JERUSALEM, Feb 26 (Reuters) Israel today cautiously welcomed a statement by the Palestinian prime minister-designate that Hamas was ready to recognise it if Palestinians were given full rights and a state in occupied lands.
Hamas chose Ismail Haniyeh, a 43-year-old Gazan viewed by many Palestinians as a pragmatist, as the new prime minister after its election victory on January 25. The group hopes to complete forming a Palestinian government within two weeks.
''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,'' Haniyeh told the Washington Post in an interview posted on its Web site.
Haniyeh said Hamas, whose charter calls to destroy Israel, was ready to consider talks if the Jewish state withdrew from the West Bank and East Jerusalem and recognised the ''right of return'' for Palestinian refugees who fled, or were forced to leave, in the 1948 war and their descendants.
In response, Israeli cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit told Israel's Army Radio: ''I wish they would change their positions...They (Hamas) may be starting to speak another language.'' If Hamas were to accept Israel's conditions to recognise Israel and renounce violence, ''we won't have any trouble speaking to Hamas, and to reach a settlement'', Sheetrit said.
Hamas has rejected talks with the Jewish state but has signalled a readiness to accept interim peace deals with Israel, after US-led threats to withhold critical funding to the Palestinians unless Hamas changes its stance.
''Let Israel say it will recognize a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, release the prisoners and recognize the rights of the refugees to return to Israel. Hamas will have a position if this occurs,'' Haniyeh said.
Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in September after a 38-year occupation but has vowed to hold on to East Jerusalem and major West Bank settlements and never allow millions of Palestinians abroad to flood into Israel.
Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 West Asia War.
PEACE IN STAGES A Palestinian uprising began in 2000 after talks between Palestinians and Israelis collapsed. Among the issues on which the talks foundered was Palestinian refugees.
Israel has long rejected demands to permit refugees to return to its borders, arguing it could change the demographic balance and undermine Israel's existence as a Jewish state.
''If Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders, then we will establish a peace in stages,'' Haniyeh said. ''We will establish a situation of stability and calm, which will bring safety for our people.'' Hamas's election victory over President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction paved the way for the group to form a new cabinet and knocked down hopes West Asia peacemaking might be revived.
Asked whether Hamas would abide by interim agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinians, Haniyeh said: ''We will review all agreements and abide by those that are in the interest of the Palestinian people.'' ''The ones that will guarantee the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital with 1967 borders.'' ''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 added. Hamas has carried out nearly 60 suicide bombings in Israel since the uprising began, but has largely abided by a cease-fire forged a year ago.
Abbas said in an interview to be broadcast today with Britain's ITV1 he would resign if he was no longer in a position to pursue his peacemaking agenda when the new Hamas government takes over.
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