Hamas Leader Says Group Won't Disarm or Accept Truce

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Hamas (search) will not disarm or accept a truce with Israel (search), the leader of the militant group said Wednesday in his first public appearance since Israeli forces tried to kill him with an air strike.

The announcement by Sheik Ahmed Yassin undercuts efforts by the incoming Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia (search), to negotiate a cease-fire with Israel without confronting the militants.

Yassin, who spoke at a mosque near his Gaza City home, also lashed out at the United States, saying President Bush "declared war on Islam" and that America will be defeated by Muslims.

Meanwhile, a group of 27 Israeli reserve air force pilots, signed a petition stating that they would no longer agree to carry out air strikes against Palestinians, calling the attacks illegal and immoral.

The air force commander, Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz, denounced the petition, an unprecedented protest from pilots, and accused those who signed it of meddling in politics.

Dozens of reserve soldiers in ground forces have opted to go to prison rather than serve in the West Bank and Gaza, reflecting growing Israeli unease with the protracted conflict.

Israel has marked Hamas leaders for death and killed 13 members of the group, as well as seven bystanders, in air attacks in the past month.

Yassin was targeted Sept. 6, and his appearance Wednesday reflected his group's growing concerns for the safety of its leaders.

About a dozen Hamas security guards mingled with journalists and Hamas supporters inside the Al-Mujamma Al-Islami Mosque and several more armed guards patrolled outside.

The mosque was presumably considered immune to Israeli attack because of religious sensitivities. Yassin was not flanked by senior Hamas officials, as would have been customary in the past, apparently to reduce the risk.

In a news conference, Yassin said Hamas would not agree to a truce with Israel. A unilateral cease-fire declared by Hamas and other militants on June 29 collapsed in a burst of violence after several weeks.

"There is no place to talk about a truce because the enemy is continuing his aggression, killing and settlement activities," Yassin said. He added: "He who carries a bomb and blows himself up" is destined for paradise, referring to homicide attackers who have killed hundreds of Israelis.

The comments were a rebuff to the new Palestinian prime minister, Qureia, who could have trouble carrying out his agenda without Hamas cooperation.

Like predecessor Mahmoud Abbas, the incoming prime minister has said a truce is a top priority and a prerequisite for progress on the U.S.-backed "road map" to peace and the formation of a Palestinian state in 2005.

Qureia has complained in recent days about the "chaos of weapons" in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but has not said how he would collect illegal arms, as the road map requires.

Palestinian officials have said they would not use force and suggested that militants be persuaded to disarm voluntarily or at least stop flaunting weapons in demonstrations.

Yet Yassin also declared that Hamas would not surrender its arms.

"The weapons that our people carry are to defend our land and our people, and nobody can confiscate them," he said. "We can talk about this only after liberating the land. Taking weapons means surrender and defeat."

In other developments Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said a swap of prisoners with Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas is closer than ever but requires approval from Israel's Cabinet.

Sharon said in a newspaper interview that Israel will not release Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti in the emerging deal, and that Israel will insist on DNA testing of three bodies of Israeli soldiers that are to be handed over.

Barghouti's attorney has said the Palestinian leader, considered a possible successor to Yasser Arafat, tops Hezbollah's list of prisoners it wants freed.

In the swap, Israel would release several hundred prisoners, including Lebanese guerrilla leaders Abdel Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani, for Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah in 2000.

Israel seized Obeid in 1989 and Dirani in 1994 to bargain for the release of Israeli airman Ron Arad, who was shot down over Lebanon in 1986. Israel believes he is being held by Iran.

Sharon said he is certain Tannenbaum is alive, but that his health is deteriorating, suggesting that Israel can't wait much longer to win his freedom.

Cabinet ministers must choose between conflicting goals -- bringing home captives, or not freeing those involved in deadly attacks on Israelis.

Israel has agreed to lopsided swaps in the past, exchanging three Israeli POWs for 1,150 Palestinian prisoners in 1985.

In the West Bank, meanwhile, Israeli troops hunting for a Palestinian gunman cordoned off a hospital in the West Bank city of Qalqiliya, ordering doctors out as they searched the building, the army and hospital officials said.

Searches began after the gunman emerged from a car near an Israeli security barrier and opened fire on guards. The guards and soldiers returned fire, causing an explosion in the Palestinian's vehicle, the army said. Hospital officials said the gunman was treated but escaped before troops arrived. Two explosive devices, a rifle and ammunition were found in the man's car, the army said.