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Ex-Carter Admin Official: Israel Ignored Hamas Offer Days Before Attacking Gaza; Violated Ceasefire with Attacks, Blockade

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Robert Pastor is a senior adviser to the Carter Center and a professor at American University who met with exiled Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal in Damascus on Dec. 14, along with former President Jimmy Carter. Pastor says Meshaal indicated Hamas was willing to go back to the ceasefire if Israel would lift the siege on Gaza. He says he passed along the statement to the Israeli military, but he never heard back. Two weeks later, Israel launched its three-week assault that left more than 1,300 Palestinians, most of them civilians, at least a third children, dead. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: President Obama has pledged “active engagement” for a fragile ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In his first day in office, Obama called President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, King Abdullah of Jordan and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. He did not reach out to leaders of Hamas, who rose to power in democratic elections three years ago.

Meanwhile, Obama plans to announce the selection of former Senate majority leader George Mitchell as Middle East envoy. Mitchell is expected to travel to the region almost immediately upon taking the post. Obama will also meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later today.

Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire in Gaza on Saturday, three days before Obama was sworn into office. The twenty-two-day assault killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, most of them civilians, at least a third children. More than 5,500 were injured. Hamas also declared its own week-long ceasefire, which ends on Sunday. Hamas is demanding an immediate reopening of Gaza’s border crossings and the lifting of an Israeli blockade.

This is Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum.

    FAWZI BARHOUM: [translated] But we are stressing that the stopping of the aggression and the withdrawal of the occupation — God willing, with no return — is not enough. What is needed is a complete ending of the siege and an opening of all crossings and a guarantee that the Zionist occupiers won’t go back to this ugly operation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Israel has refused to fully open border crossings to allow desperately needed aid, goods and construction materials into Gaza. Meanwhile, exiled Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal claimed “unequivocal victory” over Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip.

    KHALED MESHAAL: [translated] This is the first war that our nation has won on its land, the first real major war. That’s why the battle in Gaza is a turning point in the conflict with the Zionist enemy. It is establishing, with its achievements, its timing, its greatness, a serious and active strategy for liberation that begins from Palestine and extends with the support of the nation to everywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Pastor is a senior adviser on conflict resolution at the Carter Center and a professor of international relations at American University. Last month he traveled to Syria with President Carter, where they met with Khaled Meshaal of Hamas. Robert Pastor served as national security adviser on Latin America and the Caribbean under President Carter from 1977 to ’81. He joins us now from Washington, D.C.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Robert Pastor. Can you tell us about this crucial trip you took just before the Israeli assault?

ROBERT PASTOR: Well, we have, of course, visited the Middle East many times before that and had previous conversations with Khaled Meshaal. But on this trip, it occurred just before the end of the six-month ceasefire. And the question is whether it would be renewed.

On the part of Hamas, they made very clear that they had done what they could do to try to stop the rockets. And indeed, from the period from late June to November 4th, when the Israelis intervened in Gaza to close down a tunnel, they had virtually stopped the rockets. But from their side, Israel had not complied with the ceasefire. It was supposed to have lifted all of the border crossings, allowing 750 trucks a day to go in. That never came close to occurring. In the absence of opening of those crossings, they said they would not renew the ceasefire.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, one of the things that Israel has been repeatedly claiming is that during the ceasefire, that Hamas was restocking, increasingly smuggling in more arms into Gaza. Your response or sense about the veracity of those claims?

ROBERT PASTOR: Oh, I have no doubt that Hamas was importing rockets during the entire period, but that was never one of the elements in the ceasefire agreement. I don’t even know if it was seriously negotiated by Israel through Egypt. So, their importing the rockets did not necessarily imply a violation of the ceasefire agreement.

The key element, from the Israeli standpoint, in the ceasefire was to stop the rockets. Hamas acknowledged that it did not stop them on June 19th, which was required under the agreement. But within ten days, they were able to stop it. And between then and November 4th, a total of eleven rockets, fewer than three a month, were fired. And according to Hamas, most of these came from militant groups, including one associated with Fatah. So from their side, they felt they pretty much kept to the agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you explain, Robert Pastor, who exactly you and President Carter communicated with?

ROBERT PASTOR: Well, in Damascus, of course, we met with the politburo and Khaled Meshaal. I went on to the West Bank in Israel and met with senior leaders from both the Palestinian Authority and other Hamas leaders, as well as senior Israeli government officials, and, in the case of Israel, communicated very clearly that Hamas felt and was willing to contemplate extending the ceasefire if Israel would lift the siege on that. I think, by this time, they considered it, and they said they would get back to me with a very specific response, but they didn’t.

AMY GOODMAN: What exactly happened on November 4th?

ROBERT PASTOR: On November 4th, Israel intervened into Gaza to shut down a tunnel. There is some dispute as to whether that tunnel was intended to capture an Israeli soldier or whether it was a defensive tunnel to protect against an Israeli incursion. But in the course of that particular incursion, which of course was a violation of the ceasefire, six Hamas militants were killed. Hamas then responded with 124 rockets that month. So, to a certain degree, the ceasefire was broken as early as November 4th, but technically it was to extend six months until December 19th.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, Robert Pastor, the continuing insistence by the Israeli government, and backed by the US government, that they will not deal with Hamas — in most other wars or conflicts, the belligerents eventually have to negotiate some kind of a settlement. To what degree is this helping or hurting the peace process in the Middle East?

