THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Leader says Hamas would accept peace OK’d in referendum

Haniyeh denies charge Al Qaeda operates in Gaza

By Karin Laub
Associated Press / December 2, 2010

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Hamas would respect any peace deal reached between Israel and Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, provided it is approved in a global Palestinian referendum, the top Hamas official in Gaza said yesterday.

In a rare news conference for foreign media, Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of Gaza’s Hamas government, staked out seemingly pragmatic positions. He said Hamas seeks dialogue with the West and wants to be “part of the solution, not the problem.’’

He also denied Israeli allegations that Al Qaeda operates in Gaza and that Gaza militants planned to carry out attacks in neighboring Egypt.

Haniyeh is considered a leading member of Hamas’s pragmatic wing, and the Islamic militant group often sends mixed messages. When Israeli-Palestinian negotiations resumed in early September, other Hamas politicians quickly criticized Abbas for attending those talks.

Negotiations have since run aground over the continued construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, lands claimed by the Palestinians for their state.

In his news conference, Haniyeh was also highly critical, saying negotiations seem pointless. “Israel wants a full surrender from us and we are not going to do this,’’ he said.

Nonetheless, he said his government remains committed to the referendum idea, which was part of a short-lived Palestinian unity deal reached in 2007, a few months before the violent Hamas takeover of the territory.

Referring to that document, Haniyeh said that “we don’t have a problem with establishing a viable Palestinian state with full sovereignty on the land that was occupied in 1967.’’ Those territories include Gaza, along with the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In recent years, Hamas has tried to reach out to the West, and its supreme leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal, has expressed support for a Palestinian state with 1967 borders.

At the same time, Hamas has not revoked its founding charter, which calls for Israel’s destruction, and Hamas officials won’t say whether they see a two-state deal as a final arrangement or a step toward eliminating Israel. Israel argues that Hamas has not given up its goal of eliminating the Jewish state.

“If Hamas really wanted to reach out for peace, it could have done so very simply by accepting the three conditions of the Quartet [of Mideast mediators], which are to recognize Israel, recognize past Israeli-Palestinian agreements, and abandon terror,’’ said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.

Since the violent Hamas takeover, Gaza has been largely cut off from the world by an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade. The international community has shunned Hamas and the Palestinian political split has deepened. Abbas now governs the West Bank.

Since Israel’s war on Gaza two years ago, meant to halt a barrage of rockets on Israeli border towns, Hamas has largely held its fire. However, smaller militant groups, including some inspired by Al Qaeda, have continued to carry out sporadic mortar and rocket attacks on Israel.

Last month, Israel killed three operatives of an Al Qaeda-inspired group, the Army of Islam, in air strikes in Gaza, saying the men planned to carry out attacks in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

A senior military official said this week that it is not clear whether the militants had planned to kidnap Israeli tourists in the Sinai or use Egypt as a gateway to sneak into Israel to carry out attacks there.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said several armed Gaza militants were still hiding in the Sinai.

He also alleged that Al Qaeda operatives from Yemen have been training militants in Gaza, and that Hamas has obtained thousands of rockets, via smuggling tunnels under the Egyptian border, that can strike deep into Israel. The official did not provide evidence for his allegations.

Haniyeh said such assertions are part of a disinformation campaign meant to prepare for future attacks on Gaza.

He said he sent a letter to Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, assuring him that Palestinian militants have no plans to attack targets in Arab or Islamic countries.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has removed a report from a government website saying that Jerusalem’s Western Wall isn’t holy to Jews, officials said yesterday, after it provoked furious reactions from the United States and Israel.

A senior Palestinian official denied the report was taken down because of pressure. Instead, he said it was done “because it does not reflect our position.’’

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