Hamas Leader Khaled Meshal Rejects Talk of Cease-fire

DAMASCUS, Syria - Hamas political leader in Syria Khaled Meshal rejected Monday the Palestinian Authority's proposals for a cease-fire, saying Israel was waging a "war of annihilation" against his people.

"Our people will not be made refugees again," Meshal told The Associated Press, referring to the displacement of Palestinians after the Middle East wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973.

Hamas has sent scores of suicide bombers into Israeli towns since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000, killing hundreds of Israelis.

"Our choice is between death and death," he said. "Our people will defend themselves until the last breath. The world left us no other choice."

Palestinian Authority officials said Sunday they are ready for a cease-fire with Israel as a step toward reviving the stalled U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan. Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Sha'ath said he put the proposal to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell at an economic conference in Jordan.

Sha'ath said Islamic Jihad and Hamas had told Egyptian mediators they were ready to accept a cease-fire.

"It is not reasonable that there is a talk about a cease-fire in the shadow of a sweeping aggression," Meshal said. "It is not reasonable that the victim volunteers to talk about a cease-fire while Israeli crime continues, and there is no sign of a change in the Israeli and American positions."

Meshal said that when "conditions become suitable," his group could discuss a truce. But he did not elaborate on those conditions.

Meshal warned of a crisis in the Gaza Strip settlement of Rafah, which Palestinian civilians fled Monday as Israeli forces prepared to demolish hundreds of homes. The Israelis said they intended to widen a pathway along the border with Egypt to prevent attacks on their patrols. Last week, 13 Israeli soldiers were killed by Palestinian militants in the Strip.

"It is a war of annihilation, destruction of humans and land, a collective punishment in a vengeful way," the bearded Meshal said of the Israeli actions. "The whole world is watching and listening, but is not moving" to stop Israel.

He dismissed the idea that the decline in Palestinian suicide attacks in recent months showed that Hamas had lost the ability to penetrate Israeli security. He attributed the decrease to "difficulties on the ground" dictated by "a temporary extraordinary situation," such as the Israeli army's stringent measures.

Meshal also shrugged off the suggestion that Hamas had been crippled by Israeli military offensives and Israel's recent assassinations of its leaders. In March, Israeli forces killed the spiritual mentor of Hamas, the paraplegic cleric Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and in April they killed Hamas' Gaza leader, Abdul-Aziz Rantisi.

"The history of the people shows that the passing of leaders strengthens the spirit of resistance and does not weaken it," he said.

Meshal, who survived an Israeli attempt to kill him in Jordan in 1997, said he took seriously the current Israeli threats to kill him.

"Israeli crime knows no boundaries ... Nothing can be ruled out in their aggressive behavior ... This requires caution and for us to be on guard," he said.

Meshal's security has increased noticeably. The AP interviewed him in a residential apartment, with no sign on the door or building, in Damascus, the Syrian capital where he has lived since 1999. The AP's cameras and tape recorders were checked, and the AP reporter was subjected to a thorough body search by metal detector.

Sitting in front of a poster bearing pictures of Sheik Yassin, Rantisi and the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem, Meshal repeatedly drew a line between Hamas' political and military wings, insisting they are separate and that the military wing carries out its operations according to opportunities on the ground.

The United States lists Hamas as a terrorist organization - be it the political or military wing.

Meshal's rejection of cease-fire means Hamas will continue fighting. But he did not say whether suicide attacks would continue. He said the tactics would be decided by the military wing.

Meshal welcomed an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has proposed. Meshal said Hamas' attacks against the Israeli army will accelerate the withdrawal, rather than make it more difficult politically.

Meshal has kept a low profile in Syria since last year when the United States asked the Syria government to expel him and other Palestinian militants. President Bashar Assad rejected the demand, and repeated the rejection after the United States imposed economic sanctions on Syria last week.

Meshal praised Assad's refusal to give in to U.S. pressure. He said the United States wanted to lay the blame on Syria for what he called Washington's failures in Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

"The problem is not our presence" in Syria, Meshal said. "Even if Syria changed its position because of those pressures, the situation will not change and Syria will remain the accused" in Washington's eyes.