(photo credit: AP)
Israeli officials sent out contradictory messages Saturday night as to what the country would do if Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal tried to enter the Gaza Strip, consistent with the government's decision of keeping policy regarding how to deal with Hamas very close to the chest.
While Maj.-Gen. (res) Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's Political-Military Bureau, said he would expect the Egyptian authorities to stop him from entering Gaza through the Rafah crossing, another security official said that according to the understandings reached with the Egyptians and Palestinians regarding the Rafah crossing, Israel maintained the right to oppose the entry of terrorists and fugitives into Gaza.
Another security official warned that if Mashaal or other wanted terrorists succeed in entering Gaza despite Israel's objections, Israel would respond by shutting down the other Gaza crossings that Israel still controls - Erez, Karni and Sufa - thereby isolating Gaza and cutting all ties, a security official warned.
Defense officials pointed out, however, that Mashaal's arrival is not on the table, and Israel is not dealing with the issue. "If they make an official request, it would be considered and reviewed like any request," one official said. "But we will not make things easier for them."
A senior diplomatic official said, however, that while Israel may not be able to physically prevent him from entering Gaza, Israel's has a policy that no one involved in terrorism has immunity - a policy that would apply to him as well.
Mashaal, meanwhile, said in Damascus that Hamas wanted a partnership with other Palestinian factions. He refused to denounce violence against Israelis, but declared the group would abide by existing agreements that are "in the interest of our people."
Mashaal said Hamas accepted that agreements already in force between Israel and the Palestinian Authority were "a reality and we will deal with it realistically as long we are not giving away our principles and rights. We will respect any agreement as long as it is in the interest of our people."
But, at the same time, Mashaal said Hamas would release Ahmed Saadat, who heads the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and is being held at a Palestinian jail under western supervision for ordering the assassination of Rehavam Ze'evi in 2001.
"We will not accept that Ahmed Saadat or any of our young men of any faction be in the Jericho prison. It is impossible at these times
that Palestinians be jailed in a Palestinian jail under American-British protection. This is over," he said.
One senior diplomatic official in Jerusalem dismissed this threat, however, saying that if Saadat were released - in clear violation of agreements with Israel and the international community - Israel "would know how to respond." While the official did not elaborate,
Israeli officials have said in the past, following comments from PA officials that he would be let go, that if Saadat were set free, Israel would feel free to hunt him down.
Mashaal, speaking to reporters from his base in the Syrian capital, outlined three goals for Hamas after its landslide victory in parliamentary elections: Reform of the Palestinian Authority, sustaining its resistance to Israel and "arranging the Palestinian home."
The Hamas chief refused to disarm the organization which is responsible for dozens of suicide attacks against Israelis.
"As long as we are under occupation then resistance is our right," Mashaal said.
"Resistance is a legitimate right that we will practice and protect. Our presence in the legislature will strengthen the resistance," Mashaal said. "If people raised the issue of targeting civilians, we said and we say that when our enemy stops targeting civilians we will abide by that."
Asked if a truce that ended at the end of 2005 will be renewed, Mashaal said "it results were not encouraging."
He said Hamas's military wing, known as Izzedine al-Qassam, would not be disbanded but could be merged with other armed Palestinian forces.
"We are ready to unify the weapons of Palestinian factions, with Palestinian consensus, and form an army like any independent state.... An army that protects our people against aggression."
Regardless, Mashaal said, Hamas wanted peace.
"We, Arabs and Muslims, are a nation with peace. God is peace. We are working for peace but an honorable peace based on our rights. Who wants to make peace with us based on our right he is most welcome."
Mashaal said he was in contact with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "We will reach a partnership formula, and we extend our hand to everyone." He said no Palestinian faction would be sidelined.
Mashaal attacked US and Israeli opposition to the Hamas victory, saying the "world raised the slogan of democracy and now it should respect the results of democracy. If you want to punish the Palestinian people for practicing democracy then the American administration should punish Americans for choosing President (George W.)Bush."
He declared Hamas' determination to reshape the Palestinian Authority, coining the phrase: "Hamas succeeded in resistance and it will succeed in reforms."
In an apparent reference to the ruling Fatah Party, Mashaal warned those "who might try block the work because they are out of power. They are the ones who will be responsible."
Mashaal vowed to work for Palestinian detainees in Israeli jails, whom, he said, numbered 9,000. He called the international community to seek the release of detainees, especially members of Hamas who have won seats in parliament.
Mashaal insisted that he wants Jerusalem to be the capital of the future Palestinian state saying that "whoever rides Hamas's train will reach Jerusalem."
Yaakov Katz contributed to this report