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Hamas ready for truce, official says

Palestinian state in peace with Israel apparently OK'd

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- The militant group Hamas will accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and a long-term truce with Israel, a leader said yesterday, apparently softening Hamas's hard-line stance and boosting hopes for renewed peace efforts after Yasser Arafat's death.

Sheik Hassan Yousef, a senior Hamas official in the West Bank, said he sees a truce in which Israel and a Palestinian state ''live side by side in peace and security for a certain period."

Yousef's statements signal an apparent reversal of policy for Hamas, which has long sought to destroy Israel and replace it with an Islamic Palestinian state. The group has killed hundreds of Israelis in attacks during the past four years.

The group's top leaders, based outside the Palestinian areas, were unavailable for comment yesterday on the policy change.

''Hamas has announced that it accepts a Palestinian independent state within the 1967 borders with a long-term truce," Yousef said, referring to lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Yousef's comments indicated that four years of fighting with Israel -- during which the military has targeted the group's top leaders -- and the imposition of international sanctions have taken a toll. Arafat's death last month and a drive by new Palestine Liberation Organization leader Mahmoud Abbas to renew talks with Israel after the Jan. 9 election for new Palestinian leader also appears to have changed Hamas's policy.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath welcomed the new Hamas position as a ''positive step" and said the group informed the Palestinian Authority of its new policy during recent talks.

Until now, Hamas had rejected peace accords and carried out suicide bombings and other attacks, killing hundreds of people and badly damaging peace efforts.

Yousef said the Hamas position was new, calling it a ''stage." In the past, Hamas has said it would accept a state in the 1967 borders as a first step to taking over Israel. Yousef did not spell out the conditions for the renewable cease-fire nor did he say how long it would last.

''For us a truce means that two warring parties live side by side in peace and security for a certain period and this period is eligible for renewal," Yousef said. ''That means Hamas accepts that the other party will live in security and peace."

Yousef said Hamas, which announced Wednesday it would boycott the January vote, still planned to participate in Palestinian politics. It previously shunned any role in the Palestinian Authority because it rejected interim peace accords with Israel that created the governing body.

''Hamas wants to join the Palestinian political leadership and there are meetings over this issue," he said. ''Hamas being a part of the political equation means Hamas will deal with the other party [Israel]."

Hani Masri, a commentator for the Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam, said Hamas was weakened by its listing as a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union. Those listings led to asset freezes that dealt a strong blow to the group's finances.

The group, which also faced Israel's hunt for Hamas leaders -- including the killing of spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin in March -- and Palestinian exhaustion with the uprising, could not survive if it did not change, Masri said.

''That doesn't mean there are no extremist wings in Hamas," Masri said. ''There are still extremists in Hamas and they still have the ability to function, but I think the Palestinian Authority with Abu Mazen at its top will help Hamas to rein in the extremists."

Abu Mazen is Abbas's nickname.

A Hamas official said on condition of anonymity that Abbas will meet Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Syria next week to arrange a truce before next month's election.

Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader in Gaza, said Thursday that cease-fire negotiations could begin next week. ''If the Israelis stop their aggression against our people, I think through the negotiations . . . we can reach a final agreement," he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Thursday that Israel would halt offensive military operations if calm prevailed.

However, Israeli soldiers shot and killed an Islamic Jihad leader yesterday during an arrest raid in the West Bank village of Rabba. The army said the man, Mahmoud Dobie, 25, was armed and tried to flee.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat condemned the killing, saying it ''undermines the efforts we're exerting" to reach a truce with militants.

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