First Published:   23:42 , 01.04.08
Latest Update:   01:18 , 01.05.08


Takling Heads
Photo: AP Going strong. Mashaal Photo: AP
click here to enlarge text click here to enlarge text
Hamas Chief: Shalit's freedom depends on prisoner exchange

Hamas' Khaled Mashaal speaks at Damascus gathering marking organization's 20th anniversary, says groups reject European offer to mediate ceasefire with Israel; Gilad Shalit's freedom depends on Israel's freeing senior Palestinian prisoners
Roee Nahmias

Hundreds of Hamas supporters gathered in the Al Khalifa Stadium in Damascus Friday to mark the 20th anniversary of the founding of Hamas.


Speaking at the gathering, Hamas politburo Chief Khaled Mashaal, said Hamas "has to unite the entire Islamic nation in favor of the Palestinian cause, but it has not forgotten the Jihad and the resistance.


It’s only the beginning / Alex Fishman
Rocket fired at Ashkelon marks Hamas effort to produce symbolic victory
Full story

"Hamas is still strong and will continue its Jihad despite the attempts to weaken it," said Mashaal, acknowledging that the organization has made some mistakes in the past, but saying they were unavoidable, "as we are all human."


Hamas' mistakes, said Mashaal, were a matter of details, not strategy.


Hamas, he told the crowd, was the one that supplied the rockets fired towards Ashkelon Thursday, and that it was the "disciples of Ahmad Jibril (of the Popular Front – General Command) who sent them on their way."


Mashaal also spoke of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit and made it clear that he will not be released prior to Israel releasing the Palestinians prisoners held in Israeli jails. "The matter of the prisoners bloodies our heart," he said.


"Hamas insists that the Palestinian prisoners, including Marwan Barguti, Aziz Dwaik and Ahmed Saadat be released, whether Olmert and Barak like it or not… Hamas has made a strategic choice and has chosen resistance."


The organization, he added, has rejected a European offer for an indirect meeting with Israelis to discuss a possible truce. "Some Europeans have offered us to meet indirectly with Israelis to discuss a truce and we told them no and one thousands no," said Mashaal. He did not say what European country made the offer.


'Ready for an unconditional dialogue'

Mashaal also called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to hold unconditional talks with Hamas. On Monday Abbas said he wanted to "open a new page" with Hamas if it gave up control of the Gaza Strip, which it took forcibly in mid-June last year.


"We are ready for an unconditional dialogue in which all issues will be discussed, including that of bringing forward elections. I say to the leaders of Fatah that our differences are political," Mashaal said.


As for Abbas' demand Hamas gives up control of Gaza, Mashaal insisted that "no Arab country has asked Hamas to give up on the current situation in Gaza."


Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's government, said Mashaal, "must go, and all (Palestinian) forces must prevent this government from gambling with the interests of the Palestinian people."


Mashaal further said that a recent US-sponsored Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland had not stopped the building of settlements in Palestinian territories nor improved the lives of Palestinians noting that 560 Israeli checkpoints are still in place.


He added that this leaves his people with no choice but to fight. "Give our people another alternative... as long as the horizons are closed and there are no other alternatives then there is nothing our people can do other than resistance."


AP and AFP contributed to this report