It was unclear whether the concern was Israel’s or Hamas’s.
Al-Resalah’s sources claimed that talks between Israel and Hamas were taking place in parallel to the Cairo negotiations, far from the media, and were “realizing better progress.”
Hamas, for its part, has been discouraged by Egypt’s tough stance in the ceasefire negotiations, primarily by its refusal to discuss the opening of Rafah border crossing to regular Palestinian traffic.
Meanwhile, Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal said on Monday that his movement is prepared to engage “in the military campaign and the diplomatic campaign at the same time.” In an interview with French news agency AFP, the Hamas leader said that his movement will not back down from its demands to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza and establish sea and air ports. Hamas Qatar-based leader Husam Badran tweeted on Monday that the Palestinian demand for a sea port is “the only issue that can guarantee lifting the siege from Gaza.”
Mashaal said that Hamas’s leaders had been approached numerous times in the past to negotiate with Israel, but always refused.
“The occupation takes its time playing at negotiations in order to fool the world that there is a peace process,” Mashaal said. “We are aware of this game and will not be fooled by it.”
“We know when to engage in useful negotiations with the occupiers, and the time hasn’t come yet,” he added. “We know how to run our political game and how to run it militarily.”