Hamas leader hints at Israeli negotiation

Hamas would consider holding negotiations with Israel, a top leader of the Islamic militant group said in an interview broadcast today, indicating that the hardline group was moderating its tone ahead of Palestinian parliamentary elections.

Hamas is committed to the destruction of Israel and has carried out dozens of attacks that have killed hundreds of Israelis in recent years, but the group is also pragmatic and has proven itself willing to make ideological compromises when it suits its political interests.

Although Hamas’ more moderate West Bank leadership had indicated the possibility of talks with Israel, the more hardline Gaza branch has ruled out negotiations.

But the comments by Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader in Gaza, indicated the policy could be changing, though he said any talks with Israel would only be a means to achieving its goals.

“Negotiations is not our intention, negotiation is a method. If the method is noble – to liberate our land, to liberate our people from the Israeli deals, to reconstruct what is destroyed by the Israeli long-standing occupaton – at that time we can discuss,” Zahar said in an interview broadcast on Israel Radio today.

Negotiations will ultimately depend on Israel, but “after the (parliamentary) election, everything will be clear,” he added when asked about a timetable for such talks.

Israeli officials rejected Zahar’s comment as a ploy to win support in the January 25 election and noted that the militant group still refuses to disarm.

Hamas – which has strong grass-roots support partly because of its charity and welfare activities – has become more politically active, especially after Israel’s September withdrawal from Gaza.

Zahar’s statement also came in the wake of strong pressure on Hamas from Israel.

Israel is opposed to Hamas’ participation in the election, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has vowed to make it difficult for Hamas candidates to campaign.

Israeli troops have arrested many of Hamas’ candidates and Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said he would raise the issue of Hamas’ electoral participation during talks next week with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

During a meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas last month, US President George Bush demanded that militants be disarmed but did not publicly insist that Hamas candidates be barred from running.

Abbas hopes that Hamas’ participation in the election will moderate the group and bring it into the political mainstream.

Zahar told Israel Radio that Hamas would not disarm. Israeli officials said today an armed Hamas with added political powers could be fatal to Abbas’ government and the Palestinian Authority.

“Their (Hamas’) goal in the next two months is to participate in the democratic elections and to win a standing that will allow them to implement long-term plans. There are no concessions here, there is no foundation for recognition of Israel as a state that has the right to exist,” Amos Gilad, a senior Defence Ministry official told Israel Radio.

“Their ideology hasn’t changed.”

Hamas has not yet officially changed its position, but is showing flexibility, said Talal Okal, a political analyst for the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam. Hamas could change its charter – which calls for destroying Israel and replacing it with an Islamic state – if it believes it must do so to remain popular among Palestinians, he said.

More than five years of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians has badly damaged the Palestinian economy and created strong restrictions on Palestinians.

Some Palestinian voters could be concerned that a Hamas election victory could end all talks with Israel on easing their plight and lead to further hardships.

“In terms of the timing of this statement, it comes before Palestinian elections and it holds messages for Palestinian people that this movement will not ruin their lives if it wins,” Okal said.

“(Hamas) will continue … negotiating with Israel when it is necessary to do so, and at the same time it is a message to parties that oppose Hamas taking part in elections like Israel and the Americans.”

Negotiating with Hamas would ultimately weaken the Palestinian Authority, and possibly destroy it completely, Shalom told Israel Radio.

“Therefore it is not in our interest, it is not in the interest of the US, and I think it isn’t in the interest of the rest of the international community,” he said.

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