Official: Hamas will seek more weapons

 

Cairo, Egypt

Israel and Hamas on Monday resumed indirect discussions over their fragile cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, a top Hamas official said, but he warned that violence could flare again if negotiators did not quickly come to an agreement.

In an interview with reporters in his suburban Cairo villa, Hamas deputy political leader Mousa Abu Marzook said the militant Palestinian group would continue to seek weapons even as an Israeli delegation arrived in Cairo to begin talks over the second stage of a cease-fire agreement reached last week. He also said Hamas would not rule out renewed rocket attacks if Israel decided to attack Iran.

Abu Marzook said the Monday talks marked the second round of negotiations since the Egyptian-brokered cease-fire took effect Wednesday. He said that the session would focus on Hamas's demands to loosen Israel's six-year blockade on the Gaza Strip but warned that protracted negotiations could shatter the delicate truce.

"If they stall too much in any of the issues that have to do with my freedom and breaking the siege, the field is open," he said.

Israel tightly limits the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, including a ban on the import of most construction materials — measures that rights groups and local officials say have crippled Gaza's economy and hindered reconstruction efforts in the wake of a 2008-09 Israeli ground invasion.

Israel also enforces a blockade on Gaza's seaport and a 500-meter buffer zone inside the border, encompassing 17 percent of Gaza's land, in which trespassing Palestinians are often shot, according to the Gisha Legal Center for the Freedom of Movement, an Israeli human rights organization.

Lifting these restrictions are key to Hamas's demands as the negotiations move forward, Abu Marzook said.

Israel and the United States have sworn off direct negotiations with Hamas, which they label a terrorist organization. Hamas and Israel have been negotiating indirectly through Egyptian messengers, Abu Marzook said.

But previous cease-fires have broken down, and the Hamas leader said the group would continue to acquire weapons, even as the two sides struggle to negotiate a long-term peace.

Abu Marzook said Monday that the Palestinian resistance movements must "defend themselves."

Israel has vowed to halt Gaza militants' stockpiling of weapons, including Iranian-made long-range rockets. During the conflict, militants for the first time hit targets near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, showing off newly powerful capabilities that brought threats closer to Israel's population centers.

Israel routinely bombs tunnels that militants use to smuggle weapons, food and other commercial goods from Egypt's poorly policed northern Sinai region. Egyptian guarantees to put a halt to the weapons traffic was a key factor in Israel's willingness to stop its assault on Gaza.

But Abu Marzook said Egypt would not be able to end smuggling across its border.

"There is nothing to be done," he said, adding that weapons would make their way to Gaza no matter what legal barriers are set to keep them out.

Some of those weapons have been from Iran, Hamas leaders have said, suggesting that a relationship that frayed between Hamas and the Islamic republic earlier this year is on the mend.

Ties had suffered after Hamas leaders abandoned their longtime base in Damascus, another close Iranian ally, amid Syria's worsening civil war.

On Monday, Abu Marzook criticized Iran for supporting the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and he urged the Islamic republic to get in line with the democratic sentiments of the Arab Spring.

"Iran must realize that there is a public opinion in the Arab world, so it must remedy its positions so it does not lose the Arab world because of its stances on the region's crises," he said.

But Hamas officials have also signaled in the days since the cease-fire came into effect that the group's relationship with Iran remained strong.

Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal both thanked Iran last week for providing Gaza's fighters with the weapons they used in their latest battle against Israel.

And Abu Marzook did not rule out the possibility that Hamas would use those weapons to back Iran in a war against the Jewish state.

"These hypothetical questions are difficult to answer," he said. Hamas would condemn any Israeli "aggression" on another country. "But how we will act about this aggression — this is something that would undoubtedly be decided in its own time."

The eight-day Israeli assault on Gaza "was like reconnaissance for Iran," he said, because it showed Israel's military playbook.

Abu Marzook said the conflict had demonstrated that Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, who runs the West Bank, was a largely irrelevant figure.

"People eventually head to the actor in the battle," Abu Marzook said, referring to Hamas and its fight in Gaza. "Why would people head toward him?"

- - -

Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

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