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DAMASCUS - Hamas is ready to merge armed factions including its military wing to form an army to defend the Palestinian people, the group's political leader Khaled Meshal said on Saturday.

Meshal also told a news conference in Damascus that Hamas will honor commitments made by the Palestinian Authority to Israel, provided they serve Palestinian interests, despite the group's refusal to recognize Israel.

"We are willing to form an army like every country ... an army to defend our people against aggression," Meshal said after the group's sweeping victory in Palestinian elections.

He said the proposed new force, if formed, would not let its agenda be dictated by Israel's security needs. Hamas's charter calls for the destruction of Israel.

Asked whether Hamas would consider amending its charter and respect agreements the Palestinian Authority had signed with Israel, Meshaal said: "We will honor our Palestinian commitments provided that it serves our people."

"We will not recognize the Israeli occupation but we are realistic and we know things are done gradually ... Being against occupation does not mean I can cancel Israel in moments."

Meshal also reiterated the group's desire to form a government comprising all other Palestinian factions, including Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah group.

"We believe it is in the interest of everybody to ride the train of Hamas because this train is going to reach [its destination]," he said.

"We are still extending our hands to everybody and saying we need each other."

Mashaal indicated that his group would continue attacks on Israeli civilians as long as Palestinian civilians were targeted by Israel.

"As long as we are under occupation then resistance is our right," he said.

Meshal's call comes in staunch contrast with international calls on Hamas to abolish its armed wing following its landslide victory in the Palestinian elections.

"Resistance is a legitimate right that we will practice and protect. Our presence in the legislature will strengthen the resistance," he said.

"If people raised the issue of targeting civilians, we said and we say that when our enemy stops targeting civilians we will abide by that," Meshal said.

Asked if a truce that ended at the end of 2005 will be renewed, Meshal said "it results were not encouraging."

Meshal then outlined Hamas' three goals: Reform of the Palestinian Authority, sustaining its resistance to Israel and "arranging the Palestinian home."

Hamas won 76 seats of the 132-member parliament in this week's election.

Meshal attacked U.S. and Israeli opposition to the Hamas victory, saying the "world raised the slogan of democracy and now it should respect the results of democracy. If you want to punish the Palestinian people for practicing democracy then the American administration should punish Americans for choosing President [George W.] Bush."

He declared Hamas' determination to reshape the Palestinian authority, coining the phrase: "Hamas succeeded in resistance and it will succeed in reforms."

In an apparent reference to the ruling Fatah Party, Meshal warned those "who might try block the work because they are out of power. They are the ones who will be responsible."

Meshal vowed to work for Palestinian detainees in Israeli jails, which, he said, numbered 9,000.

Hamas mulls technocrat governmentGhazi Hamad, one of Hamas' top ideologues, said on Saturday that Hamas may consider forming a government of technocrats with no connection to the radical Islamic movement, in a bid to relieve some of the international pressure on the group.

"We want a government for the Palestinian people, and if we couldn't do that then there are lots of options, one of which is a technocrat government," Hamad said.

Abbas announced on Friday that he will ask Hamas to form a government following its election victory.

"Up until now we haven't asked anyone to form a government," Abbas said. "But we've negotiated with some of the factions and, of course, we will ask the party that has received the most votes to do so."

Earlier, Hamas officials expressed their wish to form a "political partnership" with Abbas.