Since 2006, Gershon Baskin, an Israeli peace activist, and Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas official, maintained a secret back channel between Gaza and Israel. Then Oct. 7 happened.
For 17 years, on and off, two men maintained a secret line of communication between Israel and Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that opposes Israel’s existence.
Starting in 2006, Gershon Baskin, an Israeli peace activist based in Jerusalem, and Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official in Gaza, nurtured an informal back channel between officials in Jerusalem and in Gaza, even as each side refused to engage with the other directly.
The men’s relationship survived countless rounds of violence between Israel and Hamas, and helped end several of them.
Even after Oct. 7, when Hamas and its allies raided Israel, killed an estimated 1,200 people and kidnapped roughly 240 others, according to Israeli officials, Mr. Baskin and Mr. Hamad kept in contact, including discussing a deal to release some hostages. As Israeli warplanes pounded Hamas-controlled Gaza, killing more than 10,000 Gazans according to Gaza’s health authorities, their unlikely relationship endured.
Then, something snapped.
The impact of the Hamas-led attack has shattered the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be perpetually contained without being resolved. It has since displaced more than 1.5 million, mostly in Gaza, and brought the Middle East to the brink of a regional war.
And one of its more intimate consequences has been the falling out between Mr. Baskin and Mr. Hamad.
On Oct. 24, Mr. Hamad began publicly justifying Hamas’s assault and calling for additional attacks. “The existence of Israel is what causes all that pain, blood and tears. It is Israel, not us,” he said in a televised interview, adding, “Everything we do is justified.”
A week later, Mr. Baskin watched the interview, aghast.
“I think you have lost your mind and you have lost your moral code,” he wrote in a text message to Mr. Hamad that Mr. Baskin later showed to The New York Times.
“I never want to speak to you again,” Mr. Baskin added.
Throughout their relationship, a long-term truce, if not a lasting peace, between Israel and Hamas seemed plausible; it was an idea that the two had personally discussed.
On Oct. 24, Mr. Hamad, once considered a Hamas moderate, said he wanted to annihilate Israel. And Mr. Baskin, a leftist, has joined the Israeli mainstream in calling for the removal of Hamas.
“In my mind, they can no longer exist as a government next to Israel,” Mr. Baskin said in an interview.
“His stance has changed,” Mr. Hamad said in a separate interview. And, Mr. Hamad added, “He sensed how I changed.”
The two men first encountered each other in July 2006, during one of the first full-scale conflicts between Hamas and Israel. Hamas had captured an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, prompting Israel to invade the territory.
Seeking to negotiate a cease-fire but unable to call Israeli leaders directly, a Hamas spokesman instead phoned a well-known Israeli peace activist.
The spokesman was Mr. Hamad. The activist was Mr. Baskin. And Mr. Hamad immediately charmed Mr. Baskin by declining to speak in Arabic or English.
“I like to speak Hebrew,” Mr. Hamad said, by Mr. Baskin’s recollection.
It was an early flash of common ground between two men from markedly different backgrounds.
Mr. Baskin was born in 1956 to a Jewish family in New York. He studied Middle Eastern politics and history at New York University before emigrating to Israel in 1978.
Mr. Hamad was born in 1964 in southern Gaza and had no meaningful contact with Israelis as a child, even after Israel captured Gaza during the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.
Mr. Hamad trained as a vet in Sudan before joining Hamas in 1987, the year the group was founded, according to an interview with Mr. Hamad that Mr. Baskin published in his book, “The Negotiator.” In 1989, Mr. Hamad was arrested for his Hamas activism and spent five years in an Israeli prison.
As both men matured, they each developed an aptitude for mediation.
After arriving in Israel, Mr. Baskin worked as a community organizer in an Arab village. Then he began a career fostering relations between Arabs and Jews, running a research group that promoted solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and sometimes acting as a formal mediator.
While in prison, Mr. Hamad got to know Israelis for the first time. He learned Hebrew and English, and became a spokesman for inmates in their dealings with the prison authorities.
After his release, Mr. Hamad wrote for and edited several Hamas-run newspapers, earning a reputation as a moderate who encouraged Palestinian introspection and occasionally criticized Palestinian violence.
