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(photo credit: AP [file])
Hamas is interested in opening a dialogue with the Obama administration because its policies are much better than those of former US president George W. Bush, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said on Sunday.
He denied reports about progress in negotiations for the release of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Schalit.
Mashaal also denied that Hamas was seeking to impose strict Islamic rule in the Gaza Strip, saying religion should not be enforced through coercion.
The Damascus-based leader's remarks came in an interview with the Qatari newspaper Al-Watan and were published a day after Hamas foiled an attempt by a more radical Islamist group to establish an Islamic emirate in the Gaza Strip.
At least 28 Palestinians were killed and more than 120 were wounded in clashes that erupted between Hamas security forces and the Jund Ansar Allah group in Rafah.
The group's leader, Sheikh Abdel Latif Mousa, died when he and one of his bodyguards blew themselves up during attempts to persuade them to surrender.
"We're not courting anyone, but we are dealing with matters with openness and realism," Mashaal said when asked whether his recent statements about accepting a Palestinian state alongside Israel marked a shift in Hamas's policy.
"We have no problem dealing with any party in the world expect for the Zionist occupier. As for the US or any other country in the west or east, we are prepared to conduct dialogue with them because we are owners of a just cause."
He praised President Barack Obama for using a different language than his predecessor.
"As long as there's a new language, we welcome it," Mashaal said. "But we want to see not only a change of language, but also a change of policies on the ground. We have said that we are prepared to cooperate with the US or any other international party that would enable the Palestinians to get rid of occupation."
Mashaal stressed, however, that his statements did not mean that Hamas would accept the demands of the Quartet to recognize Israel, renounce violence and honoring all previous agreements reached between Palestinians and Israelis.
Mashaal strongly denied that his organization was trying to impose Shari'a in the Gaza Strip. Hamas, he said, was a national liberation movement whose main priority was to "liberate the homeland and restore Palestinian rights."
Hamas did not have a policy of "imposing religion on anyone, because faith should come through persuasion, not coercion."
Mashaal claimed that a recent decision by a judge in the Gaza Strip requiring female lawyers appearing in court to cover their heads did not reflect Hamas policy.
"The judge acted on his own and not in coordination with Hamas or the government of Ismail Haniyeh," he explained. "The judge wanted to implement his own interpretation of the law. We are now looking into this matter, but our policy remains that religion should not be imposed on anyone."
As for Schalit, there was nothing new. The efforts to agree on a prisoner exchange with Israel were continuing nevertheless, he added. "Until now, there hasn't been a real breakthrough," he said, denying reports that some Arab parties had offered Hamas money in return for the soldier.
The Hamas leader expressed concern over the recent unrest in Iran, but said he was confident that Teheran would continue to support his movement.
"We are certainly not worried about our relations with Iran or the support that the Iranians give us," he said. "It's no secret that Iran is one of many Arab and Islamic parties that have been supporting Hamas."
Meanwhile, a number of radical Islamic groups in the Gaza Strip threatened on Sunday to avenge the death of the Jund Ansar Allah members by attacking Hamas figures and institutions.
One of the groups, Swords of Right, urged residents of the Gaza Strip to stay away from Hamas-run institutions and mosques because it was planning to attack them soon.
Another group, Ansar Assuna (Companions of the Sunnis), said its members were planning a major attack in the Gaza Strip to express their solidarity with al-Qaida. The group is headed by Mahmoud Taleb, nicknamed Abu Mutasem, who has been wanted by Hamas for three years.