Hamas yesterday appeared to soften its long-standing refusal to recognise Israel. Khaled Meshal, the Islamic movement's political leader in exile in Damascus, said that Israel was a "reality" and that "there will remain a state called Israel, this is a matter of fact". Both Israeli and European diplomats reacted with caution, although they acknowledged that the interview contained things Hamas had not said before. Mr Meshal is regarded as the man who dictates policy for the Palestinian government from his base in the Syrian capital.
Mark Regev, Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman, said: "The problem up to now has been that Hamas says again and again that Israel has to be wiped off the map." Asked about Mr Meshal's statement that there would remain a state called Israel, he conceded: "That has to be looked at more carefully. We have no indication so far of any policy change."
In his comments, in a Reuters interview, Mr Meshal hedged his acceptance of Israel and said that Hamas would refuse to consider granting formal recognition until its demand for a Palestinian state was met. He said: "The problem is not that there is an entity called Israel. The problem is that the Palestinian state is non-existent." He added that Palestinians had to have a state that included the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, with a right for Palestinian refugees to return to their homes inside what became Israel in 1948.
He said: "As a Palestinian today I speak of a Palestinian and Arab demand for a state on 1967 borders. It is true that in reality there will be an entity or state called Israel on the rest of Palestinian land. This is a reality, but I won't deal with it in terms of recognising or admitting it." He declined to accept the Western demand for Hamas to recognise Israel, renounce violence against it and honour previous peace agreements.
One European diplomat said in Jerusalem that Mr Meshal had not gone far enough for economic sanctions to be lifted. It would have been better, he said, if he had endorsed the 2002 Arab peace plan, which offered full peace in return for Israel's withdrawal from all territories occupied in the 1967 war.
The diplomat suspected that the softer line might have been a tactical ploy to revive the chances for a Palestinian unity government and restore Hamas's popular appeal. Hamas has recently been weakened by the massacre of a Gaza security commander, identified with Fatah, and seven of his men; and the execution of Saddam Hussein.
The massacre shocked Palestinians and encouraged Fatah to challenge the domination of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Tens of thousands attended a rally in a football stadium, chanting anti-Hamas slogans and anointing Mohammed Dahlan, a charismatic Fatah security chief, as a future leader.
Mr Dahlan boasted in an interview with the liberal Israeli daily Ha'aretz yesterday: "We proved to Hamas that Gaza is not theirs. They lost the Palestinian street, which sees what they have become: a bunch of murderers and thieves who execute Fatah members."
To most Palestinians, Saddam Hussein was a hero who supported their cause, rocketed Israel in the 1991 Gulf war, and subsidised the families of suicide bombers. They condemned Hamas for not distancing itself from its Iranian backer, which rejoiced at his execution.