The CIA tried to gain access to Hamas through back channels despite a U.S. government ban on contact with the Palestinian Islamist movement, the spy cables show.
They suggest U.S. intelligence has been anxious to make inroads with Hamas, or recruit agents, inside the Gaza Strip. The U.S. designated Hamas, which won the last Palestinian election in 2006 and now runs Gaza, as a terrorist group in 1997. When Barack Obama became president in 2008, there was speculation that he might seek to establish contact, but this proved short-lived.
Despite an official ban on contact, a CIA officer discussed with a South African intelligence agent the possibility of gaining access to Hamas in 2012, the leaked documents disclose. (Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has had strong relations with both Fatah and Hamas, though the Palestinian Authority has voiced its disapproval at the Hamas links.)
The US and South African agents met in East Jerusalem amid violent clashes between Hamas and Israeli forces. According to a cable sent to Pretoria on 29 June 2012, the CIA agent “seems to be desperate to make inroads into Hamas in Gaza and possibly would like SSA [the South African State Security Agency] to assist them in gaining access”.
In a classic example of intelligence trading, the South African spy suggested that agreeing to the CIA’s request would allow the SSA to understand U.S. intelligence priorities. “If SSA was to link [the CIA officer] with Hamas, SSA stand the chance of benefitting from that interaction in that we would establish the collection priorities and requirements of LS829 [the South African codename for the CIA].”
US law governing what the CIA can and cannot do is complex, but the agency would claim in this case no law had been broken. The agency is forbidden from providing material support to a terrorist entity, but it would be part of its job to try to recruit someone inside such an organization as an informer or source.
A CIA spokesperson said: “[The] CIA supports the overall US government effort to combat international terrorism by collecting, analysing and disseminating intelligence on foreign terrorist groups and individuals. [The] CIA conducts those intelligence activities in compliance with the United States constitution, federal statutes and presidential directives.”
The leaked documents also include intelligence reports that Obama “threatened” the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, in 2012 over Palestinian plans to seek “non-member observer status” at the UN.
A South African state security agency report from November 2012 records a Palestinian intelligence officer handing over a memo detailing a phone call made by the US president to the Palestinian leader “where President Obama threatened President Abbas if he goes ahead with the UN bid”.
Abbas pressed ahead with the application to the UN, and a fortnight later the general assembly backed the bid, which smoothed the way for the Palestinians to attempt to bring cases against Israel at the international criminal court.
The cables also reveal that the former Mossad chief Meir Dagan personally lobbied senior South African intelligence officials in October 2009 against the country endorsing the findings of a UN inquiry, led by South African judge Richard Goldstone, into alleged war crimes carried out during Israel’s three-week bombardment and invasion of Gaza in 2008/09.
Dagan warned the South Africans that accepting the Goldstone report, which accused Israel (and Hamas) of war crimes, would be a “blow to the peace process”. Dagan said that Abbas also had reservations about the report’s acceptance by the international community, which would “play into the hands of Hamas and weaken his position”.
Abbas could “however not take this stance in public”, Dagan said according to the cables. Israeli pressure on Abbas to agree to the deferral of the report subsequently backfired and Goldstone’s document was endorsed by the UN general assembly the following month.