Carter says Hamas willing to be Israel's neighbor

By: AP
By: AP

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Former President Carter said Monday that the Islamic group Hamas was willing to accept the Jewish state as a "neighbor next door," but the militants did not match their upbeat words with concrete steps to halt violence.

Hamas, which advocates Israel's destruction, instead recycled previous offers, including a 10-year truce if Israel takes the unlikely step of withdrawing from the West Bank and Jerusalem first.

Hamas has repeatedly confounded observers with its conflicting messages. Actions on the ground - seven rockets were fired on Israel from Hamas-ruled Gaza Monday, including one that wounded a 4-year-old boy - contradicted the Islamic militant group's positive words about coexistence and a truce.

And a leader of the Hamas military wing, which carried out a twin suicide bombing on the Gaza border Saturday, said his group would step up attacks against Israel in coming days.

The salvo of rockets came despite a last-minute phone call from Carter, urging a one-month halt to attacks on Israel, to gain some international goodwill and defuse tensions.

"I did the best I could," Carter said of his conversation with Hamas supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal, pressing him to declare a one-month truce. "They turned me down, and I think they're wrong."

Carter, who delivered a speech in Jerusalem Monday summing up his visit, said top Hamas leaders told him during seven hours of talks in Damascus over the weekend that they are willing to live next to Israel.

Hours later, however, Mashaal sent mixed messages. He stressed that while the militants would accept a state in the 1967 borders, meaning alongside Israel, the group would never outright recognize the Jewish state.

The Bush administration and Israel, which shun Hamas as a terrorist group, have criticized the Carter mission as misguided. In Washington, a State Department official said Monday that it does not appear Hamas has changed its positions.

In Jerusalem, Carter defended his trip, saying peace in the region will be possible only if Israel and the U.S. start talking to Hamas and Syria, which supports several militant groups. He also called on the Bush administration to push harder to renew Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

"The present strategy of excluding Hamas and excluding Syria is just not working," said Carter, who brokered a historic 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

Analysts said Hamas apparently decided to send Carter off largely empty-handed, despite the possibility he might have paved an opening to a hostile West, because it prefers doing business with leaders in the region who can deliver concrete achievements. Egypt has been shuttling between Israel and Hamas for nearly two years trying to broker a cease-fire, a prisoner swap and an opening of Gaza's border crossings.

Over the weekend, Carter met twice with Hamas' five-member politburo, headed by Mashaal. Carter said he won a written pledge from Hamas to accept any peace deal with Israel, even if Hamas disagrees with some of the terms, as long as it's approved in a Palestinian referendum.

Carter said Hamas leaders told him they're also ready to accept the Jewish state's right to "live as a neighbor next door in peace" one day. Since its founding 21 years ago, Hamas has carried out scores of suicide attacks in Israel and has fired hundreds of rockets from Gaza at Israeli border towns.

The pledge did not reflect a new Hamas position, though it's significant that it was made in writing. Hamas leaders have said in the past they would establish "peace in stages" if Israel were to withdraw to the borders it held before the 1967 Mideast War. Hamas has been evasive about how it sees the final borders of a Palestinian state, and has not abandoned its official call for Israel's destruction.

The Hamas promise does not say who would participate in a peace referendum. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would be far more likely to approve a deal than exiles in camps in Lebanon and Syria, especially if a treaty does not affirm the "right of return" of refugees to homes in what is now Israel.

A vast majority of Israelis see the repatriation of millions of Palestinians as a threat to the Jewish state's survival, because Jews eventually could be outnumbered.

Mashaal praised Carter for ignoring the broad international boycott of Hamas, which is viewed by Israel and the West as a terrorist organization. "That doesn't mean we agree on all things," the Hamas leader said of Carter. "But we appreciate this brave voice, coming from the West, and coming from America."

Despite the warm words, Hamas rejected Carter's appeal to halt rocket fire on Israel for a month and to speed up the release of a captured Israeli soldier, as a show of good faith.

Mashaal wouldn't budge on the rockets, even during the last-minute phone call by Carter Monday morning.

Carter said that in that call, Mashaal insisted on a reciprocal cease-fire.

"I told them (Hamas), 'Don't wait for reciprocation, just do it unilaterally," Carter said. "'This would bring a lot of credit to you around the world, doing a humane thing.'"

Seven rockets hit Israel on Monday, but other militant groups claimed responsibility not Hamas. In one strike, a 4-year-old boy was hurt in the shoulder in the town of Sderot on Gaza's border.

Also, a leader of the Hamas military wing said attacks on Israel would intensify.

The leader, identified as Abu Jandal, told the Hamas-linked newspaper Al Risala that a suicide bombing at an Israeli position on the Gaza border on Saturday was just a warmup. In the attack, Hamas militants blew up two jeeps carrying hundreds of kilograms (pounds) of explosives, wounding 13 soldiers.

"The previous attacks were just a walk in the park," he told the newspaper.

Concerning a prisoner swap, Carter said the current indirect talks between Israel and Hamas, via Egypt, were making only very slow progress. He said Israel is willing, in principle, to free 1,000 prisoners for Cpl. Gilad Shalit, captured by Hamas-allied militants in 2006. However, so far Israel has only approved 71 names from a list of 450 prisoners suggested by Hamas.

At this pace, Carter said, the negotiations could drag on for years.

He proposed that Hamas agree to a release of women, minors and Hamas legislators in the first phase, in order to speed up the swap, but was turned down.

Mouin Rabbani, an independent analyst, said Hamas used Carter to convey the message that, under certain conditions, it is willing to accept a two-state solution. "Where he demanded specific actions, they didn't respond because he wasn't in a position to deliver anything in return," Rabbani said.

In Washington, the State Department said there is no indication that Hamas wants peace with Israel. "It is pretty clear to us that there is no acceptance on the part of Hamas of any kind of negotiated settlement," said deputy spokesman Tom Casey.

Casey said there had been contradictory statements from Hamas officials over whether they would accept the result of a referendum on a peace deal. Earlier Monday, a senior Hamas official in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, said Hamas would not necessarily accept the outcome of a referendum.

Casey also refuted Carter's insistence that no one in the State Department had advised him against meeting with Hamas officials, saying that Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch had specifically done so in a telephone conversation in late March.

Still, the State Department is open to hearing from Carter about the talks, Casey said.

Carter said he would write a report on his trip and send it to the Bush administration.

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Associated Press correspondent Diaa Hadid contributed to this report from Gaza City.

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