|Hamas would accept Saudi peace plan, spokesman says |
Group would stop attacks on Israelis if occupation ends
Robert Plotkin, Chronicle Foreign Service Sunday, April 28, 2002
Gaza City -- In a startling move, the militant Islamic movement Hamas has accepted the terms of the Saudi peace proposal and is willing to stop attacks on Israel if it returns to pre-1967 borders, a Hamas spokesman told The Chronicle.
The spokesman, Ismail Abu Shanab, said that if Israel agrees to the Saudi plan, which calls for the Jewish state to return to its pre-1967 borders in return for "normal relations" with Arab nations, Hamas will "cease all military activities."
"That would be satisfactory for all Palestinian military groups to stop and build our state, to be busy in our own affairs, and have good neighborhood with Israelis," he said.
The interview with Shanab, a member of the five-person executive committee of Hamas, took place at his home in Gaza City on Friday night. Asked if he was speaking for the entire Hamas organization, Shanab said, "Yes."
Shanab, 50, is considered a moderate within Hamas, an acronym in Arabic for Islamic Resistance Movement. Other Hamas leaders either could not be reached to confirm his remarks or would not comment to an American reporter. Neither could it be independently ascertained whether Hamas' military wing, the Izzedine Qassam Brigades, agreed with the apparent new policy. Observers who were told of Shanab's remarks wondered whether they were aimed at preventing a huge Israeli military move against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
But if true, the policy marks a dramatic turnaround for an organization whose covenant calls for the elimination of the state of Israel and its replacement with an Islamic state whose capital would be Jerusalem. Hamas has refused to support previous peace plans and has rejected calls for a cessation of violence, including the use of suicide bombs, against Israel.
However, there has been growing criticism among Palestinians of Hamas' tactic of using young boys as suicide bombers. In a statement last week that also appeared to signal a turnaround, Hamas leaders urged young Palestinians to "remember that their lives are precious and should not be sacrificed." The statement was signed by Ismail Hanyea, spokesman for Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
TIME TO BE 'PRACTICAL'
In a two-hour interview conducted in English, Shanab, who has a master's degree in engineering from Colorado State University, said the Hamas covenant calling for "every inch of Palestine" from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea is "theoretical," and that Hamas must now be "practical."
"There has been generation after generation (of war). Now there is a generation who needs to live in peace, and not worry about their safety," said Shanab. "So it is a generation that wants to practice living in peace and postpone historical issues. We speak of historical Palestine, and practical reality."
Asked whether "postponing historical issues" means that Hamas has not given up on its goal of eliminating the state of Israel, Shanab replied, "When I speak of postponement, I mean that there is a right for every generation to be satisfied with their condition. Now, when Palestinians and Israelis live among each other in peace, they may cooperate with each other in a way that everyone will be satisfied."
He also outlined what appear to be radical changes of policy on specific issues key to any peace negotiations.
On the highly controversial "right of return" of Palestinian refugees, Shanab said that while it remained a central issue for Hamas, its resolution was not necessarily a precondition for a peace agreement. He said, "It is a complex issue and has 50 years of complexity. So let's solve it, but not right away."
However, he added, the principle remains important: "They give the right of return to New York people, to Jewish Russians, but deny it to Palestinians who were originally from the area."
He also maintained that a "pure Jewish state" is "bad for Israelis. It is good to live among others. A pure Jewish state means apartheid, it means ghetto, it means discrimination."
But Shanab repeated that Hamas would not link peace to the right of return: "We do not have to connect the issue. If Israel returns to pre-1967 borders, we will stop the attacks and postpone the right of return until later. If we have good will, we can solve it. Gradually, patiently, openly, and in devotion to good relations."
On the equally contentious issue of Jerusalem, Shanab insisted that a return to pre-1967 borders would necessarily mean the immediate Palestinian takeover of East Jerusalem, which would encompass Jewish holy sites, including the Western Wall. But he did not demand that a Palestinian state control the whole of Jerusalem, and said that Hamas would agree to an international law guaranteeing freedom of worship for all faiths.
"Such a law could enforce access to worship for all the world. We would accept this. The Jews do not need to worry about this. They will have free access and be welcomed to all religious sites. We have nothing against the Jews, nothing against the Christians."
While Palestinian negotiators in previous peace talks were willing to allow Israel to annex some settlements in the West Bank, Shanab said Hamas would not accept Israeli sovereignty over any of them, or even permit the settlers to stay under Palestinian sovereignty -- unless, he added facetiously, "Israel will let 4 million Palestinian refugees go back to their homes now."
Skeptical observers noted that such a hard-line stance was likely to be rejected by the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- a likelihood, they say, that Hamas was aware of when Shanab put forward his seemingly softer ideas. In a sideways acknowledgment, Shanab said, "We do not believe Israel will agree, but we will give the chance of peace."
He did not think the timing of the Saudi peace plan was right. "When you are weak and conquered, any initiative you make is from a weak position," he said. "So the Saudi initiative, while we are weak, while we are beaten by Israel, and until the Israelis withdraw, it is a strategic mistake.
"But in principle, it is fine."