JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel conferred with the Western-backed Palestinian leadership and with Egypt ahead of its 2008-2009 attack on the Gaza Strip, leaked U.S. diplomatic cables quote a senior Israeli official as saying.
The disclosures, made by the WikiLeaks site, presented a possible embarrassment for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the face of his Islamist Hamas rivals, who rule Gaza. The three-week Israeli offensive killed some 1,400 Palestinians.
The Palestinians denied Israel had contacted them.
A June 2, 2009 letter from the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv describes Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak briefing visiting U.S. members of Congress on efforts to secure the Palestinian territories and revive Middle East peacemaking.
“He explained that the GOI (government of Israel) had consulted with Egypt and Fatah prior to Operation Cast Lead, asking if they were willing to assume control of Gaza once Israel defeated Hamas,” the cable says, referring to Abbas’s faction and using Israel’s term for the Gaza war.
“Not surprisingly, Barak said, the GOI received negative answers from both.”
A senior Palestinian official denied Israel had notified the Palestinians prior to the Gaza offensive.
“Nobody consulted with us, and that is the truth,” chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said. “Israel doesn’t consult before going to war,” he said.
There was no immediate response from officials in Egypt.
The idea of Palestinian and Egyptian cooperation with Israel against Hamas is not new. Witnesses in southern Gaza described Egyptian border forces retreating before the first Israeli bombs dropped, and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has alleged that Abbas urged Israel to crush Hamas during the war.
But for Abbas to be portrayed as having known in advance about the opening aerial assault, timed for a mid-morning on a Saturday in order to hit the maximum number of Palestinians and Hamas arsenals in Israel’s target book, was unprecedented.
Earlier that week, Barak had made a surprise live appearance on a top-rated Israeli television comedy, in what appeared to have been part of a disinformation drive to drop Hamas’s guard.
Responding to the WikiLeaks disclosure, Hamas spokesman Salah Al-Bardaweel said: “We have not ruled out that Fatah and the Palestinian Authority could have contributed in one way or another in the war against Gaza for political reasons such as bringing down the Hamas movement and regaining control.”
He added: “The Zionist enemy does not take a permission from Fatah or anybody else when they want to launch a war on Gaza but they may seek the opinion of others regarding such a war.”
Israel went to war to counter Hamas rocket salvoes on its southern communities, but withdrew without fully occupying Gaza. The strip, under Israeli and Egyptian border clampdowns since, has suffered privation but relatively little violence since.
Addressing reporters on Tuesday, Barak played down the impact of the WikiLeaks revelations on Israeli policymaking.
“People, diplomats in every corner of the world will be much more cautious when they speak, and not just with the Americans, I reckon,” Barak said.
“Regarding Israel, I don’t think damage has been done. There is no great difference, I believe, between what you are reading in WikiLeaks and what you heard from all of us in background briefings, albeit strictly off the record.”
Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Ramallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Ralph Boulton