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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Hamas believed holding out until Obama's inauguration

TEL AVIV — Israel's intelligence community is projecting the Hamas regime may try to delay any ceasefire until Barack Obama is in the Oval Office.   

Government sources said Hamas's military wing has been urged by Iran and Syria to delay implementation of any ceasefire proposal by Egypt for at least another week, Middle East Newsline reported. The sources said Hamas's military wing overruled a proposal by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to accept the Egyptian offer.

"Hamas has been told by Iran that they will get a better deal under Obama," a government source said.

The source was referring to the Hamas War Council, headed by former Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar and Interior Minister Said Siyam. Hamas chief of staff Ahmed Jabari, regarded as close to Teheran, was also said to be a member of the war council.

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Members of the incoming Obama administration have been in contact with Hamas political leaders, the sources said. They said senior aides have urged Obama to consider a U.S. dialogue with Hamas to renew efforts to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank.

"The message by the Obama people to Hamas is 'Be patient and responsible, and we will see you as a partner,'" the source said.

On Jan. 14, Egypt said Hamas had agreed in principle to a 10-day ceasefire with Israel, which would include a military withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The announcement sparked alarm in Israel's government, which sent senior officials to Egypt and the United States.

"We're working with Hamas and we're working with the Israeli side," Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki said. "We hope to reach an outcome soon."

On Jan. 15, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Israel and the United States would sign a memorandum of understanding in which Washington would provide intelligence to Israel on Hamas weapons smuggling. The MoU, expected to be signed imminently, would also ensure the provision of Western technology and maritime patrols to help Egypt stop weapons smuggling along the Sinai-Gaza border.

"At the crux of the cooperation agreement between Israel and the U.S. is supervision to halt the smuggling of arms from Iran, through the Persian Gulf to Sudan and other countries, and finally to Hamas in the Gaza Strip," Haaretz said.

The Egyptian ceasefire proposal has divided the Israeli leadership. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was said to oppose any ceasefire or withdrawal until the Egypt-Gaza border is secured from weapons smuggling. Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni were said to support an immediate ceasefire.

The Israeli intelligence community, most of which supports the continuation of the ground operation in the Gaza Strip, has determined that Hamas succeeded in preserving most of its military capabilities. The community has assessed that Hamas's military, said to number up to 25,000, lost no more than 300 operatives during the 19 days of Israel's Operation Cast Lead.

"Fighting is taking place in an urban area, densely built and densely populated," Israeli Chief of Staff Lt.Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said. "Hamas is firing at our forces and we are firing back."

For his part, Obama stressed that his administration would conduct a dialogue with Iran and Syria as part of peace efforts in the Middle East. The president-elect said he would also continue the efforts of President George Bush to establish a Palestinian state.

"We're gonna have to take a regional approach," Obama said in an interview on U.S. television on Jan. 15. "We're gonna have to involve Syria in discussions. We're going have to engage Iran in ways that we have not before. We've got to have a clear bottom line that Israel's security is paramount. But that also we have to create a two-state solution where people can live side by side in peace."

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