The militant group Hamas will accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and a long-term truce with Israel, a leader said Friday, apparently softening Hamas' hardline stance and boosting hopes for renewed peace efforts after Yasser Arafat's death.
Sheik Hassan Yousef, a senior Hamas official in the West Bank, told reporters he sees a truce in which Israel and a Palestinian state "live side-by-side in peace and security for a certain period."
Yousef's statements signal an apparent reversal of policy for Hamas, which has long sought to destroy Israel and replace it with an Islamic Palestinian state. The group has killed hundreds of Israelis in attacks during the past four years.
However, in Lebanon, Hamas spokesman Ossama Hamdan denied the group had changed its policies. "I can say there has been no changes in the movement's stance and policy toward occupation," Hamdan said.
Hamdan said Yousef had the authority to talk for the group, but said he found it hard to believe Yousef made such statements.
Yousef said that "Hamas has announced that it accepts a Palestinian independent state within the 1967 borders with a long-term truce," referring to land Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
Yousef's comments indicated that four years of fighting with Israel -- during which the military has targeted the group's top leaders -- and the imposition of international sanctions have taken a toll.
Arafat's death last month and a drive by new PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas to renew talks with Israel after the Jan. 9 election for new Palestinian leader also appears to have changed Hamas' policy.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath welcomed the new Hamas position as a "positive step" and said the group informed the Palestinian Authority of their new policy during recent talks.
Until now, Hamas had rejected peace accords and carried out suicide bombings and other attacks, killing hundreds of people and badly damaging peace efforts.
Yousef said the Hamas position was new, calling it a "stage." In the past, Hamas has said it would accept a state in the 1967 borders as a first step to taking over Israel. Yousef did not spell out the conditions for the renewable cease-fire nor did he say how long it would last.
"For us a truce means that two warring parties live side-by-side in peace and security for a certain period and this period is eligible for renewal," Yousef said. "That means Hamas accepts that the other party will live in security and peace."
Yousef said Hamas, which announced Wednesday it would boycott the January vote, still planned to participate in Palestinian politics. It previously shunned any role in the Palestinian Authority because it rejected interim peace accords with Israel that created the governing body.
"Hamas wants to join the Palestinian political leadership and there are meetings over this issue," he said. "Hamas being a part of the political equation means Hamas will deal with the other party [Israel]."
Hani Masri, a commentator for the Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam, said Hamas was weakened by its listing as a terrorist organization by the US and European Union. Those listings led to asset freezes that dealt a strong blow to the group's finances.