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Gilad Shalit deal: An inside look at Israel-Hamas backchannel talks

Gershon Baskin - Israel's key link to Hamas during negotiations for the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap - speaks on how and why both sides decided to make concessions to reach an agreement.

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Israelis release a dove as they celebrate the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit at the Kerem Shalom border crossing with the Gaza Strip, Tuesday.

Tsafrir Abayov/AP

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Hamas and Israel both paid homage to Egypt for mediating their landmark prisoner swap that freed 477 Palestinian prisoners in return for Gilad Shalit. But what neither acknowledged officially is that throughout the final stages of negotiations they were talking bilaterally through their own unofficial envoys.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal representative to the prisoner swap passed messages to Hamas military chief through a link consisting of Gershon Baskin, the head of the Israel-Palestinian Center for Research and Information, and Ghazi Hamad, a former aide to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

The Israel-Hamas channel played a complementary role to the official mediators, as well as helping the sides contain and control two major flareups in fighting across the Israel-Gaza border this year, says Mr. Baskin.

The peace activist said the dialogue between himself and Mr. Hamad began immediately after the kidnapping but was ignored by Israel. During that period however, Mr. Baskin and and Mr. Hamad developed a mutual confidence.

"There was no trust between anyone. And when there is no trust, you can’t make progress" on deals like this, says Baskin. "We don’t agree. We’re political enemies … but I believed Ghazi, and Ghazi believed me."

Hamad declined to comment, but didn’t deny Mr. Baskin’s account. "I am not talking about this subject with anyone," he said. "Gershon has the fullest story."

It wasn't about Abbas's statehood bid: Baskin

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Contrary to speculation that Mr. Netanyahu and Hamas reached a deal to undermine the Palestinian Authority after President Mahmoud Abbas went to the United Nations to bid for membership, Baskin said he believes that the breakthrough on the Israeli side came several months ago, when Netanyahu bowed to public pressure against his own hardline principles and instructed his envoy, David Meidan, to make the painful prisoner release.

Then, in May, after nearly five years of working independently of Israeli officials, Mr. Meidan gave Baskin his blessing to keep up the contacts.

The breakthrough on the Hamas side came three months ago in an informal document of principles for the deal. Hamas agreed to drop demands for their most senior "arch terrorists," according to Baskin, and agreed that most of the other militants convicted of attacks would be deported from the West Bank.

Egypt's increased leverage

After laying down the principles for the deal, Hamas insisted that Egypt mediate the final stages of the deal, and Baskin said that Cairo was critical in forcing Hamas’s political leadership to pressure its military chief in Gaza to compromise. Egypt had stronger leverage over Hamas than in the past because the organization – considered a terrorist group by Israel and the US – wants to shift its operations to Cairo from Damascus because of the revolt against Syrian President Bashar Assad, he said.

A spokesman for Netanyahu declined to confirm the channel of talks, but also didn’t deny it.

But Baskin says he has plenty of documentation, including an August phone bill with some 1,500 text messages to Hamad and Israeli officials that helped avert a breakdown of the talks after a terrorist attack on the Egypt-Israel border led to an escalation of Israeli-Hamas attacks.

Could the link lead to a future breakthrough?

While experts say the potential for genuine Israel-Hamas peace negotiations isn’t on the horizon, the dialogue could be useful in bolstering the unofficial ceasefire between the sides and even promoting economic development.

"There were many Israelis who met Hamas people in workshops,’" says Ron Pundak, an academic who helped spur an Israeli backchannel to the Palestinians that spurred the breakthrough of the Oslo peace accords in 1993. "But this is the only one which transformed into a result."

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