DAMASCUS, Syria, (AP) – The exiled leader of Hamas accused Israel of exaggerating the Palestinian militant group’s military strength and of trying to start a war against Hamas and the Lebanese guerrilla force Hezbollah.
Khaled Mashaal told The Associated Press in an interview Sunday at his office in Damascus that Hamas’ military capacity is “humble.”
“The enemy is exaggerating it in an attempt to justify its aggression and justify more aggression and more brutality,” he said. “Our weapons are humble, but we have great will. This is what makes our action effective.”
Israel launched a military offensive in the Gaza Strip in early March, seeking to quash Hamas militants firing rockets at Israeli towns. More than 100 Palestinians were killed before Israel ended the assault and Egypt began trying to mediate a “tahdiya” or calm.
Gaza has been ruled by Hamas since the group expelled forces loyal to moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last June. Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations were restarted at a U.S.-sponsored Mideast conference in November but Hamas is not a party to the talks.
Mashaal said Egyptian-mediated talks between Hamas and Israel had snagged on the question of the extent of the tahdiya. Israel proposed a calm only in Gaza, where both sides would stop military operations, but Hamas wants it to also include the West Bank, he said.
In past years, Hamas has fired hundreds of homemade rockets at Israeli towns near the Gaza Strip. The rockets, mainly crude short-range projectiles known as Qassams, have killed 13 Israelis since 2001.
The Israeli military has said it believes the range of the Qassam will reach 12 miles by the end of this year, giving Hamas an open supply of rockets able to hit the city of Ashkelon, home to 110,000 people. Currently, the range is 10 miles, up from less than half that previously, according to the Israeli military.
“Only two months ago we had our most recent civilian fatality from the Hamas-sponsored attacks from the Gaza Strip,” said David Baker, spokesman for the Israeli government. “Since then, we have seen scores of Israelis treated for shock and other Qassam-related injuries including those maimed by the rockets.
“Israel will pursue those that strike at us and we will not permit these attacks to continue,” he said.
Mashaal expressed concern that Israel and the U.S. are preparing for a regional war.
“Israel and America are beating the drums of war in the region. The neo-conservatives in America and Israelis want a new war to overturn the balance of power and achievements gained by the resistance,” he said, referring to his group and Hezbollah.
Mashaal revealed details on Egyptian-brokered negotiations for a prisoner swap of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Islamic militants in Gaza affiliated with Hamas captured Schalit in June 2006 in a cross-border raid.
He said Hamas had agreed with Egypt on the number of Palestinian prisoners to be released — 1,000 — and on the details of the phases of the releases. But he said Israel had held up the deal because it rejects some of the names on the Hamas list on the grounds that they have been involved in attacks on Israelis.
The deal was for a release in staged phases, he said: First, Hamas would hand over Schalit to Egypt, and Israel would release 350 prisoners. Once Egypt handed Schalit over to Israel, another 100 Palestinians would be released, Mashaal said.
These would be followed by an additional 550 prisoners to be released at a later stage. Separately, Israel would release all jailed women and children, he said. Hamas officials in the past have given varying numbers for the prisoners they seek released.
Mashaal said jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouthi was on the list of names.
He said European mediators, whom he didn’t name, were now involved in the talks.
Addressing Schalit’s father, who has often appealed to Hamas to release his son, Mashaal said: “Do not blame Hamas, (Israeli Prime Minister Ehud) Olmert is responsible for your son’s detention.” He said Schalit was being well treated.