“On the Record with Hamas”: Jeremy Scahill Speaks with Hamas About Oct. 7, Ceasefire Talks & Israel

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

As we continue to look at Israel’s war on Gaza, we turn now to look at the state of negotiations for a possible ceasefire and hostage deal. On Monday, CIA Director William Burns and President Biden’s top Middle East adviser, Brett McGurk, met with Israeli and Egyptian officials in Cairo. Burns is headed next to Qatar.

This comes as Hamas’s political leadership has accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of jeopardizing talks by intensifying its war on Gaza. In a statement released Monday, Hamas said, quote, “Netanyahu is placing more obstacles to the negotiations, escalating his aggression and crimes against our people, and increasing his attempts to forcibly displace them to hinder all efforts to reach an agreement,” unquote. Hamas’s comment comes as multiple news outlets report Hamas has dropped its demand that Israel first agree to a permanent ceasefire before any agreement is signed.

We’re joined now by the prize-winning investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill. He has a new article today headlined “On the Record with Hamas.” It examines Hamas’s motivations to launch the October 7th attacks in Israel, as well as Hamas’s stance on the negotiations. The article is based on interviews with a number of senior Hamas officials and other sources, as well as an Israeli negotiator. Jeremy’s article appears on Drop Site News. That’s a investigative news site that has just been launched with Ryan Grim. On Monday, Jeremy and Ryan announced they were leaving The Intercept, which Jeremy co-founded 11 years ago. Jeremy Scahill joins us now from Germany.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Jeremy. Why don’t we start off with your article? And talk about what’s happening now with these — what looks like a new intensity with the negotiations that are taking place, from Egypt to Qatar.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah. Well, Amy, you know, I’ve spent the past couple of months talking with officials from Hamas, some of them on background, some of them on the record. I also just returned from a reporting trip to the region, and I’m going to be doing more reporting in the coming days on this.

But I think it’s important to emphasize that October 7th didn’t happen in a vacuum. You know, often when American officials talk about what Hamas refers to as Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, it’s characterized as Hamas shattered the peace. The reality is that for 76 years there has been no true peace for the Palestinian people in general, and certainly not for the people of Gaza. In the past 17 years, they have lived in an open-air prison, where they’ve been subjected to a calorie-restricted diet, to sanctions, a blockade, regular airstrikes by the Israeli military, in a tactic that Israel calls “mowing the lawn.” And prior to October 7th, you had a number of factors at play.

The primary motivation, Hamas members told me, was to try to shatter the status quo on Gaza. They felt that the situation was becoming untenable. Israel’s strategy of collective punishment was aimed at trying to force local people in Gaza to rise up against Hamas. And indeed, there were indications in public opinion polling that people were growing increasingly frustrated with Hamas, which is not just an armed insurgency movement or resistance movement, but also was a governing authority.

But it was beyond just the horrifying conditions in Gaza and the sort of sense of hopelessness. Under President Trump, the United States initiated a series of diplomatic agreements that they referred to as the Abraham Accords. And essentially, what that amounted to was the United States trying to broker bilateral agreements between Arab and Muslim nations and Israel. And, you know, for 20 years, the status quo on any agreements with Arab nations had to include a resolution of the Palestinian question and the question of a Palestinian state. And what Trump and company did was to embrace Netanyahu’s idea that the Palestinians should not be given a veto over a relationship with other Arab nations.

And so, you know, when you combine that with the expansion of the annexations, with the ongoing tensions at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the holiest site in Islam that exists in Palestine, and you look at the horrifying conditions in Gaza, Hamas’s perspective was: “We need to shatter all of this. And we don’t believe that negotiation with Israel is going to be effective.” They invoke other revolutionary and resistance movements throughout history and gave a full-throated defense, even with the consequences that we’ve seen in a minimum of 40,000 Palestinians killed, but likely much, much higher than that.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, I wanted to turn to a clip. I think it was like eight days before the October 7th attacks last year. This is a clip of national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaking.

JAKE SULLIVAN: When we came into office, you had the war in Yemen raging as the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe. You had, a few months before we came in, our embassy in Baghdad stormed, and Secretary of State Pompeo going out and talking about pulling the entire American mission out of Iraq. You had Iranian groups in both Syria and Iraq firing missiles at U.S. forces. All of that’s what we walked into.

