Hamas Criticizes Peace Conference

The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 1, 2007; 2:24 PM

DAMASCUS, Syria -- A senior Hamas official brushed off a planned U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace conference as a publicity stunt, warning Wednesday against any attempt to push the Islamic militant group out of the process.

The comments by Moussa Abu Marzouk came as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Jerusalem. Rice was working on organizing the conference, expected to be held in September.

The U.S., Israel and Arab countries are pushing to make quick progress in the peace process, trying to exploit the isolation of Hamas after the militant group's takeover of the Gaza Strip in mid-June.

The seizure split the Palestinian territories, with Hamas running Gaza and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the rival Fatah faction, forming a government in the West Bank. While the division undermines Abbas' claims to represent all Palestinians, he and Arab officials appear to be hoping it will also free his hands to make progress in peacemaking.

But in an interview with The Associated Press, Abu Marzouk warned that the attempt to squeeze out Hamas will fail and that isolating Gaza _ home to 1.3 million Palestinians _ will breed a dangerous, long-term bitterness between Gazans and Abbas' leadership.

"If they expect peace to come through conferences that exclude Hamas, they are wrong," Abu Marzouk, deputy head of Hamas' political bureau and the group's No. 2, told AP.

Conferences "cannot disregard the fact that Hamas is strongest on the Palestinian street level," he said, speaking in his office in the Syrian capital, where he and other top Hamas leaders live in exile.

"I think it is a publicity stunt, a meeting during which they will only talk," he said. "There is no choice for the Palestinians except to continue with the resistance, and all this talk about a peace conference is, in short, futile."

Arab governments are pressing the United States to ensure that the conference makes progress on tackling the core issues of the peace process _ such as Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the fate of Jerusalem _ rather than making symbolic and confidence-building gestures as past gatherings have.

By doing so, they hope to boost Abbas by showing he can win real concessions from Israel and to discredit Hamas, leaving it to deal with running impoverished Gaza. Since the Hamas takeover, border crossings into Gaza have been closed, allowing only a trickle of humanitarian aid to get in and barring Hamas from receiving funds from abroad.

Abu Marzouk accused Abbas of "betting on the Americans and Israelis and turning his back on his own people" by allowing the siege of Gaza to continue and rejecting any attempts to mediate a compromise between Hamas and Fatah.

"Abu Mazen thinks that through such measures, he can remove Hamas from Gaza. I think that through such behavior, Mahmoud Abbas is removing himself from the hearts and minds of Palestinians in Gaza and all Palestinians everywhere," Abu Marzouk said.

He reiterated that Hamas does not want to rule Gaza on its own. He a dialogue leading to a new unity government between Hamas and Fatah and the restructuring of Palestinian security forces were key to resolving the crisis.

"We do not want to create a state in Gaza. ... We think that the Gaza Strip, West Bank and Jerusalem are one geographic entity that should be administered by one central government agreed on between Fatah and Hamas," Abu Marzouk said.

© 2007 The Associated Press