Leader denies reports Hamas wants PLO alternative

CAIRO – A Hamas leader on Sunday played down reports that his group wanted to establish a new umbrella body to replace the Palestine Liberation Organization as the sole representative of the Palestinians.

Mahmoud al-Zahar told Al Jazeera television that remarks by Hamas’s leader in exile, Khaled Meshaal, that some Palestinian groups were discussing the formation of a “national steering committee” as an alternative to the PLO had been misinterpreted.

“Meshaal’s remarks about the resistance’s programme were interpreted by (the media) to be an alternative to the PLO, and we didn’t say that,” Zahar, who is based in Gaza, said in Cairo in an interview with the Doha-based broadcaster.

The PLO has represented the Palestinians since 1964 but the more recently created Islamist movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad have never been part of it despite a 2005 agreement to bring them under its fold.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement is the largest of 11 groups that constitute the PLO, which in the early 1990s signed peace accords with Israel that aim to establish a Palestinian state.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad oppose peace talks with Israel and have rejected demands that they renounce violence and recognize the Jewish state in return for international recognition and PLO membership.

Zahar, who spoke in Cairo where he met Egyptian officials trying to seal a ceasefire deal between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip, reiterated his group’s interest in joining the PLO if certain conditions were met.

“We want to acquire the international and Arab legitimacy and everything that the PLO has gained through elections, and to join the PLO,” he told Al Jazeera.

But he added: “We are in favor of preserving the structure of the PLO, but not its programme. If we are a minority, we will respect that. But if we are a majority, they have to respect that.”

Abbas said last week there would be no dialogue with Hamas unless it recognized the supremacy of the PLO.

A schism between Hamas and Fatah widened in 2007 when the Islamist group routed Abbas’s forces to seize control of the Gaza Strip.

Zahar headed for Damascus on Sunday to consult with Meshaal on Cairo’s efforts to mediate a lasting truce with Israel, which launched a 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip in December to punish Hamas for cross-border rocket attacks.

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