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Senior Hamas Leader Holds Out Possibility of Cease-Fire with Israel


A senior leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas says his organization will not stand in the way of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement if it is fair for the Palestinians. He also held out prospects for a long term cease-fire with Israel.

Sheik Hassan Yusef is the top Hamas leader in the West Bank, and his comments are the most moderate a member of the group has made publicly.

Hamas has never recognized the right of Israel to exist and has carried out dozens of attacks against Israelis during the past four years of violence, but Sheik Yusef indicated the group may be re-thinking its strategy as it explores new avenues in a post-Arafat era.

Violence has dropped off considerably since Mr. Arafat's death on November 11, with the interim Palestinian leadership and the Israeli government seemingly eager for a calm transition.

Speaking on Israel Radio, Sheik Yusef spoke of Israel and the Palestinians living side by side under a long-term cease-fire. "This may surprise you," he said, "but a 'hudna' - a cease-fire, should be between two sides who agree to live together side by side. Such a 'hudna' could be for 10 years and could be extended."

However, he has also said a truce would have to be respected by both sides.

The Palestinians are preparing for elections in January to choose a successor to Mr. Arafat, and front-runner Mahmoud Abbas has been meeting with militant groups to discuss their cooperation.

Sheik Yusef said while Hamas would not field a candidate in the elections, it is watching the process closely. He indicated Hamas wants to become part of the political process and possibly join a future government.

Sheik Yusef also said Hamas would not veto a peace agreement with Israel as long as it is fair and restores the rights of the Palestinians. "We would study any such agreement carefully," he said.

He said his comments should be seen in the context of "new realities" and a reflection of Hamas' growing "maturity." Sheik Yusef called on Israel and the international community to re-consider their characterization of Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Sheik Hassan Yusef has spent the past two years in an Israeli jail and was just recently released. No such comments have come from other Hamas leaders.

Hamas continues to enjoy a good deal of popular support, especially in Gaza, but the organization is believed to have been seriously weakened when Israel assassinated its top leaders earlier this year.