Moscow: Hamas agrees to year-long ceasefire with Israel

By News Agencies

Haaretz

Adar 4, 5766

MOSCOW - The Russian Foreign Ministry on Friday said Hamas has agreed to a year-long ceasefire with Israel, on condition of it refraining from any use of force during that time.

"Hamas confirmed its willingness not to withdraw from the March 2005 inter-Palestinian agreement on a cease-fire on the understanding that Israel will also refrain from use of force," a Foreign Ministry statement said.

The agreement between Palestinian militant factions was struck in Egypt last year following the Sharm al-Sheikh summit where Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed a ceasefire agreement.

On Friday the U.S. described the meeting between Russian diplomats and Hamas leaders as a positive development.

The meeting in Moscow "served the purpose to deliver the message," State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said. "We think it's important that Hamas get the message loud and clear."

"We have a common front and a united purpose to make clear to Hamas that it has before it a clear and unambiguous choice," Ereli said.

Responding calmly to Hamas' refusal in Moscow to soften its hostility to Israel, Ereli said: "We'll judge Hamas by its actions.?

A Hamas leader in Moscow, Ezzat El-Resheq, said the Islamic militant group would look positively on an extension of the ceasefire, but only if Israel "ended its aggression, assassinations and arrests and freed Palestinian prisoners".

"The ball is now in Israel's court," he told Reuters.

Russian FM: Hamas must recognize Israel
Earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Palestinian election winner Hamas that it must recognize Israel's right to exist, Interfax news agency said.

Lavrov, speaking after talks with the leadership of the Islamist militant group, said he had insisted that all the views laid out by the Quartet group, that includes the United States, the European Union and the United Nations, must be respected.

"That means above all the need to stick by all existing agreements, the need to recognize the right of Israel to exist as a partner in negotiations (and) the need to reject all armed methods of settling political questions," Interfax quoted him as saying.

Meanwhile, South Africa has joined a growing list of countries inviting Hamas leaders for talks, raising Israeli concerns that the international front against the Islamic militants is crumbling.

Hamas officials arrived in Russia for first talks with a major foreign power on Friday but poured cold water on hopes of a peace breakthrough by saying they were firm in their refusal to recognize Israel.

"The issue of recognition is a done issue. We are not going to recognize Israel," Mohammed Nazzal, a senior official accompanying the group's exiled political leader Khaled Meshal, told reporters after their delegation arrived in Moscow.

Meshal said Friday that Israel must withdraw from territories occupied in 1967 and allow return of Palestinian refugees if it wants peace.

Meshal said that if Israel took these steps, "our movement will have taken a big step toward peace."

He welcomed the outcome of high-level talks with Russian officials - in which Hamas faced pressure to soften its hostility to Israel and abandon violence.

The talks were "good, constructive and open," Meshal said after meeting with Lavrov and other Russian officials.

The Russian foreign minister was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency that Hamas was ready to honor all the agreements the Palestinian administration had undertaken as part of the Middle East peace process if Israel made steps to meet it halfway.

Lavrov also said the Hamas leadership had agreed to allow international officials to monitor their budget funding, according to Interfax and RIA-Novosti.

"They are ready to create a mechanism of international oversight," Lavrov was quoted as saying. No further details were provided.

Lavrov: Hamas must change or will have no future
Earlier, speaking to reporters ahead of his talks with the Hamas delegation, Lavrov said the organization will have no future if the Palestinian militant group fails to transform itself into a political structure.

Lavrov said there was a "need for Hamas having been elected to a political body to transform itself into a political party and to be sure that the military wing of Hamas become a legitimate part of the Palestinian security structures."

Lavrov urged patience, saying that "we don't expect that Hamas will do all this and change itself overnight... It will be a process, hopefully not as long as the process in Great Britain regarding Northern Ireland," he added.

He said that Hamas needs "to reassess its new role, for which maybe it wasn't ready when the elections took place."

Putin won't meet Hamas delegates
In an apparent attempt to avoid damaging relations with Israel further, President Vladimir Putin decided against personally meeting the Palestinian delegation, which will only have a sightseeing tour of the Kremlin on Sunday.

An Israeli official speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of Russia-Israeli relations said Israel also expects Moscow to clearly condemn Meshal's refusal on Friday to discuss recognizing Israel.

Russia's invitation, extended by Putin, was the first crack in an international front against the group, considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the European Union and United States. Hamas has sent dozens of suicide bombers to Israel and does not accept the presence of a Jewish state in the Middle East.

Although it deals a blow to U.S.-led efforts to isolate Hamas since it swept Palestinian elections in January, Russia's mediation is seen by some in the West as a chance to press the group into embracing more moderate views.

After initially condemning Moscow's overtures toward Hamas, Israel adopted a wait-and-see attitude on the talks' results.

The Hamas-Russia talks were being closely monitored by Washington, the road map's chief patron.

"Our position is that if you are going to meet with a terrorist group, you should make it clear to them that their way of doing business is unacceptable, that their philosophy is contrary to the norms of the civilized world, and that they should get with the program," U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said.

By inviting Hamas to Moscow, Putin is seen as trying to boost Russia's diplomatic clout in the Middle East, on the wane since the Soviet Union fell.

South Africa invites Hamas for talks
South Africa invited Hamas for talks, the country's foreign ministry said Thursday.

No timetable has been set for the visit, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.

"We would be concerned that giving legitimacy to an unreformed Hamas could stifle the possibility that the movement will transform itself from a terrorist organization to a political party," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.