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November 25, 2012

Hamas No. 2 signals trouble for border deal

CAIRO — 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.

Abu Marzouk said the next round of indirect talks will take place in Cairo on Monday. He has not met his Israeli interlocutors, he said, but said they are security officials and experts on border arrangements.

Until late last year, most top Hamas leaders in exile were based in Syria, the Islamists’ main foreign backer in addition to Iran. However, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brutal crackdown on a popular uprising there made Hamas’ alliance with the Damascus regime untenable.

Abu Marzouk, who has settled in a quiet Cairo suburb, said the follow-up talks with Israel were going well so far.

In Gaza, residents said Saturday that Israel has already eased some restrictions.

Fishermen were able to sail six nautical miles out to sea, or double the previous limit, said Mahfouz Kabariti, head of the local fishermen’s association. “This is an opportunity and a chance for a better catch, though it is still a limited area,” said Kabariti, who represents some 3,500 fishermen.

Israeli navy boats have been enforcing a sea blockade in an attempt to prevent weapons smuggling to Gaza. The restrictions on fishermen have fluctuated over the years, linked to the ups and downs in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Meanwhile, some Gaza residents said they were able to enter an Israeli-enforced buffer zone on the Gaza side of the border Saturday with Israel without fear of being fired on.

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