Hamas Open to Truce With Israel
Friday, Jan. 14, 2005
RAMALLAH, West Bank -- A top Hamas official said Thursday that the militant group is open to a truce with Israel and is no longer bent on destroying the Jewish state - a step beyond previous Hamas statements indicating it might accept Israel as a temporary presence only.
Sheik Hassan Yousef, Hamas' West Bank leader and one of its founders, is known as a relative moderate within the group, and there's no telling whether his remarks represent mainstream Hamas thinking. But Hamas is clearly feeling pressure from a Palestinian public yearning for calm, and a post-Yasser Arafat leadership eager for talks with Israel.
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A halt in attacks by Hamas, which has carried out dozens of suicide bombings that killed hundreds of Israelis, would give newly elected Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas an important boost in his efforts to restart peace talks.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Yousef said Hamas understands that the Palestinian people are weary after more than four years of fighting.
``We read the regional and the international reality and the changes that have taken place based on this reality, and we take positions according to these changes,'' Yousef said.
``Hamas doesn't want to eliminate Israel. Hamas is a realistic political movement,'' he said. ``There is a thing called Jews and a thing called Israel and we deal with this reality.''
Yousef said the group is reconsidering its violent tactics but that a final decision hasn't been made.
Other Hamas leaders couldn't immediately be reached for reaction. The group's main leaders are based in Syria and Lebanon, and they usually stick to the Islamic movement's uncompromising line against Israel.
On Wednesday, Mahmoud Zahar, a top Hamas leader in Gaza, said Hamas has no plans to disarm and that Abbas has no authority to order an end to attacks on Israel.
The official ideology of Hamas does not recognize a place for a Jewish state in an Islamic Middle East. In the past, the furthest Hamas leaders have gone is to say they would accept a ``temporary'' Palestinian state in only the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the framework of a long-term cease-fire with Israel - but that Hamas would not make peace with the Jewish state and believes the Palestinians have the right to all Israeli land.
Despite Yousef's remarks, Israelis were skeptical.
``We're going to have to see what the reaction is. This guy has a reputation for piping off,'' cautioned Mark Heller, an analyst at the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. ``I don't think he was speaking for the (Hamas) movement.''
A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel would deal only with Abbas' Palestinian Authority, not Hamas or other militant groups.
After Yousef was released from an Israeli prison on Dec. 3, he endorsed the long-term truce formula and said Israel and the Palestinians could live in peace, a statement taken at the time as a sign of a new moderation among local Hamas leaders.
Since then, Hamas has not carried out suicide bombings inside Israel, though the Israelis attribute that to the success of their security services in foiling plans and arresting militants. Hamas militants in Gaza pelt Jewish settlements there and Israeli towns just outside the fence with rockets and mortars on a daily basis, countering any feeling that the Islamic group is abandoning violence.
Israel insists that Abbas dismantle the militant groups, according to the terms of the stillborn ``road map'' peace plan, backed by the United States, the United Nations, European Union and Russia.
Instead of cracking down, Abbas has been trying to prod the Islamic militants into a truce.
A senior Palestinian militant, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Thursday that a meeting would take place in Cairo soon, with Egyptian mediators pushing for a commitment to a one-year truce.
Nabil Amr, an Abbas confidant, confirmed the contacts are under way. ``The signs that are coming from Hamas after the election are positive and indicate that they recognize the results of the election,'' he said.
In public, the groups have resisted calls for a new cease-fire, but signaled they are open to the idea if Abbas can guarantee their safety from Israel. The Israeli army has killed dozens of militants, taking a heavy toll on the group and driving much of its leadership into hiding.
In his brief tenure as prime minister in 2003, Abbas forged a cease-fire to halt attacks against Israel, but it collapsed after a few weeks amid Palestinian bombings and Israeli reprisals.
Hamas' standing with the Palestinian public may also be waning.
Fresh from his landslide victory in presidential elections, Abbas has strong support from his people. With Hamas planning to contest legislative elections in July, it is likely to think twice before launching any major attack for fear of antagonizing voters.
Abbas said Thursday that he is eager to resume peace talks with Israel, adding that he is ready to honor the Palestinians' security commitments under the ``road map'' plan.
``As you know, this plan starts with security commitments and eventually deals with the final status issues, like borders and Jerusalem. We are ready to implement our commitments. We hope the Israeli side will do the same,'' he told local and international Christian leaders.
Abbas did not specify what security measures he is ready to take. He is to be sworn into office Saturday and says he expects to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon soon after naming a Cabinet. Copyright Â© 2005 The Associated Press .