ROBERT PASTOR: I think for the peace process to go forward, the ceasefire needs to be made much more sturdy, and they need to learn lessons from the first ceasefire from June 19th to December 19th in what went wrong. I would say the most important single lesson is there was no agreed official text between the two sides. The Israelis would not acknowledge — would neither confirm nor deny the text that Hamas gave to us and that I showed to them. Some people suggested that the elements in it were correct. But it was clear that Israel did not want to fully accept such an agreement; if a ceasefire is to go forward, they will need to.

I think, secondly, the United States should play a role in this mediation effort. It’s clear that Egypt is now questioned by Hamas as to whether they were an honest broker, and indeed there is some evidence that perhaps they said different things to each of the two parties. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I do know that if they want to make the ceasefire work, a good mediation is essential. The text needs to be agreed to. All of the elements need to be agreed to. And it needs to be enforced and monitored in a way that the first ceasefire was not.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Robert Pastor, are you saying that it was Israel that broke the ceasefire and that the Israeli assault could have been avoided?

ROBERT PASTOR: I’m saying that both sides violated the key elements of the ceasefire. The rockets never absolutely completely stopped, even though they went from about 250 a month to fewer than three a month. From the standpoint of Israel, that may not have been good enough. On the other hand, from the principal concern of Hamas, which was to open the barriers, Israel really never tried very hard to open them. The numbers of trucks, on average, that went in increased from 100 to 200, but the amount that was supposed to go in was roughly 750 a day. Israel never came close to that. I think, as I said, to make the ceasefire work, both sides need to comply.

I think, with regard to the question of whether Israel had an alternative than to invade in Gaza, I think the answer is obvious, that it did, that an effective ceasefire, full compliance with the agreement, would have stopped the rockets without the terrible loss of life that occurred.

AMY GOODMAN: If Israel had an offer from Hamas to extend the ceasefire if it ended the blockade, why do you think Israel attacked?

ROBERT PASTOR: I think Israel was of two minds. First of all, whether to accept any deal with Hamas, they were never very clear on what their objective was. Was their objective to exterminate Hamas, which is an awful goal, particularly for a country born of the Holocaust? Was it to punish Hamas or to disrupt their command and control? Or was it simply to stop the rockets? We’ve never heard a very clear declaration of objectives on the part of Israel. And so, we don’t really know what their intention was in going in. And if it were to stop the rockets, however, it is clear that they did have another alternative other than a massive invasion.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your sense of how Hamas has emerged from this, its standing within the Palestinian community, as well as within the general Arab world?

ROBERT PASTOR: We don’t know yet for sure, because public opinion surveys have not been undertaken in the West Bank and Gaza yet. On the eve of the invasion, ironically, Fatah was much stronger. There was a public opinion poll that came out from Khalil Shikaki that indicated that if there were an election, Abu Mazen, the president of the Palestinian Authority, would win by twelve to fourteen points, and Fatah would win over Hamas even in Gaza. But initial reports coming out after the invasion suggest now the opposite has occurred, that Hamas is stronger, and Fatah is weaker, because of the invasion. And that would be still one more tragic irony of this invasion. If the purpose was to weaken Hamas, apparently it had the opposite effect.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, your thoughts on George Mitchell as President Obama’s choice to be the Middle East envoy and what you think Obama should do now?

ROBERT PASTOR: President Obama was true to his word. He actually told President Carter, and he told others, that on his first day in office he would move quickly on the issue of peace in the Middle East, and he did so with the telephone calls to leaders in the region.

The decision to appoint George Mitchell as special envoy is a very encouraging and a very positive step. This is a man of independent stature, a man of proven capability. In the case of Northern Ireland, he helped bring the IRA into the political process. And to the extent that the challenge in Israel and Palestine is to find a way to bring the spoilers, those who believe that only violent resistance is the way to independence, such as Hamas, the way to bring them into the process — the way to bring peace is to bring them into the process. Certainly, George Mitchell has had personal experience in this. So I think this particular step of naming him is a very encouraging step to all of those who genuinely care about peace in the Middle East and understand that the United States needs to play an honest broker’s role if there is to be peace in the Middle East.

The next step is for him, I hope, to go to the Middle East, as has been promised, and to begin to listen to all parties and to play a role in mediating a really strong ceasefire, so that it will work, that it won’t break by Sunday, which is a concern that some people have, and that, to go beyond that, to seek reconciliation among the different Palestinian entities that would permit a free election and permit Palestine into negotiate on a united way with Israel, and to send a message to Israel that the United States is committed to peace, it’s committed to Israel’s security, but that that security relies on a two-state solution, a sharing of Jerusalem, 1967 borders, a right to return with compensation, rather than necessarily having Palestinians return to Israel. The basic elements of peace are known. What is needed now is real leadership by the United States. And President Obama’s first steps are extremely encouraging.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Pastor, thank you for being with us, senior adviser on conflict resolution at the Carter Center, professor of international relations at American University.

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