The Hamas policy of not negotiating directly with Israel is "not sharia law" and could be relaxed, a senior official of the organization said on Thursday.
"Just as it's possible to negotiate while fighting, it's possible to negotiate by talking," said Moussa Abu Marzouk in an interview with Al Quds TV.
"Up to now, our policy has been not to negotiate directly with Israel, but we're not talking about something that is forbidden according to sharia law."
Abu Marzouk gave no indication that Hamas had immediate plans to negotiate with Israel. Rather, he insisted that the reason for the change in policy reflected growing tensions with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whom Hamas believes is trying to reclaim control of Gaza.
"Hamas finds itself compelled to make this move when the natural rights of the people in Gaza come under pressure from the Palestinian Authority and the government," he said.
Marzouk indicated that Hamas was willing to talk directly with Israel on such issues as Gaza border crossings and prisoner releases.
Hamas is under intense pressure from Abbas, who is insisting that Hamas' security forces in Gaza be subordinated to those of the Palestinian Authority under any new deal. That exacerbates the group's difficulty in demonstrating positive outcomes from the recent seven-week war with Israel.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said he would not comment until Abu Marzouk's remarks were broadcast. Israel has consistently said it will not talk directly to Hamas until the Islamic militant group recognizes its right to exist and renounces violence.
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Hamas seeks to replace PLO?
Abu Marzouk's statements caused a storm both within Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, as they constitute a significant departure from Hamas' policies. This despite fact that the group has in the past and is currently engaged in indirect talks with Israel.
Hamas' political bureau said in response that "direct negotiations with the occupation aren't part of the movement's policies, and aren't on the agenda. This is Hamas' permanent stance." Nevertheless, the response did not reject Abu Marzouk's comments and avoids ruling out future changes to the policy.
A more critical response came from Fatah. A senior official within the party, Hazem Abu Shanab, said that Abu Marzouk's statement did not come as a surprise because Hamas has been involved in negotiations with Israel for years, citing the talks that led to the 2008 cease-fire agreement as an example. However, what is notable is the fact that the declaration came from such a high-ranking official, Abu Shanab said, as well as the fact that authorization was given under sharia.
According to Abu Shanab, the comments point to a new strategy, devised in coordination with the Muslim Brotherhood. He warned that Hamas might be seeking to position itself as an alternative to the Palestine Liberation Organization as the exclusive representative of the Palestinian people. This intention shows "Hamas still hasn't forsaken its aspiration to replace the PLO," Abu Shanab said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other senior Palestinian Authority officials haven't issued a response to Abu Marzouk's interview, and neither did Hamas leader Khaled Meshal.
According to Palestinian sources, Hamas might consider becoming a political party that aspires for legitimacy in the Arab world and the international arena, as per the formula of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
However, the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over a truce are to resume in two weeks in Egypt, and it is possible that Abu Marzouk's comments were meant to generate a positive atmosphere.