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Hamas Leader: We Could Make Peace With Israel One Day

The incoming Palestinian prime minister has suggested Hamas could one day make peace with Israel, but undercut the gesture by demanding Israel first recognize a Palestinian state within boundaries the Israelis reject.

Israel dismissed the comments by Ismail Haniyeh as doubletalk.

Asked in an interview with CBS News broadcast Thursday if he could foresee a day when he would be invited to sign a peace agreement with Israel, Haniyeh replied, "Let's hope so."

But his Islamic militant group, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections in a landslide in January, has rebuffed Israel's conditions for talks, namely, that the group disarm and recognize the Jewish state's right to exist.

Haniyeh told CBS that Hamas would not meet those conditions for talks unless Israel "recognized a Palestinian state within the boundaries of Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem."

Israel accepts the principle of an independent Palestinian state, but has said many times that it has no intention of returning to the borders it held before capturing those territories in 1967.

Haniyeh is considered a relative pragmatist, but he does not call the shots in Hamas. Major decisions are made in secret by a group of Hamas leaders inside and outside Gaza and the West Bank.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev accused Hamas of spewing "double meanings, verbal gymnastics and word games" in the hope of softening the West's image of the group as a terrorist organization.

The U.S. and Europe have threatened to withhold some of the hundreds of millions of dollars they inject into the cash-starved Palestinian Authority annually unless Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings, changes its ways.

To gain international legitimacy, Hamas must meet three conditions: recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept Mideast peacemaking, Regev said.

"Nothing we have heard from any Hamas leader since the election indicates that they are going to accept these benchmarks," he said.

In a published interview last month, Haniyeh said Hamas would establish "peace in stages" if Israel would withdraw to its boundaries before the 1967 war. But he immediately distanced himself from those remarks by saying Hamas was interested in a long-term truce with Israel, but did not seek peace with it.

Following Hamas' election, Israel declared it would have nothing to do with a government that incorporated the militant group. And it rejected Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' offer to continue negotiations under the auspices of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which he heads. Israel says Abbas is part of a terrorist government even though he does not belong to Hamas.

Hamas intends to present its Cabinet to parliament for approval on Monday after failing to persuade any other party or independent lawmaker to join a coalition. A Hamas-only government would be likely to strengthen Western resolve to cut aid.

The main sticking point in coalition talks was Hamas' refusal to recognize a 1988 unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence that included a recognition of Israel.

Israel, meanwhile, has again extended its closure of Palestinian areas into next week, and is inclined to keep it going until after Israel's March 28 elections, security officials said. The closure bars Palestinian laborers from entering Israel and also shuts down Gaza's main cargo crossing, Karni.

Residents of Gaza City flocked to bakeries Friday, fearing a bread shortage.

"People have been lining up to buy bread since the morning," said one bakery owner, Mohammed Madhoun. "Some are buying more than they need because they are afraid we are going to run out of bread very soon. If Karni doesn't open on Sunday, there won't be a single loaf of bread left in Gaza City," he said.

Israel has kept Karni closed on and off for most of the past two months, citing security concerns. The Palestinian Mill Co., which says it supplies about 60 percent of Gaza's flour, was idled last week because it used up its flour stocks.

The Palestinian National Economy Ministry said Friday it expects bakeries to run out of flour within a few days because of the mill's shutdown.