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Hamas says it will gently push Islamic law

RAMALLAH -- Hamas will use Sharia as a guide for legislation after winning Palestinian elections, but has no plan to enforce strict Islamic law, to close bars, or to stop men and women mixing in public, a senior leader said yesterday.

Hamas's victory in last week's parliamentary election has stirred concerns among more liberal Palestinians that the Islamist group could enforce conservative views after defeating President Mahmoud Abbas's secular Fatah movement.

''We will not intervene in any aspect of Palestinian life . . . except to convince people in a polite way," said Mahmoud Ramahi, a member of the Hamas politburo who won a seat in the new parliament.

''We are making efforts so that the Sharia will be the source of legislation, but in order to implement Islamic rule, this needs a state. When we get a state, we will leave it to people to choose," he said in an interview.

''We will let the people decide by holding a referendum, and we are sure the Palestinian people will choose Islam."

Hamas softened some of its rhetoric ahead of the Palestinian election, emphasizing its fight against corruption and its charity work rather than its formal aim of replacing Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip with an Islamic state.

Having won the election, Hamas now hopes to court other Palestinian parties to join a coalition and cannot afford to say anything that will drive them off. Fatah leaders have already said they do not want to join Hamas in government.

Hamas also hopes to try and win over Western donors that brand it a terrorist group for a suicide bombing campaign that killed hundreds of Israelis. The United States and European Union demand that Hamas disarm and change its position on Israel.

The 43-year-old anesthetist said he wished that bars and restaurants did not serve alcohol, but Hamas would not close them if they did.

''We won't at any time introduce change by using force. We depend on cementing beliefs," Ramahi said. ''If people are convinced, then so be it. If not, it's up to them."

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