- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2004

JERUSALEM — In one of the most moderate statements ever made by a senior member of Hamas, the organization’s spiritual leader in the West Bank, Sheik Hassan Yousef, told Israel Radio yesterday that Hamas had matured and might be prepared to eventually recognize Israel’s existence.

Interviewed in his Ramallah home two weeks after his release from prison, Sheik Yousef said Hamas was prepared to enter into a hudna, or cease-fire, with Israel for 10 years. He said his offer hinges on an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, an end to attacks by Israel and the release of Palestinian prisoners.

The interviewer, Avi Sakharoff, said Sheik Yousef claimed to be speaking on behalf of the entire Hamas organization, including its leadership in the Gaza Strip. Asked whether Hamas eventually might acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, Sheik Yousef said hudna meant people living alongside and “accepting” one another. If Israel recognizes Palestinian rights, he said, it was possible that Hamas eventually might recognize Israel formally.

His remarks appeared to deviate significantly from Hamas’ traditional rhetoric, which has been implacable in its insistence that Israel eventually must be destroyed or dismantled.

Sheik Yousef called on Israel to abandon its view of Hamas as a terror organization and to recognize it as a movement that enjoyed wide support among the Palestinians and in the Arab world.

He said Hamas had adjusted its policies as a result of new realities, its own maturing and developments in the region and world.

Although Sheik Yousef did not refer to it directly, Hamas has suffered sharp blows from Israel in recent months, including the killing of the organization’s top leadership in the Gaza Strip.

The cleric said Hamas wanted to be a full partner in decision making by the Palestinian leadership and would not sabotage any peace agreement arrived at with Israel by the Palestinian Authority if it included the restoration of Palestinian rights.

The interim Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, has been highly critical of the armed uprising against Israel, and met with rival groups such as Hamas in hopes of reaching a cease-fire. Mr. Abbas was to hold more talks with militant groups tomorrow, the Associated Press reported.

Although Hamas is not fielding a candidate in the Jan. 9 election, Sheik Yousef said the group is interested in becoming a faction within the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Mr. Abbas, the PLO chief, is the leading contender in the presidential election, according to opinion polls. He appears to enjoy the tacit support of Israel and the United States.

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