And what we said is we want to depressurize, deescalate and, ultimately, integrate the Middle East region. The war in Yemen is in its 19 month of truce. For now, the Iranian attacks against U.S. forces have stopped. Our presence in Iraq is stable. I emphasize “for now” because all of that can change. And the Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaking at The Atlantic magazine festival at the end of September 2023. Jeremy Scahill, your response? And in speaking with Hamas officials, talk about their response.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, let’s remember that in May of 2021, Israel engaged in an 11-day heavy bombing campaign against Gaza. And at the heart of that was the attempt to evict people from the Jerusalem — occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, as well as clashes at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, where the Netanyahu government was effectively allowing Israeli settlers and others to come and, in the views of Palestinians, sort of defile this holy site. And so, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad launched a series of rockets into Israeli territory. About a dozen Israeli civilians were killed. Netanyahu responded with a heavy bombardment in which several hundred Palestinians were killed. And Joe Biden was very early in his presidency, fully endorsed that, but he did eventually say, “OK, the runway is up.” He calls Netanyahu. And two days later, Netanyahu engages in a brokered ceasefire with Egypt — you know, with Hamas, but via Egypt.

And in the two years between those airstrikes in 2021 and the launch of Al-Aqsa Flood on October 7th, Hamas was watching the Biden administration. And they watched how Biden picked up the mantle from Trump on the Abraham Accords and started moving forward, and also the fact that it really did seem — and I think this goes beyond the walls of Gaza and into broader Palestinian community in historic Palestine but also in the world — that the United States and others were presiding over a definitive decay of the aspiration for a Palestinian state. And from their perspective, this was, in the epic history of Israel-Palestine, the opening salvo in what they hoped would be the definitive battle that would call the question on the existence of the state of Palestine.

If we can fast-forward, though, to what you were talking about earlier with the negotiations, you know, I spoke to members of Hamas’s delegation that are right at this moment engaged in these negotiations. And what they said is they’ve noticed over recent weeks that the U.S. negotiators appear to be growing increasingly frustrated with Israel. Now, of course, there’s this whole fiction about how Biden is so frustrated with his great, great friend Benjamin Netanyahu. That’s not what they’re referring to. They’re talking about on a tactical level, that the United States negotiators, William Burns and others, seem to really be fed up and wanting to make a deal. And that’s why I think it came as somewhat of a shock to people when over the weekend Netanyahu leaked to the media, according to Israeli news organizations, his four non-negotiables. And among them was he reserves the right to continue pummeling Gaza until he achieves total victory.

You know, from Hamas’s perspective, they also feel that they have their red lines. While the fact remains that an enormous number of Palestinians have been slaughtered with U.S. weapons in this genocidal war, the insurgency, the armed groups, Islamic Jihad and Hamas, have waged a war of attrition against Israeli occupation forces. They’ve killed a large number of Israeli troops. They’ve blown up tanks. Despite the fact that they’re characterized as rats hiding in tunnels, they’ve proven very effective at delivering serious blows to the Israeli occupation forces.

And Hamas is also keenly aware of the fact that Netanyahu is under immense pressure inside of Israel because of the issue of the hostages. And his insistence that they’re going to liberate Israelis that are being held in Gaza by military force has proven very deadly for the hostages themselves. And so, you know, what I think we’re seeing here is this utter hubris of Netanyahu, where he believes that it’s justifiable to link his personal political fate to the release of Israelis who are being held. I think that’s the perspective in Israel right now.

From Hamas’s perspective, I don’t think that they are willing to take the idea of a permanent ceasefire off the table. What I’ve been told by sources is that they are willing to engage in what they call an incremental series of agreements. And one of the prime demands, beyond an end to the genocidal war, that Hamas is putting forward is they want more prisoners released. You know, there are thousands of Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons and jails in administrative detention. Yes, they want the civilians, the women and children that Israel is holding, to be released, but they also want prisoners that Israel calls the impossibles, people who are armed resistance figures, some of whom have been convicted of murdering Israelis. Israel has said they will not release Palestinians with Jewish blood on their hands. Hamas is insisting that they also get to have their combatants returned if Israel wants its soldiers back. So, there are huge issues here.

