A day after his triumphant homecoming, Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin on Tuesday held out the possibility of a cease-fire with Israel that would end suicide bombings.
The offer, although accompanied by demands for a full Israeli withdrawal from occupied lands and other conditions, indicated the Islamic militant group was willing to negotiate rather than destroy the peace process. Hamas leaders previously have spoken of a "holy war" to establish an Islamic state in all of what is now Israel.David Bar-Illan, a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the peace feeler was "a positive change" despite the "unacceptable conditions."
"We would like to hope that it means that he will preach peace rather than violence," Bar-Illan said. "There is no question he has a following and charisma." However, he said Israel would not pursue a cease-fire agreement until Hamas formally abandons its policy of attacking Israelis and destroying the Jewish state.
Speaking at his home in Gaza City, Yassin said he told Israeli officials that Hamas would stop targeting civilians if Israel would do the same and also halt the confiscation of Palestinian land for Jewish settlements.
"Israel is confiscating and killing," said Yassin. "If Israel stops its attacks against our civilians, we will not do anything against their civilians."
Yassin also made conciliatory gestures toward Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who has been under pressure from Israel and the United States to crack down on Hamas.
The sheik said there was no competition between Hamas and Ara-fat's Palestinian Authority.
"I say to the Palestinian Authority that we are not fighting them and we will not fight them.
"My president is the president of the Palestinian state and the president of the Palestinian people, whom I am one of," he added.
Speaking to hundreds of Islamic University students near his home, Yassin asked them to stop chanting, "We are all Hamas."
"Such slogans only create hatred," the sheik told the students. "This is something I do not want from you."
Yassin, who served eight years of a life sentence for ordering killings of Israelis and Palestinian collaborators, returned to Gaza on Monday as part of a swap worked out following the botched Israeli assassination attempt in Jordan on Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal. Israel also released 20 other Palestinian and Jordanian prisoners, and in return two Israeli Mossad agents captured in the bungled operation were freed.
Under the auspices of U.S. mediator Dennis Ross, meanwhile, Israel and the Palestinians resumed negotiations Tuesday after a seven-month hiatus. Lower-level committees met to focus on resolving disagreements over unimplemented parts of past Israel-Palestinian accords, such as a seaport and airport in Gaza and road links between Gaza and the West Bank.
Yassin and other Hamas leaders stopped short of endorsing the idea of a peace settlement to end the conflict with Israel, saying only a limited cease-fire was possible after which fighting would resume.