GAZA, Feb 26 (UNI) Hamas's prime minister-designate Ismail Haniyeh today denied he had suggested the Palestinian Islamist group might one day recognise Israel, saying there was only a possibility of achieving a long-term truce.
Hamas chose Haniyeh, a 43-year-old Gazan viewed by many Palestinians as a pragmatist, as the new prime minister after its election victory on Jan 25 the militant Islamist group hopes to form a Palestinian government within two weeks.
The Washington Post newspaper, on its Web site, quoted Haniyeh as saying in an interview ''If Israel declares that it will give the Palestinian people a state and give them back all their rights, then we are ready to recognise them.'' But Haniyeh told reporters in Gaza that he ''did not tackle the issue of recognising (Israel) in my interview with the Washington Post''.
Reiterating a long-standing position by Hamas, Haniyeh said the group would never recognise Israel but could agree to a long-term truce if Israel withdrew from lands captured in the 1967 war, freed prisoners and allowed the return of refugees.
Hamas is caught between US-led demands to recognise Israel or face a cutoff of foreign aid to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority, and sticking to its ideology of calling for Israel's destruction.
Israel had rejected Haniyeh's published remarks to the Washington Post as falling short of its demands that Hamas recognise Israel's right to exist, renounce violence and accept peace accords as a condition for any contacts with the group.
Israel has sought to isolate any Hamas-led government and decided to freeze transfers of tax revenues worth - million per month to the Palestinian Authority.
The United States, while backing Israel's boycott, has pledged to continue providing humanitarian assistance to ease the plight of ordinary Palestinians.
ISRAEL SCEPTICAL Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz told US Assistant Secretary of State David Welch in a meeting about the Palestinian aid crisis that Haniyeh's published remarks were ''sweet talk'' and ''show their intentions are not real''.
Meir Sheetrit, another cabinet minister, had earlier said Haniyeh's quoted comments were a possible indication that ''they (Hamas) may be starting to speak another language''.
In the newspaper interview, Haniyeh was quoted as saying: ''If Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders, then we will establish a peace in stages.'' He told reporters today the comments referred to ''the nature of the truce''.
''We do not have any feelings of animosity toward Jews. We do not wish to throw them into the sea. All we seek is to be given our land back, not to harm anybody,'' he told the Washington Post.
Hamas, which seeks to replace Israel with an Islamic state, has carried out nearly 60 suicide bombings since a Palestinian uprising began in 2000. But it has largely abided by a ceasefire forged a year ago.
Hamas officials have said in the past the group would offer Israel a 10 to 15 year truce in return for a withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip before pursuing its long-term goals.
''Hamas will never recognise the legitimacy of the Zionist entity on any part of our land of Palestine,'' senior Hamas leader Khalil Abu Laila said, enunciating Hamas policy.
''We can give a long truce in which peace can prevail in the region for the duration of the truce,'' he added.
Hamas's election victory over President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction paved the way for the group to form a new cabinet and knocked hopes that W Asia peacemaking might be revived.
Abbas said in an interview to be broadcast today with Britain's ITV1 that he would resign if he was no longer in a position to pursue his peacemaking agenda when the new Hamas government takes over.
REUTERS OM RK1912