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MI6 negotiates Hamas restraint

British Intelligence officers have been sent to the Gaza Strip on the orders of Prime Minister Tony Blair on a secret mission to persuade Palestinian terrorists to call a halt to their suicide bomb attacks against Israel, The Sunday Telegraph said in an exclusive report.

MI6 is attempting to persuade Hamas to renounce violence and enter negotiations with Israel after the withdrawal of thousands of settlers from the Gaza Strip, the paper reported.

To counter the threat posed by Hamas militants, Mr. Blair has authorised a team of MI6 counter-terrorism experts to be deployed to Gaza on a secret mission to persuade Hamas to observe a ceasefire, The Sunday Telegraph reported on August 21.

A former MI6 officer received an MBE for his work negotiating a Hamas ceasefire during the early stages of the intifada

British intelligence officers believe that such a lull would allow Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate Palestinian leader, to resume discussions with Israel over the “road map”, the blueprint for a peace deal backed by President George W Bush and Mr Blair.

But the contacts between MI6 and Hamas have provoked fierce criticism from the Israeli government, which is opposed to British Intelligence dealing with an organisation that Israel has denounced as a terror group.

Israeli officials confirmed to the paper that a formal protest had been made to Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary, who has overall responsibility for MI6.

“We have made our feelings about this known to Mr Straw in the strongest possible terms,” a senior official at Israel’s foreign ministry told The Telegraph.

“But although he gave us an assurance that the operation would be scaled down, it is still going on.”

Mr Bush and Mr Blair have committed themselves to a two-state solution for the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict, but the Israelis are refusing to enter detailed discussions with the Palestinians until the latter unequivocally renounce terrorism.

Mr Blair, in particular, has invested much political capital in trying to negotiate a deal to create an independent Palestinian state, which he believes would eliminate one of the root causes of Islamic terrorism.

The secret Gaza mission is being led by Alistair Crooke, a former MI6 officer who received an MBE for his work negotiating a Hamas ceasefire during the early stages of the intifada, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Mr Crooke has been heavily criticised by the Israeli government for arguing that Hamas should be treated as a serious negotiating partner in the peace talks.

The Israeli foreign ministry formally asked Mr. Straw to withdraw the MI6 team during his visit to Jerusalem in June.

While Mr Straw told the Israelis that he would scale down the operation, security officials in Gaza confirmed last month that the MI6 operation is continuing.

MI6 has a long history of entering into negotiations with outlawed terror groups, notably with the IRA in the 1980s, The Sunday Telegraph said. That dialogue ultimately resulted in Sinn Fein’s leaders giving up the armed struggle for political negotiation.

Whether MI6 can replicate that success in Gaza is another matter entirely, The Sunday Telegraph said. The paper said virtually everyone it spoke to in Palestinian-controlled Gaza said that Israel’s indihar, or retreat, had been forced by the scores of young suicide bombers who have killed more than 1,000 Israeli civilians in the five-year-long intifada, or uprising.

Another team of MI6 officials is advising Palestinian security forces on setting up a command and control infrastructure

With many Palestinians genuinely believing that the intifada forced Israel’s withdrawal in Gaza, there is widespread support for using similar terror tactics to prompt the Israelis to withdraw from the West Bank, the paper said.

In Beirut, a Hamas spokesman, Khaled Mashaal, was defiant. “The resistance and the steadfastness of our people forced the Zionists to withdraw,” he declared last week. “The armed struggle is the only strategy that Hamas possesses. As long as Palestinian lands remain under occupation, Hamas won’t lay down its weapons.”

And as most world attention focused on the emotional scenes unfolding at the Jewish settlements, the security situation in Gaza took a serious turn for the worse. Security officials in Gaza believe that the abductions of a number of foreigners, including UN officials, are the work of rival factions of the Fatah movement, the dominant political force in the Palestinian Authority, aimed at undermining Mr Abbas.

Such is the overall chaos within the Palestinian Authority that another team of MI6 officials is advising its security forces on setting up a command and control infrastructure to instil a measure of discipline, the Sunday Telegraph reported. Unlike the Hamas operation, it has Israeli approval.

Ending violence means urging dialogue [August 27, 2005]

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