Israel and Hamas: “An ideology cannot be destroyed by force of arms”

Foto: Imago

Gershon Baskin is one of the leading voices on the Middle East peace process and one of the few Israelis with direct contact to Hamas. For almost two decades, he was in contact with Ghazi Hamad, one of organisation’s senior political leaders. In this interview, Baskin provides insights into Hamas’ ideology, its often presumed will­ing­ness to sign ceasefire agree­ments and into ways to combat the organization’s cult of death.

Mr Baskin, how did you expe­ri­ence the moment when you heard about the atroc­i­ties of October 7?

At the time, I was on a vacation trip to Copen­hagen with my wife. In the beginning, we had no idea of the dimension of the horror, but it was still clear that something completely different was going on here than we had seen and expe­ri­enced before. We were extremely shocked, not only because it became clear that Hamas was acting according to the rule book of ISIS. But also because Israel’s defense had clearly failed. We could hardly believe how easy it was to cross the border on October 7.

Back in Israel, I imme­di­ately wanted to find out if there was a way to negotiate the release of the hostages. I contacted people in Hamas and got in touch with someone who knew the numbers of underage and female Pales­tinian prisoners in Israel. My thought was: the first thing we need to do is to find out whether a human­i­tarian release of women, children and elderly people from the hands of Hamas is possible. I had the impres­sion that the sooner we could do that, the easier it would be to deal with the bigger crisis afterwards.

For almost twenty years, you have been in regular contact with members and high-ranking officials of Hamas, espe­cially with the organization‘s mouth­piece Ghazi Hamad. How has your commu­ni­ca­tion developed since the atroc­i­ties of October 7? 

Ghazi Hamad’s first reaction to my contact was to deny the brutal acts of terror. I then confronted him with the fact that there were photos and footage showing the killing of babies and the burning of entire families. On the fifth or sixth night of the war, I had a half-hour phone conver­sa­tion with someone in Gaza who is one of the founders of Hamas. He didn’t deny what had happened, but he said: “What do you expect from us? We are tired of living the way we do. We are tired of being humil­i­ated, of living under occu­pa­tion, of being locked in a cage. We are no longer prepared to accept that.”

This sounds very similar to what you hear a lot these days in Europe and in the US from Islamists as well as from many left-wing progres­sives: the atroc­i­ties of October 7 are rela­tivized or even justified by placing the unprece­dented massacre in a very general and vague context of the oppres­sion of Palestinians.

In fact, that is exactly what my inter­locutor did. At the end of the phone call, he then tried to get out of the affair by cate­gor­i­cally sepa­rating Jews and Zionists. He had always believed that Muslims, Chris­tians and Jews could live together in peace in one state, he said. But that would not be possible with “these Zionists.” Israel was an “evil state” per se, which had no right to exist and therefore “had to go.” We are familiar with this way of arguing from other contexts, too. But nowhere in the world is there a justi­fi­ca­tion for a massacre like the one on October 7.

How did your commu­ni­ca­tion with Ghazi Hamad continue?

After I heard that Israel had bombed Ghazi Hamad’s house, I got in touch with him again. I wanted to work on a deal to release children and the elderly from the hands of Hamas in exchange for female and underage prisoners from Israeli jails. Hamad said he would talk to the Hamas lead­er­ship and see if they could move this forward.

When I confronted him again with the atroc­i­ties and made it clear that Hamas had crossed a line on October 7 and that its fate was now sealed, he replied excitedly and angrily: Hamas was strong and still had many deadly surprises in store. In any case, they were not at all afraid to die. This was a completely different Gazi Hamad compared to the one I had gotten to know over the years. I had never had any illusions about the ideology of Hamas. But over the years I had gained the impres­sion that it was possible to negotiate a so-called hudna, a long-term ceasefire.

You have now cut off your commu­ni­ca­tion with Ghazi Hamad. Why?

Shortly after my last direct contact with him, I found out through an informant that he was not in Gaza, but in Beirut, although he was acting as a Hamas spokesman in the war with Israel. There he also gave his terrible interview to a TV station. In it, Hamad justified the atroc­i­ties and said that Hamas would do the acts of October 7 again and again until Israel – as a suppos­edly ille­git­i­mate state with no right to exist – is destroyed.

I then made it clear to him in a letter that after eighteen years, over a thousand conver­sa­tions and four face-to-face meetings, our commu­ni­ca­tion has now come to an end. I wrote to him that he had lost his humanity and was a coward. I then published the letter on Twitter. If it would help save people’s lives, I would commu­ni­cate with him again. But I am convinced that he no longer has anything to do with the decision-making in Gaza. That’s where the decisions regarding the Israeli hostages must be made.

 The inter­na­tional community, the United States and Israel, appear to be placing the weight of the nego­ti­a­tions on Qatar. 

I am very skeptical that the high-ranking Hamas officials sitting in their five-star luxury hotels in Doha with body­guards provided by the Qatari govern­ment have anything to do with the nego­ti­a­tions with the hostage takers on the ground in Gaza. In addition, my attempt to broker a deal made it clear to me that the connec­tion between the Hamas officials in Qatar and the Qataris them­selves is not working well enough to believe in this track. I think the better way to negotiate is in Cairo.

 Why do you think so? 

