- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2005

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The top Hamas leader for the West Bank said the Islamic militant group wants to open a dialogue with Israel and is seeking formal recognition by the Jewish state as part of a truce in the 41/2-year-old Palestinian uprising.

The offer from the group, whose suicide bomb attacks have wrecked multiple efforts to end the fighting and restart peace talks, comes the week before Israeli and Palestinian leaders are scheduled to meet at a Sinai resort in Egypt.

Although Hamas will be excluded from the talks and retains the power to destroy any peace initiative, both Israel and the Palestinians are heading to Sharm el-Sheikh resort amid unprecedented optimism.

The Hamas leader, Sheik Hassan Yousef, told The Washington Times that Hamas prefers a nonviolent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Eventually what we are driving at is Israel’s recognition of our existence and of our legitimacy as a resistance force and for Israel to start sending messages wanting a cease-fire on our part. Then we will be equal,” Sheik Yousef said this week in his Ramallah villa.

“At this point, we are the initiators, but we would like to reach a stage where Israel is interested in us and feels that we are also a legitimate resistance force,” said Sheik Yousef, one of the group’s founders.

Another Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal, said in Cairo that his organization was prepared to accept a truce if Israel halted its attacks and released Palestinian prisoners.

A spokesman for Islamic Jihad, another prominent Islamist group responsible for suicide attacks on Israelis, said talks with Egyptian intelligence officials to broker a cease-fire with Israel were “taking place in a positive atmosphere.”

The Israeli Cabinet yesterday added to the surge in pre-summit optimism by approving the release of 900 Palestinian prisoners and by approving a military pullout from the West Bank town of Jericho.

The Cabinet also ratified an earlier decision by the Israeli army to halt the assassinations of militant Palestinian leaders.

Palestinians and Israelis both said yesterday that they expect Tuesday’s summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to produce a truce that will end more than four years of violence.

“We are not talking about peace now, and not about the ‘road map,’ but rather about phases that come before implementation of the road map,” participants quoted Mr. Sharon telling ministers at yesterday’s Cabinet meeting, the Associated Press reported.

A joint declaration of a cessation of violence is one of the first requirements in the internationally backed road map peace plan, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state this year.

Sheik Yousef said his organization had consented to a temporary halt in attacks, which has produced two weeks of relative calm in the Palestinian territories.

“We are trying to test how far the Israeli side is ready to respond to what we want,” Sheik Yousef said. “Unfortunately, up to this moment what we’ve seen is a lack of response.”

An Israeli government spokesman rejected the suggestion that Israel would negotiate with Hamas.

“Our interlocutor with the Palestinians is the official Palestinian leadership headed by the newly elected Palestinian leader President Abbas,” said Zalman Shoval, a former ambassador to the United States and an adviser to Mr. Sharon.

“Hamas is going to be [Mr. Abbas’] problem, because unless he can control them, there won’t be any progress toward the road map,” Mr. Shoval said.

President Bush, in his State of the Union address on Wednesday, also signaled a new U.S. push to revive peace efforts, with Mr. Bush calling for $350 million in aid for the Palestinians.

“The goal of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace, is within reach, and America will help them achieve that goal,” the president said.

Both sides welcomed Mr. Bush’s efforts. Palestinian Trade Minister Maher Masrisaid, “The trend of the U.S. administration is very positive.”

And Israeli spokesman Mark Regev said Israel was “totally on board” with the president’s vision.

Whatever Israel and the Palestinian Authority decide in Cairo, Hamas’ de facto veto over any peace effort give Sheik Yousef’s remarks added significance.

Israel’s assassinations of Sheik Ahmed Yasin, the Hamas spiritual leader, and Abdel Aziz Rantisi, its firebrand orator, left Sheik Yousef as one of the few Hamas leaders whose name is familiar throughout the Palestinian territories.

Sheik Yousef’s base in the West Bank leaves him somewhat isolated from the center of Hamas’ power in the Gaza Strip as well as the group’s hard-line leadership in Damascus, Syria.

As in any peace initiative, hard-liners can be expected to resist, and Israeli overtures thus far fall short of Palestinian demands.

The 900 prisoners to be released represent about one-eighth of the prisoners held by Israel.

Also, Israel’s decision to withdraw from quiet Jericho falls short of expectations that ministers would approve the evacuation of five West Bank towns.

Israel’s government this week decided to slow the pullout after a brief outbreak in violence.

Sheik Yousef spoke in a living room decorated with a charcoal drawing of him against the background of the white, red, black and green flag — the banner of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Although Sheik Yousef represents an Islamist rival to the PLO, his popularity extends beyond Hamas and he could become a potent political force for his party if it runs in elections for the Palestinian legislature later this year.

When asked what lessons the organization had learned from the uprising, or intifada, he replied that armed resistance was the most “meaningful” means of attaining sovereignty, but suggested that the organization also would entertain other possibilities.

“We are concerned about finding another way in which no bloodshed will be spilled,” he said.

Abraham Rabinovich in Jerusalem contributed to this story, which is based in part on wire service reports.


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