Hamas leader hints at softening stance


JERUSALEM - A leader of Hamas said yesterday that the militant group could endorse the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, hinting at acceptance of Israel's right to exist.

But it was unclear whether the official, Sheik Hassan Yousef, spoke with the full backing of the organization. Israel called his statements highly conditional and said they would have to be backed by deeds.

Hamas, which is formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, has long been sworn to Israel's destruction. It has killed and maimed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings.

The group has joined other Palestinian factions in jockeying for influence in advance of an election scheduled for Jan. 9 to replace the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. While Hamas is boycotting the vote, it enjoys a large following among Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, and its views carry considerable weight.

In recent days, the militant group has issued several statements that could point to a softening of its previous stance - accompanied, however, by a series of demands that Israel considers unacceptable.

Hamas says it seeks a pullout of all Israeli forces and Jewish settlers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, together with sovereignty over East Jerusalem, the release of all Palestinian prisoners and the tearing down of the security barrier Israel is building in the West Bank.

"Everything I am saying about the possibility of a cease-fire and a sovereign Palestinian state is in line with statements by Sheik Ahmed Yassin," Yousef said in a telephone interview from the West Bank town of Ramallah, referring to the Hamas spiritual leader who was assassinated by Israel in March.

The West Bank leadership of Hamas, which includes Yousef, is considered less influential than its policy-making echelon in the Gaza Strip and outside the Palestinian territories, primarily in Syria. However, Yousef was recently released from nearly two years in an Israeli prison, and such jail time customarily bestows a measure of prestige on militant leaders.

An Israeli official said that despite a lull in attacks by militant groups since Arafat's death Nov. 11, he saw no reason to think that Hamas' ideology has undergone any real change.

"I'd like Hamas to turn into a democratic party, but there is no indication they are about to do so," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. "I haven't seen any serious questioning of the principles of jihad, or anyone saying the strategy of suicide bombings is morally offensive."

Hamas has said in the past it would accept the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza only as a prelude to a state encompassing all of historic Palestine, including present-day Israel.

On Thursday, Gaza-based Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar indicated that the group might consider a halt to attacks against Israel to help ensure that the presidential election could be carried out. Hamas' last major attack was a double bus bombing on Aug. 31 in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba that killed 16 passengers.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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