- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2003

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Sheik Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader and founder of Hamas, said the Islamic resistance movement could accept a gradual Israeli army withdrawal and the step-by-step dismantling of Jewish settlements from all occupied Palestinian territories as a way to peace in the region.

In an interview with United Press International on Sunday, Sheik Yassin said Hamas, which the United States and Israel consider a terrorist group, would not be satisfied with an Israeli army withdrawal from Gaza only, a move agreed to by the Palestinian Authority leadership.

“Hamas wants a gradual withdrawal from Gaza first and from other occupied cities, villages and refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza through … an agreeable timetable, back to the borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war,” Sheik Yassin said.

The 67-year-old quadriplegic leader, sporting a long white-and-gray beard and seated in a wheelchair, spoke at his house in the Sabra neighborhood of Gaza City.

Sheik Yassin said Hamas would agree to a cease-fire with Israel, but only under specific conditions.

“Hamas is studying everything, and it has several choices,” he said. “For us the cease-fire can never be reached without a price, and Israel, on the other hand, must be committed to it.”

Prior to the summit in Jordan among President Bush and the Palestinian and Israeli leadership, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas was trying to reach a cease-fire with Hamas. After talks, Hamas and other groups broke off negotiations, saying Mr. Abbas had made too many concessions to Israel.

Sheik Yassin said a cease-fire would require more than an end to violence on both sides.

“A cease-fire must lead to getting our legitimate rights,” he said. “Cease-fire doesn’t mean that [only] we have to stop attacks while Israel continues occupation, detaining Palestinians, killing others and expanding settlements,” he said. “Cease-fire to release prisoners, stop killing and dismantle settlements.”

At issue is the “road map” to peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which calls for mutual confidence-building measures, culminating in an independent Palestinian state by 2005, and peace and security for Israel. Both sides have accepted the plan. One of the road map’s conditions for talks is an end to the violence.

“We are ready to stop our resistance and our self-defense for a period of time, but only if [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon commits himself to certain conditions that Hamas agrees upon with the Palestinian Authority,” Sheik Yassin said.

After a wave of attacks by Palestinian militants, Israel said last week it would target top Hamas leaders in a bid to get the peace process back on track. Hamas political leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi was injured when his car was targeted in a missile attack, and two more Hamas officials were killed in a similar assault.

Sheik Yassin said that despite these efforts, he would continue to remain at his home.

Hamas is not a small group of people that Israel can easily “smash and destroy by carrying out air strikes on its militants and leaders,” he said. “Hamas is a popular movement that earns its support from the Palestinian people, Arab and Islamic worlds,” he said.

“Neither the United States, nor Israel, nor the Palestinian Authority can neglect Hamas’ demands and terms.”

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