JERUSALEM – The radical Islamist movement Hamas threatened on Wednesday to step up efforts to kidnap Israelis unless more Palestinian prisoners are released.
Mahmoud Zahar, head of Hamas in its Gaza Strip stronghold, said that last month’s kidnap and murder of an Israeli businessman in the West Bank had not been sanctioned by the leadership but had won widespread support.
“If Israel had released a large number of prisoners, as it had pledged to do, that would not have happened,” he told Israel’s Ha’aretz daily.
“It is holding 9,000 prisoners. If they are not released, kidnappings will increase.”
Israel has released around 900 prisoners since a summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in February but the Palestinian government wants far more to be set free.
Zahar said that a fragile ceasefire, which Hamas and other militant factions agreed to in March after talks with Abbas, would also depend on whether elections take place as planned in January.
He also criticized Israel over threats to disrupt the elections if Hamas, responsible for most anti-Israeli attacks during the five-year uprising, was allowed to participate.
“Israel claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East but it interferes openly against Hamas in the planned elections. Every Israeli should be ashamed.”
Asked about the prospects of changes to the Hamas charter, which calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, Zahar said that such a move was not impossible but not on the cards immediately.
“The Hamas charter is a matter for interpretation. It expresses a political and social position based indirectly on the Koran. There is no doubt about the Koran itself, but the charter is a political vision.
“No one is thinking about changing the charter but in principle it is not impossible.”
Zahar said, however, that while some Palestinians might be content with the creation of a state within the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 [the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including east Jerusalem], Hamas “regards these borders only as a stage in the struggle.
“Some Israelis think that when we speak about the West Bank and Gaza it means we have given up on the historic war and that is not the case.”