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Hamas debating shift in stance to ease pressure

Written by: Staff

RAMALLAH, West Bank, May 16 (Reuters) Hamas officials are debating whether to adopt an initiative that accepts talks with Israel without recognising the Jewish state, a move that falls short of Western demands but may help ease international pressure.

Despite a public vow by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh not to make any concessions, Hamas officials today said some members of the group were weighing what political benefits might be reaped by softening its position and what would be the best timing for proposing any political changes.

''We are debating more than one political option. This would include accepting creation of a Palestinian state on lands occupied in 1967. We are also not against negotiations, but we propose going directly to a final deal as one package,'' said Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for the Hamas-led government.

''But in all the options discussed, there will be no recognition of Israel,'' he added.

Since taking control of the Palestinian Authority in March, Hamas has been unable to secure the funds to pay salaries to 165,000 government employees because of Western aid cuts and the refusal of banks to handle any of its funds.

''The reason for these debates over adopting a political initiative is that we are in charge of the Authority and those who have their hands in fire are not like those who have their hands in water. We need to clarify our political positions to our people,'' Hamad said.

Another senior Hamas official, Farhat Asaad, told Reuters they were ''debating several political options''.

Hamas officials said they were first seeking to extract a unified position from all Palestinian factions on key political issues in a national dialogue that would begin next week.

Hamas, which defeated moderate President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement in January elections, is sworn to Israel's destruction.

Both Hamas and Israel have ruled out talking to each other.

The Quartet of Middle East mediators the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations have called on Hamas to recognise Israel, renounced violence, and accept past Israeli-Palestinian peace accords.

Arab states have also put pressure on Hamas, urging it to accept a 2002 Arab peace initiative which calls on Israel to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza in return for Arab normalisation of relations.

PRISONERS DOCUMENT Hamas has so far defied Arab and international demands to moderate. In a speech in the southern Gaza town of Rafah on Monday, Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, said: ''I swear to God we will not make concessions.'' But several Hamas officials said the government's survival necessitated moderation.

Last week, Fatah and Hamas members jailed in Israel formulated a peace initiative which included the establishment of a state in the West Bank and Gaza, adopting peaceful means to resist occupation, and implictly recognising Israel by accepting international resolutions that tackle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

''Any new peace intiative would be based on 90 percent of the prisoners' document but would exclude recognition of Israel. We will not gain anything by recognising Israel, it will only tear our movement apart,'' a senior Hamas official said.

An Arab diplomat said if Hamas moderated its position, ''even if it didn't directly recognise Israel, this would help open cracks within the international community and ease pressure on Hamas.'' However, another Hamas official said the prisoner's document ''was nowhere near Hamas' position.'' Reuters SY GC2122

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