And the final thing I’ll say is, remember, Yahya Sinwar, the Gaza-based head of Hamas, who is widely believed to be one of the three main organizers of Al-Aqsa Flood on October 7th, himself spent nearly 23 years in an Israeli prison. And he was released in 2011 in a massive prisoner exchange where more than 1,000 Palestinians were freed from Israeli jails in return for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. So, Hamas officials all emphasized to me one of the primary goals of their operations on October 7th was to take as many soldiers that they could back to Gaza, because they believed that that was the only way to free high-value prisoners, including Marwan Barghouti, who is not a member of Hamas, he’s Fatah, but he is widely viewed as the top Palestinian who could unify the Palestinian cause and move forward in the effort to achieve an independent, unified Palestinian state.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has revealed new details about how Israeli military officials ordered repeated attacks inside Israel on October 7th in an effort to prevent Hamas from taking hostages into Gaza. It remains unknown how many Israelis killed on that day were actually killed by Israeli forces implementing what is known as the Hannibal Directive. One military source told Haaretz, quote, “The instruction was to turn the area of ​​the fence into an extermination zone, to close the line of contact towards the west.” Can you elaborate on this?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah. I mean, one thing that Hamas officials that I’ve spoken with — and I’ve talked to others — have emphasized — and, you know, you can take this with a grain of salt, but this is their position. They’re saying that they did not go into Israel with the intent to engage in the mass killing of civilians. And they have their own definition of “civilian” that doesn’t include male settlers, and, you know, so you have to kind of go down a rabbit hole to fully understand what they’re saying.

But what I think is relevant is that Hamas is saying, “Look, a lot of people got killed in crossfire when we were battling against both armed settlers and Israeli military and police forces.” And this has been covered extensively in the Israeli media. There was a case in Kibbutz Be’eri where about a dozen Israeli civilians were killed in a shelling by Israeli tanks of a house that there were Palestinian gunmen in. And Yasmin Porat, one of the survivors of that, has been very outspoken.

Look, also independent news outlets that have covered this crisis for a long time, like Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss, Ali Abunimah, they said from the beginning that it appeared that at least some form of a Hannibal Doctrine-style operation was unleashed. And they were ridiculed for it, and people were dismissing it. And now it seems clear — we don’t know the extent to which this was implemented — that a fair number of Israelis were in fact killed by their own forces either in so-called friendly fire incidents or, as Haaretz is indicating, deliberately to prevent hostages from being taken back to Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what happened to the so-called spotters — these were women Israeli soldiers — and their warnings to their higher-ups and what happened before October 7th, a number of them killed, some taken hostage?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah. And, you know, your previous guest was alluding to some of this, as well. I mean, we’re learning, and I think we only understand a fraction of the intelligence warnings that were delivered to the highest echelons of power in Israel, but we’ve known for months that there were primarily female intelligence analysts that were basically sounding the alarms up their chain of command that it appeared as though Hamas and other organizations were engaged in a specific sort of training exercise that looked like it was mimicking the kind of assaults that we then ultimately saw unfold on October 7th. There’s some indication, as your guest was saying, that the U.S. may have also provided intelligence. And when you look at this crumb, this trail of crumbs, of clues, it’s very difficult to rule out that somewhere, at some point within the Israeli security apparatus, someone was aware of this and decided that they didn’t want to take it seriously. You know, I’m not engaged in conspiracy theorizing about any of this, but there is a huge scandal, I think, that is going to continue to unfold in Israel. And many Israelis are asking that question.

Look, Israel is a nuclear power, armed, funded, supported, bankrolled, backed by the United States of America. It has promoted an image of itself around the world that it can reach its enemies wherever they are and assassinate them and take them out. And that all crumbled on October 7th. When you had guys that are making sniper rifles and buying equipment that you can get on Amazon, and they’re taking out surveillance towers with their low-end quality drones and using paragliders to go in or doing amphibious assault landings, the idea that a modern military that is bankrolled, armed and funded by the United States was not able to repel that force raises a lot of questions that I think Israeli society is going to be grappling with for quite some time.

AMY GOODMAN: In your piece, you quote Rashid Khalidi, the renowned Columbia University professor, now retired, author of The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, widely viewed as the leading U.S. historian of Palestine. He talked about the massive civilian death toll in Gaza. He said to you, quote, “These deaths should be on the conscience of the Israeli leaders who decided to kill all these people. But they also to some extent should be on the consciences of the people who organized [the October 7] operation. They should have known, and had to have known that Israel would inflict devastating revenge not just on them but mainly on the civilian population. Do you credit them for this? The end result may be the permanent occupation, immiseration, and perhaps even expulsion of the population of Gaza, in which case I don’t think anybody would want to credit whoever organized this operation.” Your response, Jeremy?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah. I mean, one of the things I was trying to do in this reporting was to explore the breadth of perspectives on this question of — you know, on the one hand, I don’t think that anybody who has a reasonable grasp of the history would deny that the Palestinian people have a right to resist and that Israel and the international community have sent a message to Palestinians that even nonviolent resistance is going to be met with force, as happened in 2018 and 2019 in the nonviolent demonstrations at barriers of Gaza, where Israeli snipers had a competition to see how many unarmed protesters they could shoot in the knee. So, I don’t think that there can really be any reasonable debate about whether or not the Palestinians have a right to resist.

