Sat, May 13, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Some Hamas leaders take softer stance

CHANGE OF HEART?Some senior members of the militant group, including jailed Marwan Barghouti, have negotiated a deal that would establish a Palestinian state

AP , JERUSALEM

An Israeli soldier smiles as he walks past young Palestinian women during an arrest operation in the West Bank city of Nablus yesterday.

PHOTO: EPA

Senior Palestinian militants imprisoned in Israeli jails hammered out a proposal softening Hamas' rejection of Israel's right to exist in what could be a first step toward moderation for the internationally isolated Islamic militant group, Palestinian officials said on Thursday.

The proposal, accepting a Palestinian state alongside Israel, was signed by a well-known Hamas militant, but it's far from clear if it will be accepted by the group's hard-line leaders abroad, who have resisted international demands to recognize Israel and renounce violence. Hamas officials in Damascus had no immediate comment.

Since Hamas won Jan. 25 parliamentary elections, the Palestinian government has grown increasingly isolated. Western nations, which list Hamas as a terror group, cut off all funding to the Palestinian Authority, and the Israeli government froze its monthly transfer of US$55 million in taxes for the Palestinians.

The economic boycott has left the Palestinian government unable to pay salaries to its 165,000 workers, causing a deepening financial crisis throughout the West Bank and Gaza.

Stocks of fuel had been dwindling in recent days and many gas pumps ran dry after Dor Energy, the Israeli company that provides all fuel to the Palestinian territories, cut off supplies on Wednesday, citing the Palestinian government's heavy debts.

The crisis appeared to be approaching a resolution on Thursday, when Mohammed Mustafa, the head of the Palestinian Investment Fund, said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had authorized the release of money to pay the debts.

Mustafa said he spoke to Dor and expected deliveries to restart.

"I can't say if it will be today or tomorrow, but it will be soon," he said. Israel's Channel 10 TV reported late on Thursday that shipments had been resumed.

The apparent resolution came days after Western officials, fearing a humanitarian catastrophe in Palestinian towns, agreed to restore some aid to the Palestinians, as long as it was not handled by Hamas. Israeli officials also said they would consider releasing some of the withheld taxes to meet the Palestinians' humanitarian needs, but only if it bypassed Hamas.

In Washington, US State Department official Sean McCormack praised the Israeli decision.

"Without knowing the details, I think that the initial reaction would be this is a positive step in addressing the humanitarian situation of the Palestinian people," he said.

Since Hamas formed a Cabinet in March, the group's leaders have been searching for a way to end their government's international isolation. Hamas leaders in Gaza and the West Bank have hinted they might abandon the group's call for the destruction of Israel, but Khaled Mashaal, the Syria-based leader of Hamas, has rejected any suggestion of moderation.

The draft agreement was negotiated over the past month by militants held in Hadarim Prison next to the Israeli city of Netanya, including Marwan Barghouti, a leader of Abbas' Fatah Party, and Abdel Khaled Natche, the top Hamas militant held by Israel.

The proposal calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state "in all the lands occupied in 1967," a reference to the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. The document does not include explicit recognition of Israel, but even the implied recognition would mark a major breakthrough for Hamas.

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