Hamas' politburo head Khaled Mashaal says he doesn't regret the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, saying the Israeli soldier won't be released unless Israel acquiesces to Hamas' demands.
Speaking to the London-based daily al-Hayat, Mashaal denied that he had ordered the operation but praised it as "heroic" and said every Palestinian should be "proud" of the kidnappers.
"First it wasn't me who took the decision to kidnap the soldier and I had no previous knowledge. Second, I don't think that those who carried out this heroic operation, which I am proud of, should have regrets," he said.
Asked about Syria's role in the operation, Mashaal denied accusations that Damascus is encouraging extremist elements in the Palestinian territories to sabotage efforts to renew the long-stalled peace process.
"The decision about the fate of the Israeli soldier is neither in Damascus nor in any other defined geographical location. The decision depends on the organization's position," he said.
Mashaal blamed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for the failure of negotiations over Shalit's release, charging that the Israeli government had systematically rejected Hamas release terms.
Mashaal said Hamas' efforts are focused on securing the release of 1,000 Palestinian women and children jailed in Israel.
"The main drive is to secure the release of the largest possible number of female and male Palestinian and Arab prisoners. We demand the release of 1,000 prisoners, women and children. The issue of prisoners is a sensitive, humanitarian and political issue."
Asked whether he would accept the principle of a two-state solution by which a Palestinian state would exist in peace along side Israel, Mashaal said; "As a Palestinian I am interested in the establishment of a Palestinian state and I am not interested in the state of occupation … the Zionist country exists. I am speaking about a Palestinian state that doesn't exist. I am the one who has been denied a state, sovereignty, independence and choice of fate."
Mashaal added that Hamas would accept a long-term ceasefire with Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 67 borders.
"We accept a hudna (ceasefire) because one of our principles is not to recognize the Zionist entity. Why do I say so? Because there are some who say we are unrealistic.
"The Zionist entity exists in reality and I am asked to give it legitimacy and to recognize its legality. He who doesn't recognize the Zionist entity isn't dreaming and unrealistic; we are realistic. Reality doesn't require us to recognize the legitimacy of the occupation … why am I asked to give legitimacy to the occupation of my land. There is an entity called Israel, yes. But I am not interested in recognizing it."