Hamas Willing to Talk

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Senior officials in the Islamic group Hamas are indicating a willingness to negotiate a deal for a long-term truce with Israel as long as the borders of Gaza are opened to the rest of the world.

"We want to be part of the international community," Hamas leader Ghazi Hamad told The Associated Press at the Gaza-Egypt border, where he was coordinating Arab aid shipments. "I think Hamas has no interest now to increase the number of crises in Gaza or to challenge the world."

Hamas is trying hard to flex its muscles in the aftermath of Israel's punishing onslaught in the Gaza Strip, doling out cash, vowing revenge and declaring victory over Zionist aggression. But AP interviews with Hamad and two other Hamas leaders in the war-ravaged territory they rule suggest some of that might be more bluster than reality — and the group may be ready for some serious deal making.

That raises the question of whether Hamas, which receives much of its funding and weapons from Tehran, can be coaxed out of Iran's orbit. That question looks less preposterous than it did before President Barack Obama began extending olive branches to the Muslim world and Israel's Gaza offensive reshuffled Mideast politics.

The militants appear to be in the throes of an internal power struggle between hard-liners and pragmatists. Which group comes out on top will likely depend on who is able to garner the most benefits in postwar Gaza.

With hawks urging more violence, the window of opportunity to boost the voices of relative moderation is likely to be short.

"We won this war," said Hamas politician Mushir Al-Masri. "Why should we give in to pressure from anyone?"

Al-Masri spoke to the AP while standing next to a chair that used to serve as his seat in the Palestinian parliament, now reduced to rubble by Israeli bombing. Surrounding him were cracked cement, broken bricks, shattered glass and microphones covered in ash.

Yet even Al-Masri, a staunch hard-liner, sounded a conciliatory note.

"We have our hands open to any country ... to open a dialogue without conditions," he said — clarifying that does not include Israel.

Hamas' pragmatists may have emerged from Israel's offensive slightly stronger, perhaps because of a perception among some Gazans that the organization's hawks overplayed their hand by provoking the wrath of Israel.

Obama has repeatedly reached out to Muslims since becoming president. He assured hard-liners in his inaugural address that "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." He dispatched special envoy George J. Mitchell to the Middle East on a "listening tour." And on Tuesday he chose the Arab satellite network Al-Arabiya for his first televised interview, declaring "Americans are not your enemy."

It's unlikely Obama would talk directly to Hamas, which the U.S. lists as a terrorist organization. However, if reconciliation talks between Hamas and its pro-Western Fatah rivals in Egypt bear fruit, Obama, unlike his predecessor, may accept a Palestinian unity government that includes the militants.

It's true Hamas has yet to renounce violence and Israel's assault has hardened many hearts in Gaza. But with the territory in desperate need of recovery, the group is promising not to interfere with aid efforts and appears keen to reconcile with Fatah.

No one expects the international community to drop all of its reservations about Hamas, an organization that made its name by strapping explosives onto young people and sending them to blow themselves up in crowded Israeli markets and buses.

But rebuilding Gaza after Israel's onslaught is going to require open borders and a large inflow of money and material — things that Iran, whose aid to Hamas is strictly surreptitious because of Israeli restrictions, cannot provide.

Hamas says it wants international recognition as much as an end to the blockade of Gaza — but it won't get either for free. For Hamas, the price may include allowing Fatah back into Gaza 20 months after it violently ousted them, along with halting its rocket fire and weapons smuggling.

The notion of engaging Hamas is anathema to Israel.

"A dialogue with Hamas as a terror organization would be a strategic mistake, because Israel advocates dialogue with the moderates and displaying toughness against the extremists," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told the Maariv daily this week.

Israel's position is based on the fact that Hamas refuses to recognize its right to exist. However, the three Hamas leaders interviewed said they would accept statehood in just the West Bank and Gaza and would give up their "resistance" against Israel if that were achieved.

"We accept a state in the '67 borders," said Hamad. "We are not talking about the destruction of Israel."

Hamas' takeover of Gaza left Fatah in charge of just the West Bank. The two territories, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and located on opposite sides of Israel, are together supposed to make up a future Palestinian state.

Hamas leaders in the past have spoken about a long-term "hudna," or truce, with Israel. But the Jewish state sees the offer as a non-starter because it falls short of full recognition.

Even so, Israel and the West appear to have leverage to get Hamas to moderate its stance. The group's demand for an open border with Egypt, for instance, could be conditioned on allowing Fatah to help monitor it. And bringing funds and materials to begin repairing the estimated $2 billion in damage caused by Israel's offensive could be conditioned on Hamas agreeing to stop its violence.

One hardline Hamas politician, Yehiel El Abadsa, said his group should not reconcile with Fatah and that Hamas "will be the ones to rebuild Gaza."

That position may well put him at odds with the majority of Gaza's 1.4 million inhabitants, who seem to be clamoring for an end to the divisions that are distancing their dreams for a state of their own.

"Even if money falls from the sky and we are still divided like this, we'll never accomplish anything," said 55-year-old Mohammed Abed Rabbo, sitting outside his bombed-out house in northern Gaza.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us