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AP Interview: Hamas No. 2 rejects Gaza arms halt

Sunday - 11/25/2012, 3:38pm  ET

Palestinian schoolchildren walk in debris by a damaged school in Gaza City, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012. Schools in Gaza opened Saturday for the first time since the truce, which calls for an end to Gaza rocket fire on Israel and Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, came after eight days of cross-border fighting, the bloodiest between Israel and Hamas in four years. The school was damaged when Israeli forces struck on a nearby building. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH
Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- Gaza's ruling Hamas will not stop arming itself because only a strong arsenal, not negotiations, can extract concessions from Israel, the No. 2 in the Islamic militant group told The Associated Press in an interview Saturday.

The comments by Moussa Abu Marzouk, just three days after the worst bout of Israel-Hamas fighting in four years, signaled trouble ahead for Egyptian-brokered talks between the hostile neighbors on a new border deal.

Hamas demands that Israel and Egypt lift all restrictions on the movement of goods and people in and out of the Palestinian territory, which has been buckling under a border blockade since the Islamists seized the territory in 2007. The restrictions have been eased somewhat in recent years, but not enough to allow Gaza's battered economy to develop.

Israeli officials were not immediately available for comment Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. However, an Israeli security official said this week that Israel would likely link a significant easing of the blockade to Hamas's willingness to stop smuggling weapons into Gaza and producing them there.

Abu Marzouk said Saturday that the group would not disarm, arguing that recent Palestinian history has shown that negotiations with Israel lead nowhere unless backed by force.

"There is no way to relinquish weapons," Abu Marzouk said in his office on the outskirts of Cairo. "These weapons protected us and there is no way to stop obtaining and manufacturing them."

Hamas' founding charter calls for Israel's destruction, but leaders of the group have also said they are ready for a long-term cease-fire with the Jewish state.

The group is believed to have amassed a large arsenal of thousands of rockets since Israel's last military offensive in Gaza four years ago. Hamas has been smuggling weapons through tunnels under the border with Egypt, but also claims to have begun manufacturing longer-range rockets in Gaza.

During the latest round of fighting, Hamas fired Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets that came close to Israel's heartland, including the cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time. Israel warplanes pounded the tunnel area during the offensive to disrupt smuggling, and tunnel operators reported serious damage, but in the past were able to rebuild quickly.

Hamas used to be evasive about Iranian weapons support, but in recent days senior officials in the group have openly thanked Tehran. Gaza strongman Mahmoud Zahar told reporters on Saturday that he is confident that Iran will increase military and financial support to Hamas and the smaller militant group Islamic Jihad.

Iran and its regional rivals, the Sunni Muslim-led states in the Gulf, have been competing in recent months to lure Hamas into their respective camps. The top Hamas leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal, is being hosted by the Gulf state of Qatar, which has promised hundreds of millions of dollars for Gaza reconstruction.

Zahar said Saturday that Hamas is not beholden to anyone, but defended the group's ties with Iran. "If they don't like it, let them compete with Iran in giving us weapons and money," he said in an apparent jab at the Gulf states.

Abu Marzouk, meanwhile, said Hamas would not stand in the way of a bid by its main political rival, internationally backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, to seek U.N. recognition for a state of Palestine next week.

Abbas will ask the U.N. General Assembly to approve "Palestine" -- made up of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in 1967 -- as a non-member observer state.

Such a state is far from being established, but Palestinians hope U.N. recognition would affirm its future borders, to be used as a baseline once negotiations with Israel resume. Israel, while willing to cede some land, refuses with withdraw to the 1967 lines and opposes Abbas' U.N. move as an attempt to bypass negotiations. Israel has moved half a million Israelis into settlements on war-won land.

Abu Marzouk suggested that Abbas is wasting his time at the U.N. "Hamas believes the General Assembly is not the one to create states," he said. "Occupation needs resistance, not negotiations."

Israel and the West have shunned Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in shootings and bombings over the years, as a terror organization. However, Hamas officials believe the boycott is slowly eroding, pointing to U.S. support for the cease-fire deal brokered by Egypt and the ongoing indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas.

Overall, Hamas leaders have claimed the group has emerged victorious from this round, noting that Israel did not make good on threats to send ground troops into Gaza. Israel says it has achieved its goal of halting rocket fire on Israel.

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