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For the first time since the beginning of the IDF military operation in the Gaza Strip, Hamas on Monday openly signaled its willingness to accept a cease-fire with Israel.
The message from Hamas was issued by its prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, who has been in hiding since the beginning of the offensive.
Haniyeh's remarks contradict fiery statements made by Hamas leaders in Syria and Lebanon.
Haniyeh said in a televised speech that Hamas would cooperate with any initiative to stop the offensive and reopen the border crossings into the Gaza Strip.
"We will deal positively with any initiative aimed at ending the offensive," he said.
However, Haniyeh said that Hamas would also continue to fight against the "occupation forces" of Israel.
"We are confident that eventually we would achieve victory and crush the aggression," he said. "The intifada must continue because the occupation is continuing to kill."
Haniyeh claimed that at least half of the Palestinians killed in the IDF operation were women and children. "Victory comes to those who believe in Allah and carry out his commandments," he added, citing several versus from the Koran.
"We have confidence in Allah because He's on our side. We are nearing victory over the Zionist war machine. After 17 days of fighting, I can say that the Gaza Strip and faith will prevail. With Allah's help, the Palestinian people will prevail over the infidels."
Haniyeh's speech, which ended with a prayer, was seen by some Palestinians as an admission of defeat. A Fatah official in Ramallah said the speech reflected Hamas's growing predicament.
"This speech shows that Hamas has been defeated," he said. "Haniyeh has actually raised the white flag."
The official pointed out that the speech was also an indication of the growing rift between the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip and the one in Damascus and Beirut.
"The Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip are desperate for a cease-fire," he said. "After more than two weeks of fighting, they are tired and frustrated."
The Fatah official said that Haniyeh's remarks were likely to escalate tensions between the two leaderships. "I don't think [Damascus-based Hamas leader] Khaled Mashaal is going to like what Haniyeh said," he remarked. "The Hamas leaders in Damascus and Beirut are under heavy pressure from the Syrians and Iranians not to accept the latest Egyptian cease-fire initiative."
A Hamas delegation returned to Cairo Tuesday night carrying the movement's response to the Egyptian initiative, which calls for an immediate cease-fire between Israel and the Islamist movement.
The four-member delegation held talks in Cairo earlier this week with Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman before heading to Damascus for consultations with Hamas leaders.
The delegation had originally expressed reservations about some points in the Egyptian proposal, especially regarding the Rafah border crossing and the deployment of an international force in the Gaza Strip. The delegation also voiced opposition to declaring a long-term cease-fire with Israel.
Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon, denied that the Egyptians had set an ultimatum to Hamas to accept their initiative. "No one can impose a deadline on us," he said. "Everything now depends on whether the Egyptians accept our reservations over their proposal." He expressed hope that the Egyptians would accept Hamas's reservations over the cease-fire initiative. He added that Hamas was demanding an immediate halt to the Israeli operation before discussing the issue of a cease-fire.
In a related development, the Hamas government said that it would continue to function despite the "reoccupation" of the Gaza Strip by Israel.
"We are continuing to assume our responsibilities although the Gaza Strip has been divided," said a statement issued by the Hamas government. "We are continuing to provide the citizens with various services."