GAZA The Islamist Hamas movement, whose charter advocates the elimination of Israel, would accept the outcome of a Palestinian referendum on a future peace treaty with the Jewish state, its Gaza leader said on Wednesday.
Ismail Haniyeh, addressing a rare news conference in the Israeli-blockaded enclave, signaled a softening of Hamas's long-standing position prohibiting the ceding of any part of the land of what was British-mandated Palestine until 1948.
"We accept a Palestinian state on the borders of 1967, with Jerusalem as its capital, the release of Palestinian prisoners, and the resolution of the issue of refugees," Haniyeh said, referring to the year of Middle East war in which Israel captured East Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories.
"Hamas will respect the results (of a referendum) regardless of whether it differs with its ideology and principles," he said, provided it included all Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and the diaspora.
The Hamas charter, drafted in 1988, regards all of the land of Palestine, including what is now Israel, as the heritage of Muslims. The idea of a referendum on a future peace accord with Israel was rejected by some Hamas leaders when it was proposed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas several months ago.
Negotiations between Abbas and Israel have since faltered over Israel's refusal to halt settlement building in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
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Haniyeh said Israel was not willing to give the Palestinians a fully sovereign state and he therefore had no hope the fragile U.S.- brokered attempts to revive peacemaking would succeed.
He said his movement was willing to cooperate with Western and European countries "who want to help the Palestinian people regain their rights." The United States and European Union shun Hamas as a terrorist organization and do not recognize its Gaza authority.
"We urge European foreign ministers to revise their position regarding meetings with the elected government," Haniyeh said, adding that contacts were being made with United Nations officials in the Gaza Strip in this regard.
Haniyeh denied Israel's claim to have killed three members of the al Qaeda organization in Gaza in the past month.
Israel said two of three militants it killed in November were planning attacks against Israeli and western tourists in the Egyptian territory of Sinai.
He said a priority of his government was to avoid a military escalation with Israel by persuading other militant factions to preserve a de facto ceasefire.
Hamas had repeatedly distanced itself from al Qaeda and had not hesitated to condemn al Qaeda-claimed attacks in some Arab and western capitals, he noted.
(Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Samia Nakhoul)