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EXCLUSIVE: Blair met Khaled Meshaal to negotiate end of Gaza siege

The talks are seen as proof that the Quartet’s eight-year-old conditions that Hamas recognise Israel before negotiations start have failed
Former British Prime Minister and Middle East Peace Envoy Tony Blair (AFP)

Tony Blair met Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, twice in Doha to negotiate a plan to end the eight-year-long siege of Gaza, Middle East Eye has learned.

Blair met Meshaal before his resignation as Middle East envoy for the Quartet in May, but dialogue with him and his officials is still continuing, MEE understands.

Blair, accompanied by other former British officials, discussed how to end the siege of Gaza. The core issues are a ceasefire, which could be a rolling one, in exchange for Gaza securing a sea port and possibly an airport. The terms of the ceasefire, and its duration, as well as other details of the agreement are yet to be specified.

Blair is one of a number of UN and European envoys to visit Gaza in the last six months. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Mohammed al-Emadi, president of the Qatari National Committee for the Reconstruction of Gaza, Paul Garnier, the Swiss ambassador to the Palestinian Authority, and Frank-Walter Steinmeyer, the German foreign minister, have all recently made the same trip. Steinmeyer called Gaza a “powder keg” that is at risk of exploding. 

But the Doha dialogue between Blair and Meshaal is regarded as the most serious and sustained to take place with the Palestinian group so far. MEE understands that Blair is talking with the support of British Prime Minister David Cameron, Washington, the EU and with the knowledge of the Israelis, and two Arab states.

Both Blair’s office and Hamas refused to confirm or deny the meetings in reply to emailed questions from MEE.  However, European and independent Palestinian sources confirmed the meetings, and said the discussions are still far from reaching a conclusion.

The offer from Blair is shrewdly pitched, MEE sources said, and has produced conflicting reactions within Hamas.

On the one hand, the offer itself is regarded as proof that the Quartet’s eight-year-old conditions that Hamas recognise the state of Israel before it is allowed into the negotiating room have failed. Neither recognition of Israel nor the demand that Hamas decommission its arsenal - particularly its rockets - are on the table.

The talks for the first time give Hamas, not the Palestinian Authority, the primary role in negotiations about Gaza. They also make a nonsense of the EU’s continuing attempts to declare Hamas a terrorist organisation. The EU is currently appealing an EU courts ruling that Hamas should be removed from the bloc’s terrorist list.

Second, MEE's sources claim, the offer itself is a recognition of Hamas’s pivotal role in Gaza. Blair going to Meshaal means that Israel’s Western allies realise there is no-one else to deal with in Gaza. Three wars, the siege, Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas’s refusal to let funds through to Hamas workers in Gaza, were all predicated on pressurising Gazans to reject Hamas.

Third, the offer presents an opportunity for Hamas and Gaza to be released from Egypt’s sphere of influence. Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s decision to demolish one half of the border town of Rafah, closing 521 tunnels and the border crossing itself, have caused as much hardship in the strip as the closure of the Israeli border.

Recently, however, in what is seen as related moves to the talks, the Egyptian border crossing has been opened allowing cement for reconstruction through, and Hamas has been delisted as a terrorist organisation by an Egyptian court. A seaport would take the card of being able to close the border out of Egypt’s hands permanently. MEE sources said Sisi will not have the right of veto on this deal.

On the other hand, the offer, called “ too good to be true” by some, has induced wariness in others.

First, there is suspicion of Blair himself, based on the role he has played in the Middle East, both as the British prime minister who invaded Iraq in 2003 and as envoy who gave Israel international cover during every war.

Since the military coup toppled Hamas’ Muslim Brotherhood allies in Egypt in 2013, Blair has vociferously supported Sisi. Blair said on a visit to Egypt as envoy for the Quartet: "The fact is, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to take the country away from its basic values of hope and progress. The army have intervened, at the will of the people, but in order to take the country to the next stage of its development, which should be democratic. We should be supporting the new government in doing that."

In Britain, Blair has linked the Muslim Brotherhood to what he called “Islamist penetration” of Western society: "The Muslim population in Europe is now over 40 million and growing. The Muslim Brotherhood and other organisations are increasingly active and they operate without much investigation or constraint. Recent controversy over schools in Birmingham (and similar allegations in France) show heightened levels of concern about Islamist penetration of our own societies.”

Blair’s recognition that Hamas cannot be militarily toppled is also a two-edged sword, arguing as he does that a peace deal could be another way of achieving the same end. He said: “There won't be a destruction of Hamas ... you won't destroy Hamas as a political entity...what I do know is that will only happen if it happens within the context of a way forward, particularly for the people of Gaza, that gives them some hope for the future, because in the end a political movement like that has support on the ground, and you need to shift ... take away that support."

An offer from Blair, who retains close links to the Emirates and Sisi - both of whom are actively promoting the former Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan - could be regarded as a honey trap for Hamas.

While the offer only concerns Gaza, and Abbas has all but torn up the agreement he made with Hamas on a unity government, Hamas still holds out the prospect of a unity government working one day, the sources said. It is anxious about being seen to make a separate deal with Israel, that could split it off from the rest of Palestine. This is one reason why it will not regard this deal as an end of conflict, and will only state that the ceasefire is a temporary one to end a siege.

Regardless of the outcome of this latest initiative, the talks are regarded as a political breakthrough for Hamas, a recognition from a staunch opponent that negotiations with Hamas are inevitable. However, Hamas is wary of following the same path Fatah took in its failed negotiations with Israel.  

One MEE source said: "The big question is will Hamas be able to open a new chapter in political negotiation which is different from Fatah? For Palestinians, peace negotiations have only led to concessions and the surrendering of rights. The biggest issue being debated within Hamas is are they repeating what Fatah did, or will there be a different outcome for Palestinians this time?”

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