A CIA agent “desperate” to make contact with Hamas in Gaza pleaded for help from a South African spy in the summer of 2012, according to intelligence files leaked to Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit. The US lists Hamas as a terrorist organisation and, officially at least, has no contact with the group.
That was just one of the revelations of extensive back-channel politicking involving the US, Israel and the Palestinian Authority as they navigate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict amid a stalled peace process.
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Classified South African documents obtained by Al Jazeera also reveal an approach by Israel’s then-secret service chief, Meir Dagan, seeking Pretoria’s help in its efforts to scupper a landmark UN-authorised probe into alleged war crimes in Gaza, which was headed by South African judge Richard Goldstone.
Dagan explained that his effort to squelch the Goldstone Report had strong support from Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas.
The Mossad director told the South Africans that Abbas privately backed the Israeli position, saying he wanted the report rejected because he feared it would “play into the hands” of Hamas, his key domestic political rival.
The Spy Cables also reveal that US President Barack Obama made a direct threat to Abbas in hope of dissuading him from pursuing United Nations recognition for a Palestinian state.
The Hamas request revealed in the Spy Cables occurred in the summer of 2012 during an encounter in occupied East Jerusalem between a CIA officer and a South African secret service agent.
The conversation began with a discussion of the CIA agent’s safari in the Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya. Soon after, however, the US agent made it clear that his government wanted to establish contact with Hamas in Gaza.
The South African spy noted his request and cabled back to State Security Agency (SSA) headquarters on June 29 that the CIA “would seem desperate to make inroads into Hamas in Gaza”.
He recommended helping the US agency, writing that the “SSA stand the chance of benefitting from that interaction in that we would establish the collection priorities and requirements” of the CIA.
At the same time as the US was trying to reach out to Hamas, it was also putting pressure on the PA.
In November 2011, in a landmark event in the PA’s efforts for recognition of Palestinian statehood, the UN cultural agency UNESCO voted overwhelmingly to accept Palestine as a member. That set the stage for an effort the following year to upgrade the status of the PLO’s mission to the UN to that of a non-member observer state – a campaign fiercely opposed at the very highest levels by the United States and Israel
The South African government not only supported the Palestinian statehood effort, but a Weekly Middle East Bulletin dated 29 October, 2012, suggested that “South Africa should assist in lobbying undecided votes for the Palestinian statehood bid”.
A secret cable dated 22 November 2012 from a South African agent in communication with Palestinian leaders records that the South Africans had been told that US President Barack Obama had phoned and “threatened” PA leader Mahmoud Abbas not to proceed with the bid. The agent reported, however, that Palestinian leaders were unfazed and “were quite adamant to go ahead” despite Obama’s phone call.
When the General Assembly voted on November 29, 2012, 138 member nations approved recognising Palestine, while 41 abstained and only nine – including the US and Israel had voted no.
The Goldstone Report
Gaza had been the subject of another exchange revealed in the Spy Cables, this time between the South Africans and the head of Israel’s Mossad agency. A 2009 document disclosed that then-Mossad chief Meir Dagan had broken protocol by directly phoning South Africa’s spy chief, seeking to persuade the country to vote against recognising a landmark UN investigation into allegations of war crimes in Gaza.
In April 2009, the UN Human Rights Council launched the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, investigating alleged war crimes committed during Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” that had left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead when it ended two months earlier.
The investigation into the actions of both Hamas and the Israeli military was headed by South African judge Richard Goldstone.
Goldstone initially claimed that Israel had deliberately targeted civilians in the 22-day campaign, but later retracted that statement.
The Spy Cables reveal that Dagan had contacted the South African spy chief directly on his mobile phone, to “emphasise a few points” which could influence the South African vote at the UN on Goldstone’s report.
The move triggered a frantic attempt in South Africa to verify the call, and a Mossad agent later had to cancel a flight home to Israel in order to meet with the South African spy chief and liaison officer and brief them.
‘A victory for terrorism’
In his briefing, the Israeli agent told the South Africans that “Mossad fears that by acknowledging the report, it could give the impression to other terror organisations that highly populated areas could be used as human shields, during terror operations,” the cable notes.
“By this a new form of terrorism and warfare could be implemented and could be seen as a victory for terrorism”.
The Israeli spy added that Dagan feared that acceptance of the report could be a blow to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which had been essentially moribund for more than a decade at that point: “Israel will feel that it will not be able to defend itself and will have much more reservations in a peace process”.
The Mossad briefing maintained that President Mahmoud Abbas shared the Israelis opposition to the UN accepting the report. According to the Israelis, the Palestinian leader felt that acceptance of the report would “play in the hands of Hamas and weaken his position.”
But, the Israeli explained, Abbas could not openly take this stance, and had to be seen to “agree with the report in public”.
The Mossad briefer also gave strong backing to Abbas, saying that the Israelis see him as “key to stabilising the situation in order for the peace process to continue”.
The South African spy chief agreed to convey the message, but warned that he would not be able to influence decisions on a political level.