- The Washington Times - Friday, November 10, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said yesterday he would step down as Palestinian prime minister if that would convince the United States and other Western powers to lift crippling economic sanctions.

“When the issue of the siege is on one side, and my being prime minister is on the other, let the siege be lifted to end the suffering of the Palestinian people,” he said, referring to the international aid boycott that has devastated the Palestinian economy.

His offer appeared to be another indication that the Islamic militant group and the rival Fatah Party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas were inching closer to a national unity government made up of technocrats — a coalition designed to present a more moderate face to the world.

Mr. Haniyeh, a longtime Hamas leader, told worshippers at a Gaza mosque that Western countries wanted him out of the government.

The West and Israel have withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and tax revenues since Hamas took power in March, in an effort to pressure the ruling group to moderate its violently anti-Israel ideology.

The sanctions have prevented Hamas from paying a large portion of the salaries owed to 165,000 government employees, causing widespread hardship in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

International donors, including the United States, have said they will not lift sanctions until Hamas recognizes Israel, renounces violence and accepts past peace deals, something Hamas has so far refused to do.

The program of the proposed new unity government is vague on the key issue of recognizing Israel.

Mr. Abbas spoke by phone Thursday with his main political rival, Hamas’ supreme leader Khaled Mashaal — their first conversation in months. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said their discussion was proof that the two men are in agreement on the shape of the new government.

However, weeks of up-and-down negotiations have so far failed to yield results, and a fresh breakdown in talks appeared possible.

Meanwhile, the death toll from Israel’s artillery barrage in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun rose to 19 yesterday after Israeli hospital officials confirmed that one of the wounded transferred to Israel, Bassem Kafarna, had died in Tel Aviv’s Ichilov hospital.

The shells landed Wednesday as Palestinian residents were sleeping. It was the highest Palestinian civilian toll in a single incident since the conflict erupted in September 2000. The highest toll of Israeli civilians was 29 killed in a Palestinian suicide bombing at a Passover gathering in March 2002.

The army said it was targeting areas from where rockets had been fired in recent days at the Israeli cities, not the civilian district.

In an interview with NBC’s “Today” show, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is traveling to Washington next week, denied Israel was using too much force against the Palestinians.

“We are very, very restrained in using power,” he said. “When someone criticizes us, I say, ‘What would you do when rockets fall on the heads of innocent Israelis?’ ”

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