RAMALLAH - As long as any Palestinians remain in Israeli jails, Hamas will have an incentive to kidnap more soldiers, the organization's leader in the West Bank, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, warned Monday.
"I don't know whether more soldiers will be abducted," he told Haaretz. "But so long as Palestinian prisoners continue to suffer in prisons, there will be an incentive to free them via any available means. I urge the government of Israel to release the prisoners in order to put an end to this whole issue. This is an issue that creates considerable tension."
Yousef is Hamas' undeclared leader in the West Bank. He was released from an Israeli prison a few months ago, then briefly detained a few weeks later before being freed anew.
He met with Haaretz in the offices of Hamas' "Change and Reform" faction in Ramallah, shortly after being informed that he will deliver a speech on Tuesday at a ceremony in Ramallah to honor the prisoners freed in exchange for Gilad Shalit. His speech will follow that of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Yousef is considered a member of Hamas' moderate faction, though he refrains from any talk of rapprochement between Israel and the Palestinians. He is also respected by senior members of Abbas' Fatah party.
There is currently relative quiet between Hamas-controlled Gaza and Israel, there is undeclared economic cooperation, and now there's this prisoner swap. Are we on the verge of a new era between Israel and Hamas?
"Not in the sense of cooperation. Hamas is not presenting itself as an alternative to the Palestinian Authority. What is happening ... does not portend anything about a movement toward negotiations with Israel."
But Hamas is not firing rockets.
"There are indirect understandings forged by Egyptian mediators and others about a tahadiyeh - a temporary cease-fire. The Palestinians have 18 years of experience of negotiations with Israel, through which the Palestinian people got nothing. They have not come any closer to receiving their state or to realizing their rights. The Palestinian people as a whole does not believe the government of Israel.
"For this reason, conducting negotiations with Israel is not on Hamas' agenda right now. In the future, if Israel recognizes the rights of the Palestinian people and we see this [recognition] taking shape in reality, then the time will come to speak about other subjects. Right now, the Palestinian public feels that what was attained in the resistance [i.e. by Hamas] is much more significant that what has been gained via negotiations."
Is this deal a victory for Hamas?
"This is an achievement for the entire Palestinian people and for the prisoners. Yet Hamas will no doubt receive credit on the street for its success in freeing more than 1,000 prisoners. The prisoners have families and relatives and friends, and all of them will identify with Hamas as a result of this deal. This will give us a significant boost among the Palestinian public."
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