Israel’s War Against Palestine: Documenting the Military Occupation of Palestinian and Arab Lands

Israel could have made peace with Hamas under Yassin

17 April 2009

By Kobi Ben-Simhon, Haaretz – 17 Apr 2009

[Zvika Sela’s] last position with the police (1995-1998) was as chief intelligence officer of the Israel Prisons Service, in which capacity Sela was in charge of collecting criminal and security information. He held two-hour weekly meetings over a three-year period with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin when the Hamas founder was incarcerated in Israel.

“It was riveting,” he says, adding, “There was no terrorist attack or abduction in those years that was not planned, managed and commanded from within the prisons. That is where the senior figures were, including Sheikh Yassin. He was paralyzed in the legs and arms, and was capable only of moving his head, but he was a very powerful figure. He exercised tremendous control over what went on in the prison and outside, too.”

Adding that this was a turbulent period of terror attacks, Sela explains that his goal in the encounters was “to collect information about the Palestinian cells and organizations, to thwart the attacks outside. In that capacity I met with Yassin. We held him in Hadarim Prison [near Netanya] on the third floor in harsh conditions. We gave him a very hard time. He was not allowed visits and we kept him tightly locked up for almost five years. He was held in a narrow room where the temperature was 45 degrees [Celsius] in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. His blankets were dirty and smelled. That’s how he lived. I found him to be a very smart man, and also very decent. We engaged in a war of minds. We knew that after every battle between us someone would die, either on my side or on his side.”

What did you talk about?

Sela: “Business – intelligence. When the biggest adversaries sit down to talk face to face, it’s a different ball game. I always told him, ‘Stop blowing up buses, stop murdering women and children.’ He replied: ‘Tzvika, listen, we had good teachers: You established a state thanks to your military power. The dead I take from you are for the sake of establishing a state, but you are killing women and children for the sake of the occupation. You already have a state. You are dirty and hypocritical. I have no interest in destroying you – all I want is a state.”

So the father of the Hamas movement told you he recognized the State of Israel?

“Yes. He was smart and brave. Cruel, but credible. He gave his life in the war for the freedom of his people. I tend to think that if we had tried for an agreement with him, we would have succeeded. He thought the reason the Israelis were dealing with [then PLO leader] Yasser Arafat is that they were very smart, because we knew we would get nowhere with him. In his opinion, Arafat was thoroughly corrupt.”

Did your conversations produce anything concrete? Did he ever provide you with vital intelligence?

“After I held conversations with him for two years, the powers-that-be told me: ‘Go to Yassin and ask for the body of the missing Israeli soldier Ilan Sa’adon. In return Israel is ready to release him.’ Yassin knew where the body was. He told me, ‘There is no Jew in the world who knows about my grandchildren, my children, my yearning for freedom. You, Zvika, are the only one who knows the truth about how I live and how much I want freedom. But to offer me freedom in exchange for a body is humiliating. I will give you the body because you are asking, I understand the family’s pain, but promise me you will not release me in return for it. Promise me that if I die in prison, you will be sure to tell my family how much I loved them, how much I dreamed of being able to smell their scent.'”

Until now it was thought that the information about the location of Sa’adon’s body came from Arafat.

“That is not true.”

You also met with Samir Kuntar of the Palestine Liberation Front, who murdered members of the Haran family in Nahariya and was released as part of the deal with Hezbollah that brought back the bodies of the two abducted soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.

“We turned Kuntar into God-knows-what – the murderer of Danny Haran and his daughter, Einat. The man who smashed in the girl’s head. That’s nonsense. A story. A fairy tale. He told me he didn’t do it and I believe him. I investigated the event within the framework of the next book I am writing, about hostage-taking incidents. As far as I am concerned, it was no more than a newspaper report. I sat with him; he was very intelligent. He was a squad commander at 17. He told me that his motive for infiltrating Nahariya was to take hostages. He said [his organization] knew that would both humiliate Israel and get them media publicity.

“He told me: ‘If I had wanted to kill Danny and his daughter, I would have shot them in the house. I took them to the boat because I wanted hostages. I had no interest in hurting them. After I got them into the boat, wild gunfire started and I went back to help my squad on the shore. Danny, the father, kept shouting, “Stop firing, you crazy people.” He and his daughter were found shot in the boat. I was on a small rise, shooting at your forces, and the boat was 20 meters away in the water, with Danny and the girl.'”

So you say that Kuntar did not murder Haran and his daughter?

“That is what he says, and in my opinion there is support for the fact that they were killed by fire from the Israeli rescue forces. You can accuse him all you like, but it was obviously the rescue forces that opened fire. There were all kinds of legends about Kuntar. People also said that he would return to being a terrorist [after his release]. Nonsense. He told me then explicitly that he would not go back to terrorism, that he was too old to execute operations – and that’s also clear. For the same reason, I see no problem in releasing terrorists with blood on their hands in return for [kidnapped soldier] Gilad Shalit. I get the feeling the country is waiting for his body.

“It is clear to me,” Sela continues, “that there are some battles you have to back away from. There is no reason to kill that kid, to wait for his body. One way or the other, we will not come out the victors in the Shalit story. From my experience, most of the terrorists that we release do not return to terrorist activity. And the prisoners we are quarreling over in connection with Shalit’s release do not constitute a strategic threat to Israel – only a blow to the ego of our leaders.”

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