- The Washington Times - Friday, February 3, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The leader of Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank said yesterday the militant Islamic movement can manage without Western aid when it assumes government of the Palestinian territories following its shocking election win last month.

Leading Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar rejected Western and Egyptian pressure for his movement to recognize Israel and renounce violence.

“The Western nations can take their aid and get lost,” he told The Washington Times just before leaving his home for Friday prayers.

Mr. Zahar had invited The Times to visit his four-story home, recently rebuilt after his somewhat more modest dwelling was destroyed by Israeli jets more than two years ago, to discuss how his movement would respond to Western demands.

“Israel is not a legitimate entity, and no amount of pressure can force us to recognize its right to exist,” he said.

The new Palestinian government should only discuss technical matters with Israel at a low level, he added.

Political talks had failed to get the Palestinians anywhere in the past 10 years, he said, and had only enmeshed the Palestinian Authority (PA) in “corrupt relationships” with the Jewish state.

The United States, the United Nations, Russia and leading European powers all have called on Hamas to renounce violence, disarm and drop the demand in its charter for Israel’s destruction. Failure to act would result in a loss of foreign aid to a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, they warned.

Mr. Zahar contends that the Palestinian economy could be sustained by trade and investment with other Arab nations. He said development projects since the 1993 Oslo peace deal had only benefited Israel, while accepting Western aid “with any strings attached” would only harm Palestinian interests.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II, on a visit to Washington, said yesterday the election results could help the peace process by clarifying once and for all whether Hamas can be a responsible governing party.

It is time, the Jordanian monarch said, “for Hamas to put up or shut up.”

But Hamas leaders have shown little sign of moderation since the Jan. 25 vote, putting out the same party line in Gaza and Damascus, Syria, where its exiled leadership is based.

“We will never recognize the legitimacy of the Zionist state that was established on our land,” Khaled Meshaal, the external head of the political and military wings of the militant Islamic group, wrote in the Palestinian newspaper, al-Hayat al-Jadida.

“Our message to the United States and Europe is: The attempts you are exerting to make us abandon our principles and struggle will be wasted and will not achieve any results.”

But the new Hamas-led government faces pressing problems, most with money at their core. Salary payments for about 140,000 Palestinian government workers are already overdue and have been promised by Monday.

Alarmed by Hamas’ election victory, Israel this week froze about $55 million in taxes it collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, putting the money in an escrow account. The customs revenue is the main source of funding for the PA’s budget.

Interim Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Cabinet is to discuss tomorrow whether to allow the funds to go through.

Mr. Zahar in the interview outlined how the new Palestinian Cabinet will be chosen, a process he said would take another month.

He revealed that Hamas, in meetings yesterday with leaders of the ousted Fatah party, had demanded the right to appoint a Hamas prime minister, who would play the role of a “coordinator” rather than wield wide-ranging power.

The key ministries that Hamas needed to lead, he said, were interior, education, health and social welfare.

“We’ll put the very best people in there, as we need to get society functioning again,” Mr. Zahar said. Control of the Interior Ministry would allow Hamas to reform the Palestinians’ much-criticized security services, he said.

David R. Sands contributed from Washington to this story, which was distributed by World News & Features.

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