CAIRO (AP) — Gaza's ruling Hamas will not stop arming itself because only a strong arsenal, not negotiations, can extract concessions from Israel, the No. 2 in the Islamic militant group told The Associated Press in an interview Saturday.
The comments by Moussa Abu Marzouk, just three days after the worst bout of Israel-Hamas fighting in four years, signaled trouble ahead for Egyptian-brokered talks between the hostile neighbors on a new border deal.
Hamas demands that Israel and Egypt lift all restrictions on the movement of goods and people in and out of the Palestinian territory, which has been buckling under a border blockade since the Islamists seized the territory in 2007. The restrictions have been eased somewhat in recent years, but not enough to allow Gaza's battered economy to develop.
Israeli officials were not immediately available for comment Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. However, an Israeli security official said this week that Israel would likely link a significant easing of the blockade to Hamas's willingness to stop smuggling weapons into Gaza and producing them there.
Abu Marzouk said Saturday that the group would not disarm, arguing that recent Palestinian history has shown that negotiations with Israel lead nowhere unless backed by force.
"There is no way to relinquish weapons," Abu Marzouk said in his office on the outskirts of Cairo. "These weapons protected us and there is no way to stop obtaining and manufacturing them."
Hamas' founding charter calls for Israel's destruction, but leaders of the group have also said they are ready for a long-term cease-fire with the Jewish state.
The group is believed to have amassed a large arsenal of thousands of rockets since Israel's last military offensive in Gaza four years ago. Hamas has been smuggling weapons through tunnels under the border with Egypt, but also claims to have begun manufacturing longer-range rockets in Gaza.
During the latest round of fighting, Hamas fired Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets that came close to Israel's heartland, including the cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time. Israel warplanes pounded the tunnel area during the offensive to disrupt smuggling, and tunnel operators reported serious damage, but in the past were able to rebuild quickly.
Hamas used to be evasive about Iranian weapons support, but in recent days senior officials in the group have openly thanked Tehran. Gaza strongman Mahmoud Zahar told reporters on Saturday that he is confident that Iran will increase military and financial support to Hamas and the smaller militant group Islamic Jihad.
Iran and its regional rivals, the Sunni Muslim-led states in the Gulf, have been competing in recent months to lure Hamas into their respective camps. The top Hamas leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal, is being hosted by the Gulf state of Qatar, which has promised hundreds of millions of dollars for Gaza reconstruction.
Zahar said Saturday that Hamas is not beholden to anyone, but defended the group's ties with Iran. "If they don't like it, let them compete with Iran in giving us weapons and money," he said in an apparent jab at the Gulf states.
Abu Marzouk, meanwhile, said Hamas would not stand in the way of a bid by its main political rival, internationally backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, to seek U.N. recognition for a state of Palestine next week.
Abbas will ask the U.N. General Assembly to approve "Palestine" — made up of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in 1967 — as a non-member observer state.
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