This is a tactical question. Should Hamas have been able to predict that the response from Israel was going to be far beyond any of the other recent bombing campaigns? And I heard different answers from people within Hamas. Some said, “Look, we thought — we knew that it was going to be a heavy response. We knew that a lot of people were going to die. This is the nature of how Israel responds to our legitimate resistance. But we did not imagine that it was going to be more than kind of what happened in 2014 or 2021, but maybe on some steroids.” But there were other officials that said no one within Hamas predicted that it was going to be this scale of a genocidal war. You know, so, there isn’t necessarily a party line on this. I got the sense that this is a question also that Hamas itself is debating, because there are going to be people that are going to confront them with these questions within Gaza itself.

There’s an interesting dynamic that has played out, though, where you see Hamas’s popularity, and also Islamic Jihad, the idea of armed resistance against Israel. In polls, it indicates that beyond Gaza, in other parts of Palestine and in the diaspora, that support for armed insurgency and attacks against Israel has gone up. Hamas’s political standing has certainly gone up in both the West Bank and in Gaza. But whether that’s going to translate into political power is a different issue. Susan Abulhawa, who is a famous Palestinian novelist and activist, who’s been twice to Gaza — she’s also been on Democracy Now! — you know, also was talking about this, and she said, “Yeah, when you talk to people on the ground in Gaza, certainly some of them are saying very critical things about Hamas, but everyone knows who’s bombing them.”

And I think, in a way, this discussion becomes a trap of sorts, because the fact is that the United States has enthusiastically backed and armed and bankrolled a genocide for nine straight months. Joe Biden, his career has been marked by unapologetic defense of Israel at its most extreme.

I think that what is clear right now is that this is the moment when the world needs to address in a definitive way the demands by Palestinians for decades to have an independent, unified Palestinian state, because, you know, the Israeli negotiator Gershon Baskin told me also, this has to be the last war. Israel is not going to survive if this goes on. So, even from his perspective, he wants this to be the end of it.

You know, there’s big questions about Biden pushing this notion of a two-state solution. I’ve heard different things from Hamas individuals. Hamas does not want a two-state solution. They want a one-state solution, a unified Palestine. But their official position is that if it’s the democratic will of the Palestinian people, they will accept a two-state arrangement along the 1967 borderlines. But they also point out, “Tell me where the borders of the current state of Israel even are,” because of all of the illegal annexations, the expansion, the land grabs, the expulsion of Palestinians from land that the whole world recognizes as Palestinian territory. This is not just rhetoric from Hamas. This is basic facts that they’re relaying.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned Gershon Baskin, one of the Israeli negotiators who helped to negotiate the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier, for 1,000 Palestinians who were imprisoned. If you can talk about his perspective on this? He’s been behind the scenes, since October 7th, negotiating around hostage issues. And then I’d like you to talk about who exactly Yahya Sinwar is.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah. I mean, Gershon Baskin is a well-known Israeli peace activist who has — Hamas has been willing to deal with him. And he did play a central role in this massive exchange of Palestinians who were in prison for Gilad Shalit in 2011. And as I mentioned earlier, this is how Yahya Sinwar won his freedom.

Gershon Baskin also said, you know, look, on day four, after October 7th, that he was in touch with Hamas negotiators. And what he said, which Hamas had been telling me, but Gershon Baskin confirmed it, that many civilians who were taken inside of Israel were not in fact taken by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, but by other people who came in, in second and third waves, from Gaza. You know, these are people that have been imprisoned in what they view as concentration camp for their entire lives, for — multigenerational reality has been living in this prison. And so, people pour in, and they’re taking hostages back to Gaza, including children and the elderly and sick people. And my understanding is that Hamas was not prepared for this, and they didn’t imagine that so many people were going to be taken back.

And so, on day four, October 11th, Gershon Baskin and others were talking to Hamas, and Hamas was saying, “We want to hand these people back to you immediately,” and they were asking for very little in return for it. They wanted them off their hands. Also, they were having to run around and track down all of these people. And, you know, Baskin tried to negotiate that. The Israelis said no. Yahya Sinwar, the head of Gaza, then, some weeks later, said he wanted to end the war by making a comprehensive deal for the release of every single person that had been taken back to Gaza as a prisoner or a captive or a hostage in return for emptying the prisons of Palestinians. And the Israeli government rejected it. Now, Israel will have its own perspective on that and say, “Oh, this isn’t what Hamas would really mean, or they’re not sincere.” But this is just the factual timeline based on Hamas’s perspective that’s been confirmed by Gershon Baskin.

