Israel is a foolish country, according to senior Hamas leader Dr. Mahmoud Zahar. He offered this diagnosis in an interview with Haaretz at his home at the end of November, in response to a question about the fate of the prisoner swap.

"What was one of the main reasons the Second Lebanon War broke out? Hezbollah kidnapped and killed Israeli soldiers? What for? To liberate Samir Kuntar. Why? Because Israel refused to release him earlier. And then [Israel] made a war, and was defeated. And then they released Kuntar. Isn't that foolish? Now they want to repeat the same story: They want to make a laughing stock out of us, or pressure us into striking an undesirable deal. Then the Kuntar experience will be repeated... This is something that encourages kidnapping [of more soldiers] because there are a lot of people in jail. Therefore, if [the Israelis] would understand, they would finish this off tomorrow and prevent the creation of a new problem. If Israel accepts the criteria [of the release of prisoners categorized by Israel as having 'blood on their hands,'] tomorrow the matter would be over."

Responding to a question as to how it can be known that kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit is well and being held by mature people, Zahar said that for clear reasons of security, he and his colleagues in the movement do not know details about the Israeli soldier. However, Zahar added, "do you think Hamas would keep such an important figure - not because he is Shalit but because of his exchange value - [in the hands of] immature people? That is not logical."

Zahar, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, has no official position in the Gaza government. In the internal elections in August, he was one of four leaders elected to the movement's political bureau.

The prisoner swap is not top priority for the Gaza public. The split between Gaza and the West Bank preoccupies it far more. In November, Fatah-Hamas reconciliation talks were to have taken place in Cairo. Hamas canceled its participation at the last minute, saying the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank was holding a few hundred of its activists. The arrests, Zahar said, are proof that Fatah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are not interested in reconciliation, or cannot do it, and that the United States and Israel "have vetoed them."

Hamas is to mark 21 years since its establishment with a rally Sunday. Zahar's statements reflect the movement's feeling of self-confidence. "For us, it's better to unify the West Bank and Gaza, politically and socially. That's our stand, because we are the only legitimate side in the Palestinian Authority. We gained a majority in the Legislative Council [which three weeks ago declared Abbas president of Palestine], in the governments (the Hamas-led government and unity government) and we still enjoy the majority of the popular support. For our national interest it is good to be unified, but it should not be at any price."

"Abu Mazen [Abbas] is in real crisis, and the indication is that he is looking for any sort of legitimacy. Abu Mazen went to what is called the PLO central council. What is this central council? How many does it number? How many attended this meeting? Eighty-five? Is the number of the central council members, 85? And suppose it is 300, 3,000 - is it logical to give 300 or 3,000 or 85 people the right to choose a president? It's funny. He is looking for something. He is not a president - he's chairman of the Palestinian Authority, but he is not president."

Regarding the different ways of resolving the crisis, Zahar says that the problem is not in early elections, to which Hamas is opposed. "The problem is in the Fatah metality, which refused from the beginning to recognize the results of the previous elections [in 2006]. They must win. That is what America told them. 'You must win... You are the only side that believes in peace. The only side that we can cooperate with and give money to, the only side that is a partner to Israel.'"

Zahar says that despite the international boycott of the Hamas government, it has had achievements in governing the Gaza Strip and inculcating internal security. "But we failed to achieve many things in our program because of the incursions, because of the American sanctions. If we had been given a chance, much would have been improved," he says, "but I am not asking for help from America, because if you are going to ask for American money, you have to pay a price. The price will be from your land, Palestine, from your holy place, Jerusalem, from your dignity. North Korea, Syria, Iran and Venezuela are refusing the argument that if you are going to be in this world you should be a collaborator with America."

In answer to the conclusion whether the political split will persist for long, he says: "Correct, because the alternative is impossible. The alternative will create more problems than the present situation. If Fatah comes back it will collect the guns of the Palestinian people and cooperate with them against their own people, to spoil every aspect in our people... All the time, every inch where they control or participate in government, they create confrontations with others: the war in Jordan, the wars in Lebanon, the war in Gaza, in the West Bank. How come to this very moment they cannot run their sixth conference? Can you imagine? An organization that claims to be democratic has held only five general assemblies in 43 years."

Hamas supporters in Gaza have expressed the opinion that their military wing, Iz al-Din al-Qassam, could develop into a Hezbollah-like organization. Zahar says that the organization exists to defend the Strip from the incursion Israel is always threatening. "Don't make comparisons. Because Hezbollah lives in open borders, Hezbollah is in an independent state. We are under occupation. We should have weapons and arms more than Hezbollah, because Hezbollah is a liberated land, but we are here in an occupied land. Hezbollah has free borders with Syria, with Jordan, with every area. But here we live in a big prison. Israel now controls our electricity, food and medicine."

Under such conditions, what is the goal of the Gaza government? Zahar: "We are doing the best we can to solve the problems...health services, education, the justice system, other ministries, the hajj, prisoners."

As to whether life is viable with Gaza continuing to be cut off from the rest of the world and the West Bank, Zahar answers: "It is not ideal, but we are not the people who should be blamed. You should blame the conscience of the world. And that is also changing, because nations - in the West and the Arab countries - are opposed to their governments' positions.