'We will not boycott elections and are willing to declare a truce with Israel'
Sheikh Hassan Yusuf, the recently released Hamas leader, talks to Donald Macintyre
Hamas will not ask Palestinians to boycott the presidential elections and will react "responsibly" to any official call for a ceasefire from the Palestinian Authority leadership, one of the faction's leaders said yesterday.
Sheikh Hassan Yusuf was speaking on the eve of talks in Damascus between Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation chairman, and Khaled Mashaal, the head of Hamas. Sheikh Hassan said Hamas was "seriously" considering participation in elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council next year.
In the longer term, Sheikh Hassan, who was released two weeks ago after a 27-month sentence in an Israeli prison, repeated that the faction, which is formally committed to the elimination of Israel, would be ready for a two-state agreement based on pre-1967 borders at least in the interim, and said "any subject" would be open for discussion after that.
Sheikh Hassan, the most prominent West Bank spokesman for Hamas, called previous attacks on Israelis "occupation crimes" and said talk of a ceasefire without a halt to Israeli "targeted killings" and incursions was "insignificant". But although he has told the Palestinian media that he is not striking new positions, his remarks yesterday appeared to advance the faction's thinking on several fronts in what he called the new "reality" after the death of Yasser Arafat. Mr Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, has made clear he is seeking a period of calm from all factions, a demand he is expected to discuss with Mr Mashaal.
Though coupled with a stipulation that Hamas activists will not vote in the 9 January election, the decision not to call for a boycott - and to consider standing for PLC seats - reverses the stance the faction had at the last elections in 1996, in accordance with its rejection of the Oslo accords and the Palestinian Authority itself.
Sheikh Hassan said: "The position of Hamas on elections is that it is not going to vote or have a candidate but it is not calling on the people to boycott the elections. There is a lot of pressure from the Palestinian street to have a role in the [PLC] elections and we are very much considering that."
Sheikh Hassan, who said Hamas had been "considering" a halt to suicide bombings if Israelis ceased killing civilians, said that discussion of a ceasefire was not new and Hamas had joined other factions during Mr Abbas's premiership last year in "testing" Israel's willingness to agree to a hudna, or ceasefire. Many Palestinian leaders blame Israel for the collapse of the ceasefire in 2003 by continuing assassinations of militants.
Asked if Hamas was prepared to mount a second "test", he said: "Abu Mazen has not yet made an official request to do that. When he does, our response will be responsible and in the interests of the Palestinian people." Asked about prospects for an initial reduction in militant violence during the election campaign, he added: "We don't have an initiative for a hudna but we have practised it before. Hamas reads the reality and makes its strategy according to the reality."
A senior Israeli security official cast doubt late last week on the centrality of Sheikh Hassan's role in the Hamas leadership. Last Thursday Mahmoud al-Zahar, a physician who is the senior Hamas leader and one of the movement's founders, said Hamas was ready to consider a temporary halt to attacks against Israel "if Israel stops its aggression against the Palestinian people".
Despite scepticism in some Israeli official circles about the sincerity of Hamas's intentions - especially about extending any ceasefire beyond 9 January - a senior Israeli security source said that if the Palestinian leadership succeeded in mobilising its security apparatus, Hamas could fall into line for fear of a repeat of the PA crackdown on the faction in 1996.
Much of the Hamas leadership were arrested and Hamas accused some Palestinian security heads of helping the Israelis to kill or arrest others.
The senior Israeli security official accused Iran of being the paymaster of Hamas and Islamic Jihad but said the local leadership had its own views and added: "If Iran thinks the Palestinian Authority and Fatah are going to come out stronger than Hamas, then it will live with a ceasefire." If not it would continue with "terror" against Fatah as well as Israelis.
Palestinian sources say Sheikh Hassan told Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic intelligence agency, before his release that Mr Abbas and Ahmad Qureia, the Palestinian Prime Minister, were Israel's "last chance" for a settlement, but that Israel needed to reciprocate in any reduction of militant violence.
Sheikh Hassan denied Hamas was funded by the Iranian government and called on European governments to drop its proscription of the faction, saying money given to it for charitable purposes was used only for such purposes. He said that, unlike Osama bin Laden, Hamas was a "nationalist" movement and "has no problem with America or Europe".