On the issue of Yahya Sinwar, this was a guy who, soon after Hamas was formed in 1987 — and he was an original member of Hamas, which was, in effect, an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood movement — Sinwar was arrested on allegations that he was essentially an internal hitman for Hamas, murdering collaborators with the Israelis. And Israel also was accusing him of plotting to murder Israeli soldiers. But they snatched him. They put him on trial, and he was sentenced to multiple life sentences in prison for — on allegations that he had murdered four Palestinians that had collaborated with Israel. And he spent nearly 23 years in prison.

And while in prison, he became fluent in Hebrew, and actually he wrote a number of books inside of prison himself, including a novel that was semiautobiographical. But also, he translated by hand the memoirs of some heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence agency, from Hebrew into Arabic. He spent two decades studying Israeli society, Israeli culture, the history of the Mossad, the history of Shin Bet.

And then he’s released back into Gaza in 2011 and then eventually consolidates his authority. And he has militantly insisted for years, since he won his freedom, that he views it as a moral issue to release the rest of the Palestinian prisoners. And that is something that he has really emphasized as a central goal of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood. And, you know, he himself was one of those prisoners and was in the negotiating committees in multiple rounds of negotiation from prison with the Israelis. So he understands very, very well the mentality of his adversaries in this war. And I would say that they also understand him very well also, because intelligence operatives spent a lot of time debriefing Yahya Sinwar or trying to play mental chess with him over those 22, 23 years in prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, this is Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar back in 2021 speaking to Vice News, comparing the Palestinian struggle to the police murder of George Floyd. But this was 2021. This is before October 7th.

YAHYA SINWAR: [translated] And I want to take this opportunity to remember the racist murder of George Floyd. George Floyd was killed as a result of a racist ideology held by some people. The same type of racism that killed George Floyd is being used by Israel against the Palestinians in Jerusalem, the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, and in the West Bank, and by the burning of our children, and against the Gaza Strip, through siege, murder and starvation.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Yahya Sinwar speaking back in 2021 to Vice News. Your final comment on this, Jeremy? And then we want to talk about, as we talk about news organizations, your new news organization, Drop Site, Drop Site News. You’ve just left The Intercept, after co-founding it 11 years ago.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I think what’s important to emphasize here is that Sinwar and other Hamas officials are very sophisticated thinkers. This is not ISIS or al-Qaeda. These are people that are very fluent in U.N. resolutions and international law. They know how to make an argument in defense of what they say is revolutionary violence. You know, many of the Hamas officials I talked to are veterinarians or doctors, deeply educated people. So, you know, Sinwar is clever, and he is trying to appeal to an American population, in the same sense that some of the announced objectives of the October 7th attacks were probably not the most important or central objectives to Hamas, but they want to emphasize those as a message to the broader Palestinian population in the world or to Arab populations to hold their own governments accountable for doing, in the eyes of Hamas, nothing to defend the Palestinian people.

Regarding Drop Site News, you know, it’s not any secret that the world that we live in right now has a lot of dark things going on. We urgently need shows like Democracy Now!, institutions of investigative journalism. And what Ryan and I are trying to do is build a lean, sustainable, reader-supported news organization that’s going to take big swings at powerful people, that’s going to work with networks of independent journalists on the ground in countries around the world and inside of the United States, and to operate with no fear or favor of those in power, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans. Our pledge is to — as I know yours is, Amy, and has been for a long time as a journalist — is to be accountable to the readers, the viewers and the listeners.

And I just want to say on a personal level — I said this in my introductory essay for Drop Site News — I’m looking forward to returning to why I got into journalism. And Democracy Now! gave me that opportunity. I’ll never forget when you let me beg my way into cutting reel-to-reel tape on the old-fashioned analog reels. And you taught me about the temerity to ask tough questions and to never back down.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Jeremy, why the name Drop Site?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, a “drop site” is a term of espionage, where it’s a place where spies can leave a secret for one another. It’s an agreed-upon location. It also is a place where you can drop supplies behind enemy lines, you know, to resupply your forces.

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

JEREMY SCAHILL: It’s also a place where you can drop documents. So, we’re looking forward to working also with whistleblowers.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of the new investigative journalism organization Drop Site News. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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