Hamas Leader: Ready for Long-term Truce

In an apparent change in long-standing policy, a top Hamas (search) leader said Friday the militant group would accept the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as a long-term truce with Israel.

Hamas' statement came as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (search) described Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) as the Palestinians' best chance for peace.

Mubarak's comments could mean warming relations between Israel and an important Mideast peace mediator at a crucial time. It was a marked departure from past comments from Mubarak and other Egyptian officials blaming Sharon for the escalation of violence in the territories.

"I think if they (Palestinians) can't achieve progress in the time of the current (Israeli) prime minister, it will be very difficult to make any progress in peace," Mubarak told reporters.

Hamas has long sought to destroy Israel and replace it with an Islamic Palestinian state, rejecting peace accords and carrying out homicide bombings and other attacks that have killed hundreds of people and badly damaged peace efforts.

"Hamas has announced that it accepts a Palestinian independent state within the 1967 borders with a long-term truce," Sheik Hassan Yousef, the top Hamas leader in the West Bank, told The Associated Press, referring to lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Yousef said the Hamas position was new and called it a "stage." In the past, Hamas has said it would accept a state in the 1967 borders as a first step to taking over Israel. Yousef did not spell out the conditions for the renewable cease-fire nor did he say how long it would last.

"For us a truce means that two warring parties live side by side in peace and security for a certain period and this period is eligible for renewal," Yousef said. "That means Hamas accepts that the other party will live in security and peace."

Yousef's comments indicated that four years of fighting with Israel -- during which the military has targeted the group's top leaders -- along with international sanctions have taken a toll.

Yasser Arafat's death last month and a drive by new PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas to renew talks with Israel after the January election for new Palestinian leader also appears to have changed Hamas' policy.

Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said Abbas noticed in meetings Thursday with Hamas leaders that there were "some real developments in their policies," but refused to elaborate.

Yousef said Hamas, which said Wednesday it would boycott the January vote, was planning to participate in Palestinian politics. It had previously shunned any role in the Palestinian Authority because the governing body was created under interim peace accords with Israel that Hamas rejected.

"Hamas wants to join the Palestinian political leadership and there are meetings over this issue," he said. "Hamas being a part of the political equation means Hamas will deal with the other party (Israel)."

Hani Masri, a commentator for the Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam, said Hamas was weakened by its listing as a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union, which has dealt a strong blow to the group's finances.

Coupled with Israel's hunt for Hamas leaders -- including the killing of Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin in March -- and Palestinian exhaustion with the uprising, the group could not survive if it did not change, Masri said.

"That doesn't mean there are no extremist wings in Hamas," Masri said. "There are still extremists in Hamas and they still have the ability to function, but I think the Palestinian Authority with Abu Mazen (Abbas) at its top will help Hamas to rein in the extremists."

A Hamas official said on condition of anonymity that Abbas will meet Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Syria next week to arrange a truce before the election.

Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader in Gaza, said Thursday that cease-fire negotiations could begin next week. "If the Israelis stop their aggression against our people, I think through the negotiations ... we can reach a final agreement," he said.

Sharon said Thursday that Israel would halt offensive military operations if calm prevails.

However, on Friday morning Israeli soldiers shot and killed an Islamic Jihad leader during an arrest raid in the West Bank village of Rabba near Jenin. Soldiers surrounded a house, where they believed fugitives were hiding, and called on the residents to leave, the army said.

Troops shot Mahmoud Dobie, 25, when he tried to flee, the army said. Dobie was armed with a pistol, the army added.

Dobie was arrested by Palestinian security services two years ago after he recruited a suicide bomber, the army said. He escaped from his prison cell in the West Bank town of Jericho a few months ago, the army said.

Erekat condemned the killing saying it "undermines the efforts we're exerting" to reach a truce with militants.