Israel rejects 'insincere' Hamas offer of 10-year truce

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Hamas, the most powerful Palestinian militant faction, could agree to a 10-year truce if Israel withdraws from all the land it occupied in 1967, one of the organisation's senior leaders has said. Israel immediately dismissed the comments, from Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a leader of Hamas's political wing, as insincere.

His words are seen by observers as an indication of how weakened Hamas has become following an onslaught of Israeli assassination attempts against its leaders. Dr Rantisi's comments on Sunday are the latest sign of a major shift in policy from Hamas, which until recently was dedicated not only to forcing Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which it occupied in 1967 but also the "liberation" of the whole of former British-mandate Palestine and the destruction of Israel.

The group, said Dr Rantisi in a telephone interview with Reuters news agency, has conceded "it is difficult to liberate all our land at this stage, so we accept a phased liberation.

"We accept a state in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. We propose a 10-year truce in return for [Israeli] withdrawal and the establishment of a state." His remarks follow similar comments by Hamas's spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, who said recently that Hamas could accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Dr Rantisi said Hamas would never abandon its quest for the whole of mandate Palestine, but that a state in the West Bank and Gaza could pave the way to peace, though the truce would last "not more than 10 years".

It is not clear whether Dr Rantisi's proposal amounts to a formal offer from Hamas, but he is one of the most prominent leaders of the group's political wing. He is also known to be a hardliner within the group - his was the main voice to speak out against a short-lived unilateral ceasefire Hamas agreed to last summer.

The Israeli government dismissed Dr Rantisi's remarks as a "smokescreen" for fresh military preparations. Hamas has been behind more suicide bombings than any other Palestinian militant faction, and claimed responsibility for the most recent, on 14 January, in which Reem al-Riashi, a mother of two small children, killed herself and four Israelis at a Gaza Strip border crossing. But Hamas has taken a battering in recent months, after Israel launched a campaign of assassinations against its leadership last autumn. Suicide bombings and other militant attacks have dropped off. Dr Rantisi, who narrowly survived an assassination attempt, has gone into hiding along with most of the group's leadership. They have disappeared into the maze of tiny alleys and tenements in Gaza. They no longer meet foreign journalists, as they used to, and Dr Rantisi gave his interview by telephone from an undisclosed location.

That Hamas is now calling for a Palestinian state in the occupied territories is a sign of how far Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, has succeeded in moving the goalposts. With Israel building its "separation fence" - concrete walls and fences that cut deep into the West Bank - and Mr Sharon threatening a unilateral withdrawal to borders of Israel's choosing, Palestinians fear they are about to have a minuscule state of walled, overcrowded cantons scattered across the West Bank imposed upon them.

What Dr Rantisi was proposing is similar to the Saudi initiative of 2002 that Saudi Arabia and other states are reportedly trying to revive: Arab states were to make peace with and recognise Israel in return for a withdrawal from the occupied territories. Saudi Arabia has denied reports it is working with Egypt and Jordan on an initiative for Arab states to absorb two million Palestinians.