Hamas leader to AP: New focus on popular protests

December 23, 2011 - 8:26 AM
Mideast Egypt

In this Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011 photo, Khaled Mashaal, political leader of Hamas, left, meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo Egypt. (AP Photo/Office of Khaled Mashaal, HO)EDITORIAL USE ONLY, NO SALES

CAIRO (AP) — Hamas will focus on popular protests to unify Palestinians while not renouncing the use of violence against Israel, the Islamic group's leader, Khaled Mashaal, told The Associated Press late Thursday.

Mashaal was in Cairo for reconciliation talks with Hamas' rival, President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah. The sides agreed that Hamas would join the Palestine Liberation Organization, led by Abbas, and allow elections to go ahead in Gaza and the West Bank in 2012.

Popular protests have "the power of a tsunami," Mashaal said, pointing to the recent waves of demonstrations across the Arab world.

"Now we have a common ground that we can work on — the popular resistance, which presents the power of people," he said. The idea for the protests originated with the Palestinians themselves and the uprising they launched against Israel in 1987, he said, typified by crowds of rock-throwing Palestinian youths confronting heavily armed Israeli soldiers.

Mashaal also gave rare Hamas public support to the idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. Hamas ideology does not accept the presence of a Jewish state in an Islamic Middle East.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev dismissed Mashaal's statements, noting Friday that Hamas has repeatedly said it seeks Israel's destruction.

"Hamas is very open and public about its position — it believes the Jewish state should be obliterated, it fundamentally opposes peace and reconciliation, and it sees every Israeli civilian as a legitimate target," he said. "One cannot build policy upon wishful thinking."

During the AP interview in Cairo after his meeting with Abbas, Mashaal said Hamas would not renounce its own armed fight against Israel. The group has killed hundreds of Israelis, most of them civilians, in suicide bombings, shootings and rocket attacks since the Islamist group was formed in 1987.

"As long as there is an occupation on our land, we have the right to defend our land by all means, including military resistance," he said.

Israel holds Hamas responsible for Gaza militants firing hundreds of rockets at Israel in recent months, as Hamas rules Gaza. Hamas blames splinter groups for the rocket attacks and has mostly kept a cease-fire that followed a three-week war three years ago, an Israeli attempt to stop the rocket barrages.

Hamas considers all of Israel to be occupied land. Abbas and his Palestinian Authority, in contrast, say they would accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, inside what are known as the "1967 borders."

Mashaal told the AP his group, too, would be prepared to accept those borders.

"We have political differences, but the common ground is the state on the '67 borders. Why don't we work in this common area," he said.

Hamas has said in the past that it would accept such a state as a temporary measure as a stage toward destroying Israel, which remains the group's stated goal. Mashaal did not repeat that in the interview.

The split between Hamas and Fatah, he said, "is not a normal thing, and it should be ended and will be ended."

"The nation is bigger than the party," he said.

The two Palestinian factions have been at odds since Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006, defeating Fatah. The differences spiraled into violence that claimed hundreds of lives and resulted in Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza in 2007.

That left Abbas in charge only in the West Bank, where he governs Palestinian cities under Israel's overall security control.

Hamas is considered by the U.S. and EU to be a terror organization. Abbas' Palestinian Authority is funded largely by Western countries, including the U.S., and has close security ties with Israel.