“I’m not interested in discussing the ugliness and brutality of the occupation, because it is not a secret,” Mr. Hamad wrote in an opinion article in 2006. “Instead, I prefer self-criticism and self-evaluation. We’re used to blaming our mistakes on others.”
The lives of Mr. Hamad and Mr. Baskin became entwined with the fate of Mr. Shalit, the captured Israeli soldier.
After their first phone call in July 2006, Mr. Hamad and Mr. Baskin began to phone and text each other regularly, sometimes several times a day.
Mr. Baskin wanted to save Mr. Shalit’s life. As a Hamas loyalist, Mr. Hamad wanted to exchange Mr. Shalit for hundreds of Palestinians jailed by Israel.
Though Mr. Hamad never said so publicly, Mr. Baskin also believed that Mr. Hamad privately hoped to help Mr. Shalit, a 19-year-old conscript. More generally, Mr. Baskin believed that Mr. Hamad secretly sought a peace deal with Israel.
“I am quite sure that if Ghazi were a much more senior leader in Hamas, he would move toward eventually recognizing Israel and peace,” Mr. Baskin wrote in his book in 2013.
Whether or not Mr. Baskin correctly understood Mr. Hamad’s motivations, the two men quickly established an unlikely rapport, one that was strengthened through years of intense contact but tested by the frequent violence between their two peoples.
“Gershon, u r good friend,” Mr. Hamad said during another round of violence, in a text that Mr. Baskin printed in his book. “But I’m very sad and upset & sometimes feeling have no words to say.”
Years passed. Hamas took full control of Gaza in 2007, ousting another Palestinian faction. Israel and Egypt placed the enclave under a blockade.
Finally, five years and four months after Mr. Shalit was captured, their back channel bore fruit.
Mr. Shalit was released in October 2011, in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
The final deal was overseen by David Meidan, a senior Israeli intelligence officer. But according to Mr. Meidan, it would not have been possible without the years of conversations between Mr. Baskin and Mr. Hamad.
“The key word is trust,” Mr. Meidan said in an interview. “They had trust between them. Ghazi Hamad trusted Gershon.”
In the years since, the two men remained in touch, trying unsuccessfully to negotiate subsequent hostage swaps and attempting to forge a long-term truce. When a journalist for The New York Times sought to meet Mr. Hamad during a relatively calm period in early 2021, it was Mr. Baskin who secured the interview.
Even after Oct. 7, the two men talked, discussing the fate of the hostages Hamas had abducted that day.
But something had changed, Mr. Baskin said.
Once capable of criticizing Hamas, Mr. Hamad now seemed in denial about the extent of the group’s atrocities, Mr. Baskin said.
By Oct. 22, Mr. Hamad had begun to publicly describe the attacks as a natural response to Israeli aggression.
“What do you expect the Palestinians to do?” Mr. Hamad asked in an interview with The Times that day, reeling off a list of actions taken by Israel — including its continued occupation of the West Bank — that he said justified Hamas’s violence.
Asked whether he feared that his attitude might cost him his relationship with Mr. Baskin, Mr. Hamad appeared to stumble momentarily.
“Say again?” he said at the mention of Mr. Baskin. “What?”
Then he regained his composure — and doubled down.
Within a week, Mr. Hamad had called for Israel’s annihilation and Mr. Baskin had ended their relationship.
Contacted again by The Times, Mr. Hamad declined to comment in detail on their falling out or why he had hardened his position.
Azzam Tamimi, a historian of Hamas who knows Mr. Hamad well, said that Mr. Hamad might have been shocked by the destruction caused by Israel’s counterattack. Although Mr. Hamad had left Gaza for Lebanon weeks before the war, many of his relatives and colleagues are still inside the enclave.
“Suddenly, he lost family members, he lost many of his friends,” Mr. Tamimi said. “Probably that’s the issue.”
Then again, Mr. Hamad was never as moderate as his interlocutors wanted to believe, Mr. Tamimi said. By calling for Israel’s destruction, “He was really expressing sincere feelings,” Mr. Tamimi said.
“Nobody should be under the illusion that someone that senior in Hamas is willing to recognize Israel’s right to exist,” Mr. Tamimi added.
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.