John Kerry's trip to Gaza last week was intended to give him a close-up look at life in the Hamas-run territory after Israel's three-week incursion in response to incessant Hamas rocket fire. And it was intended to show that American foreign policy has taken a new direction. Kerry (D-MA) is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His visit was the first by an American government official since Hamas seized power in 2007 and he became the first U.S. Senator to visit Gaza in at least eight years.
Kerry met with local Palestinian business leaders, telling one that Hamas bears the blame for Israel's military incursion into Gaza: "Your political leadership needs to understand that any nation that has rockets hitting it for many years threatening its residents is going to respond."
The trip included no contact with Hamas officials since Hamas is a terrorist group. However, it appears Hamas officials took advantage of the visit to create a faux goodwill gesture for global consumption.
Details about the gesture, in the form of a letter to President Obama, remain unclear days later. What is clear is that the letter was conveyed to Kerry by United Nations workers and that, somehow, Hamas was able to learn of Kerry's visit in advance despite the fact it was not a part of the itinerary.
The affair remains difficult to assess, especially since the story about the letter seemed to change on all sides throughout the weekend.
According to a UPI report last Thursday afternoon, Karen Abu Zayd, who runs the Gaza office of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), told the BBC she relayed the letter to Kerry and that it came from Hamas. Kerry claims he didn't know the Hamas letter was among the materials he was given until hearing about it later in media reports.
Kerry left the letter with the consul general's office in Jerusalem "to handle through appropriate channels," said Frederick Jones, spokesman for the Foreign Relations Committee.
But during the Friday morning State Department briefing, spokesman Gordon Duguid said he didn't know details about the letter. He said he could not even confirm there was one and referred questions to Sen. Kerry's office. Duguid did make a clear statement that the visit of Kerry and other members of Congress to Gaza should not be seen as a potential shift in U.S. policy:
"The position on Hamas for the State Department, for the United States, is very clear. Should they accept the existence of the state of Israel, should they stop trying to violently overthrow the state of Israel, should they wish to reengage in the peace process and stop trying to rearm by smuggling rockets and other arms into Gaza, then there could be a place for them in future discussions. But until that happens, I don't see our position changing."
At about the same time, Hamas distanced itself from the letter, denying it was sent on its behalf. "Hamas denies any such thing had happened. No letter was given to John Kerry," spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said.
Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, then said the letter was a personal one from him to the President, advising him that "There can be no peace without Hamas."
He also urged Obama to "be open with Hamas."
A message left at the UNRWA office in New York Monday was not returned. Andrew Whitley, director of the UNRWA office in New York, told the Washington Times the letter's contents and origins were a mystery to them. Someone left it with a security guard, he said. "It wasn't treated as a serious issue."
But according to U.S. officials, it was Abu Zayd who told the BBC that she forwarded the Hamas letter to Kerry. In a recorded BBC interview last week, Abu Zayd acknowledged Hamas was the source: "They did manage to send a letter over that they were asking the Senator to deliver to the President."
And Saturday, FOX News reported:
"U.S. officials in Jerusalem are outraged at the United Nations Relief and Works agency for apparently handing the letter off to Kerry.
The official source who spoke to FOX News argued that if the U.N. had a letter from Hamas, it should have given U.S. officials a heads-up before the news was leaked to media organizations."
Jones declined to describe Kerry's reaction to the ploy or how future visits might be affected. The issue was not discussed during Monday's State Department press briefing.
Hamas gained international attention through a letter presenting itself as open to peace and dialogue without moving any closer to renouncing terror or recognizing Israel's right to exist. U.S. officials need to figure out what happened before pursuing future visits to Gaza. Can they trust UN officials who serve as Hamas conduits and then announce their actions to the media? Somehow, Hamas was able to learn about Sen. Kerry's visit in advance, despite his refusal to meet with their representatives. What security risks did this create for the U.S. delegation?
Now comes word that the U.S. intends to donate up to $900 million in aid to help rebuild Gaza. None of it will go to Hamas, an administration official told the New York Times. Instead, "it will be funneled through NGOs and U.N. groups."
There's a history of Hamas supporters taking advantage of American good intentions to provide back-door support to Hamas. The administration needs to be sure those organizations, like UNRWA, can be trusted with American millions before a dime is disbursed.