The Egyptian Central Intel­li­gence has been in direct contact with the Al Qassam military wing of Hamas as well as with the Pales­tinian Islamic Jihad. It is the Egyptians that have achieved the last cease­fires between Hamas and Israel and Islamic Jihad and Israel. Egypt also shares a border with Gaza which is Gaza’s lifeline. They have much more influence on Hamas than Qatar. But I am not one of the decision-makers and am not directly involved in the nego­ti­a­tions. In any case, more pressure should be put on Qatar. However, I am skeptical that this will happen. This is primarily due to the economic and geostrategic interests of the Western states, including Germany, which wants to continue to purchase gas from the terror-supporting state. 

In German media, Hamas appears very often as a myste­rious and mono­lithic orga­ni­za­tion. Both internal dynamics and the tension between realpolitik and its funda­mental anti­semitism, as laid out in the infamous charter, are rarely consid­ered. Through your conver­sa­tions with Hamas senior officials and ordinary members you have gained valuable insights into that orga­ni­za­tion. I wonder about indi­vidual moti­va­tions for joining the Hamas terror squads as an ordinary fighter. What have you learned about that? 

To recruit fighters, Hamas partic­u­larly visits the homes of grieving families and families whose relatives were killed by Israel or who previ­ously lost their homes due to Israeli bombings. It is precisely the children from these families that Hamas is trying to teach its distorted view of Islam. The main basis of Hamas theology is the following assump­tion: life on this planet is short, and to get to paradise you must become a martyr. For Islam and for Allah, for al-Aqsa and al-Quds, for Palestine – and ulti­mately to take revenge for the relatives Israel had once killed. Against the back­ground of this method of indoc­tri­na­tion by Hamas, I crit­i­cized the idea that has prevailed in Israel for years: that we only must create deter­rence and make Hamas afraid of us because they suppos­edly have so much to lose. But I think that you cannot create a deterrent against people who are not only convinced that Israel has no right to exist and that Jews are descen­dants of monkeys and dogs, but above all have emotion­ally inter­nal­ized that death is a good thing, in the end a way to get to paradise. 

How can this ideology, which refers to a completely distinct set of thinking and feeling, be combated from your perspective? 

Israel will eliminate Hamas mili­tarily and free the people of Gaza from its rule. The Hamas lead­er­ship in Gaza and probably outside of Gaza will be killed. Their weapons will be destroyed, their hiding places are found and destroyed. Inci­den­tally, behind closed doors, this goal of disman­tling Hamas is also supported by most of the neigh­boring Arab regimes. But an ideology cannot be destroyed by force of arms, but only with a better ideology. It is therefore important that at the end of this war a political process begins that ensures the strength­ening of the Pales­tinian Authority. It is about elim­i­nating the corrup­tion in their ranks, carrying out demo­c­ratic reforms and elections for a new lead­er­ship in Palestine. Ulti­mately, the goal must be recog­ni­tion of Palestine as a state and a two-state solution. 

Many observers view a two-state solution as unre­al­istic and therefore as passé. What makes you so opti­mistic about the future? 

After October 7, we have a new reality here. New chapters have now been added to our collec­tive memories. Two peoples are currently expe­ri­encing extreme trauma – for the Jews, the worst since the Holocaust and for the Pales­tinians since the Nakba of 1948. I say this firmly, without comparing the two. I see the only way to combat the ideology that cele­brates death is to create a new ideology that sanc­ti­fies life. From the Israeli side, that means teaching Pales­tinians that they can actually live for Palestine instead of dying for Palestine.

What do you think it takes for this? 

To force the parties to the table and make a two-state solution a reality requires very strong inter­na­tional commit­ment. I am thinking here primarily of a forum for nego­ti­a­tions that are not bilateral between Israel and Palestine, but also include Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Bahrain (Editors note: Israel has signed peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt in 1994 and 1979 respec­tively. With the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, it has signed bilateral agree­ments on Arab-Israeli normal­iza­tion in 2020. Until the Israel-Hamas war following October 7, relations to Saudi Arabia had improved substan­tially during the years, leading to spec­u­la­tions about a normal­iza­tion deal soon to come). This forum would be supported by the European Union, the United States and other countries that want to partic­i­pate in a robust process of providing funds to rebuild the Gaza Strip and support the Pales­tinian economy.

All of this must happen quickly. Life must get back on track so we can look forward. There are aspects of this process for which we need the support of the inter­na­tional community. Since Germany is the most important country in Europe, it must play a construc­tive role here. In my opinion, this means not only histor­ical respon­si­bility towards Israel, but also supporting Israel in making peace with the Palestinians.


The interview has been conducted on November 14 and reviewed for time­li­ness on November 20.


Gershon Baskin is consid­ered one of the leading voices on the Middle East peace process. He gained inter­na­tional fame through his mediation in the release of the soldier Gilad Shalit. In 2005, he met a Hamas member at a World Bank confer­ence on Mediter­ranean devel­op­ments in Cairo and gained contacts in the Hamas lead­er­ship ranks. Baskin advised, among others, the govern­ments of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak on the peace process. Baskin is the Middle East Director of the Inter­na­tional Commu­ni­ties Orga­ni­za­tion. He lives in Jerusalem.


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