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Interview: Hamas head Sheikh Ahmed Yassin

By SAUD ABU RAMADAN

GAZA, June 16 (UPI) -- Sheik Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader and founder of the Islamic resistance movement Hamas, has said his movement could accept a gradual Israeli army withdrawal and the step-by-step dismantling of Jewish settlements from all occupied Palestinian territories as a way to peace in the region.

In an exclusive interview with United Press International on Sunday, Yassin said Hamas, which the United States and Israel regard as a terrorist group, would not be satisfied with an Israeli army withdrawal from Gaza only, a move agreed to by the Palestinian Authority leadership.

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"Hamas wants a gradual withdrawal from Gaza first and from other occupied cities, villages and refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza through ... an agreeable timetable, back to the borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war," said Yassin.

The 67-year-old quadriplegic leader, sporting a long white and gray beard and seated in a wheelchair, was speaking at his house in the Sabra neighborhood of Gaza City. It is the first time since he founded Hamas in 1987 that Yassin has not said that the establishment of an Islamic state comprising the Palestinian territories and Israel was the only way to peace.

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Yassin has always maintained that the lands of Palestine -- Israel and the Palestinian territories -- are waqf lands (Islamic property), which belong to all Muslims around the world, and so Muslims should never accept anything less than an Islamic state on those lands.

Asked if he would accept a temporary hudna, or cease-fire, with Israel, Yassin said Hamas was ready but only under specific conditions.

"Hamas is studying everything, and it has several choices," he said. "For us the hudna can never be reached without a price, and Israel on the other hand must be committed to it."

Prior to talks in Jordan between the Palestinian and Israeli leadership, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas was trying to reach a cease-fire deal with Hamas. After those talks, however, many Palestinians felt Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, had made too many concessions to Israel and groups such as Hamas broke off negotiations on a cease-fire.

Yassin said a hudna would require more than an end to violence on both sides.

"Hudna must lead to getting our legitimate rights," he said.

"Hudna doesn't mean that we have to stop attacks only, while Israel continues occupation, detaining Palestinians, killing others and expanding settlements," he said. "Hudna means to release prisoners, stop killing and dismantle settlements."

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Following a wave of retaliatory attacks between Israel and the Palestinians over the past week, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority contacted Hamas and tried to convince its leaders to accept a temporary cease-fire. Yassin said Hamas had not replied to either side, but that talks were continuing.

At issue is the "road map" to peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that calls for mutual confidence-building measures, culminating in an independent Palestinian state by 2005 and peace and security for Israel. Both sides have accepted the plan, but Israel has done so only conditionally. One of the "road map's" conditions for the talks is an end to the violence.

"We are ready to stop our resistance and our self-defense for a period of time, but only if (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon commits himself to certain conditions that Hamas agrees upon with the Palestinian Authority," Yassin said.

Following a wave of attacks by Palestinian militants, Israel last week said it would target top Hamas leaders in a bid to get the peace process back on track. An attempt to kill top Hamas leader Abdul Aziz al-Rantissi failed. Yassin said that despite these efforts, he would continue to remain at his home.

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He stressed that Hamas was not a small group of people that Israel can easily "smash and destroy by carrying out the latest airstrikes on its militants and leaders," adding: "Hamas is a popular movement that earns its support from the Palestinian people, Arab and Islamic worlds."

"Neither the United States, nor Israel, nor the Palestinian Authority can neglect Hamas' demands and terms," he said.

Yassin also opposed the Palestinian Authority's announcement that it would agree to a partial withdrawal of Israeli forces from certain areas in the Gaza Strip, and would assume control of security there.

"The Palestinian Authority would make a fatal mistake if it accepts such a proposal," he said, suggesting Israel's purpose would be "to get rid of the time bomb in Gaza in order to have a space of time in the West Bank."

He also said that if Israel agreed to accept a hudna with the Palestinians, "all the Palestinian political groups, organizations and factions would sit together and give their final decision on accepting or rejecting it."

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