Another ceasefire, another assassination

Mark Perry writes: Gerson Baskin’s entry in these pages — “Assassinating The Chance For Calm” — has given the readers a valuable insight into the workings of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But as Baskin himself knows, this is not the first time that “calm” has been assassinated.

In July of 2002, I was an integral part of a small team working to end the second Intifada. I was the lone American on the team, the only one who was not an intelligence officer, and the only one with a direct line to Yasser Arafat and the senior leadership of Fatah. Our task was to gain the approval of Palestinian factions for a draft ceasefire that would end attacks on Israelis not living in the Occupied Territories. My job was to actually draft the ceasefire and serve as liaison with Arafat’s envoy in the process — Hani al-Hassan.

The task proved more difficult than I supposed. Hassan, whom I had forged a strong bond with over many years, disagreed with my multiple drafts of the document. And the document itself had to be approved by the eleven member “Fatah Higher Committee” in the West Bank, the several layers of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (and particularly their most intransigent cells in Nablus), as well as the head of the Hamas military wing in Gaza.

In addition, I was intent that the ceasefire be put in place precisely at one minute after midnight on July 22 and that the press be notified of its start. My reasoning was that Israel had acted with impunity in breaking a previous ceasefire, in January, by assassinating Raed Karmi. The problem then was simple: no one in the international community even knew that a ceasefire had been agreed to. I vowed that this would not be the case now, which is why the team of which I was a part kept Israeli officials informed of our progress.

Salah Shehadeh

It took many days of talks with Hani al-Hassan to produce a final ceasefire document, and weeks of negotiation to gain approval for it among the Fatah Higher Committee and the West Bank’s myriad resistance brigades. But by July 20, all seemed in place. Only Salah Shehadeh, the head of Hamas’s military wing in Gaza, needed to give his approval — and he had informed our team, through a Fatah intermediary, that he was prepared to do so. His signature on the ceasefire document was to be obtained on the evening of July 22, during a meeting between him and a senior Fatah official in Gaza City. It had taken weeks of talks with Hamas to gain his approval.

I remember sitting on the 11th floor of the David Citadel Hotel as the clock ticked off the minutes leading to midnight on the night of July 21. I was in contact with our Fatah intermediary in Gaza by cell phone, urging him to complete his visit to Shehadeh — at times, shouting at him: “You need to move, you need to see this man.” He assured me that the meeting with Shehadeh had been set, and that he was on his way, just then, to meet with him.

But then, with just ten minutes to go before the ceasefire took effect, his cell phone went dead. And then, thirty minutes later, an Israeli F-16 dropped a one ton bomb on Shehadeh’s home in Gaza City. The Israeli bomb killed Shahadeh and fourteen other people, including Shehadeh’s wife and daughter. Seven people who lived next door, all innocent, were also killed. The then Deputy Chief of Staff of the IDF, Major General Dan Halutz later said that had he known that innocent people would be killed in the bombing, it would not have been ordered. I know otherwise. Later, he added: “What do I feel when I drop a bomb? A slight bump in the airplane.”

The next morning, as I walked from my hotel near the Damascus Gate to a meeting of the ceasefire team, I was approached by an Israeli official who we’d been dealing with. He smiled at me. “Ah, the naïve American,” he said, in greeting. “You had rough night.” I said nothing, but he continued: “You know Mr. Perry, you don’t seem to understand. We don’t want a ceasefire.” And he walked away.

I have thought about Salah Shehadeh in the years since, and about my own role in his death, and the death of those he loved and knew. I know now that someone on my team was working against us, and someone in Fatah — most likely the intermediary who was to meet with him that night in Gaza City. These are very painful memories, to be sure. In the end, perhaps, the Israeli was right: I was naïve.

I’m not now.

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