Sun, Mar 05, 2006 - Page 6 News List

No peace till Israel withdraws: Hamas

NO RUSH Palestinian leader Khaled Meshaal blamed Israel for the current impasse and made it clear he was in no hurry to enter any kind of talks with the Jewish state


Hamas will not reach peace with Israel until the Jewish state withdraws from Palestinian territory it occupied in 1967, the radical movement's leader said on Friday after landmark first talks with a world power.

Khaled Meshaal said that only if Israel declared its readiness to pull out of occupied land, return refugees, break down the security fence and free all prisoners, "then our side will take serious steps toward securing peace."

He made it clear he was in no rush to enter any kind of talks with Israel, which considers the group a terrorist organization.

Meshaal's comments came after talks in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that marked the Hamas leader's most high-profile appearance yet on the international stage.

It follows the movement's stunning Palestinian election victory in January and as it prepares to form its first government despite being isolated on the international stage for refusing to recognize Israel's right to exist.

The visit was held under intense security -- at Meshaal's press conference, eight bodyguards wearing black trenchcoats stood directly behind him and his Hamas colleagues.

The delegation had earlier been given the rare protection of elite Kremlin secret service personnel, a measure usually only accorded top dignitaries.

Lavrov told Hamas it had to respect the views laid down by the Middle East quartet of mediators -- Russia, the US, the EU and the UN.

"That means, above all, the need to stick by all existing agreements, the need to recognize the right of Israel to exist as a partner in negotiations, [and] the need to reject all armed methods of settling political questions," Interfax quoted him as saying.

But Meshaal said Israel bore the blame for the Middle East impasse and had "always turned away from its responsibilities."

Asked about a truce Hamas has largely observed over the past year, he said Israel "has not stopped its aggression" and, "for that reason, we have not got a special interest or enthusiasm in that kind of ceasefire."

Nevertheless, in a statement after the talks, the Russian foreign ministry said Hamas vowed to stick to the ceasefire provided Israel also refrained from force.

"The willingness of Hamas not to withdraw from the inter-Palestinian agreement on a ceasefire reached in March 2005 was confirmed with the understanding that Israel would also refrain from use of force," it said.

Earlier, Meshaal had told Agence France Presse his group was ready to "move forward" in its relations with Israel.

"Hamas is fully ready to go forward as much as this is possible. Everything now depends on Israel's policies," he said.

The group is regarded as a terrorist group by the US and Europe, but not by Russia. As well as refusing to recognize Israel, Hamas has claimed responsibility for dozens of suicide bombings against Israeli targets.

The Hamas delegation includes five other top Hamas officials and deputies from Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank.

Putin caught the other members of the quartet by surprise when he invited Hamas leaders to Moscow.

Lavrov and other senior Russian officials have stressed the invitation was designed to underline to Hamas the need to align itself with the principles of the quartet trying to broker peace.

Israeli officials have described Putin's invitation as a "knife in the back," although the Europeans have signalled the talks could be useful in breaking the impasse.

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