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Hamas spokesman says new Palestinian government ready for peace talks

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) _ The Islamic militant group Hamas is prepared to back peace efforts with Israel as part of the new coalition government being formed by the Palestinians, a spokesman for the outgoing Hamas-led administration said Tuesday.

A day after Hamas and the opposition Fatah Party agreed on forming a national unity government, an Israeli military court ordered the release of 18 imprisoned Hamas lawmakers, including three Cabinet ministers who were arrested after Hamas-linked militants attacked a military post in June and captured an Israeli soldier.

The men will remain behind bars for several more days pending an appeal by prosecutors.

Despite the apparent softening of Hamas' violently anti-Israel position, fighting early Tuesday between Israeli troops and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip raised doubts about a possible rapprochement.

Hamas gunmen, along with members of another militant group, battled troops operating near the border with Israel, killing one soldier, the army said. Israel has been carrying out operations inside Gaza since Hamas-linked militants tunneled into Israel in late June and captured an Israeli soldier.

Caving in to six months of crippling international sanctions, the Hamas-led government said Monday it would join a coalition government with President Mahmoud Abbas' more moderate Fatah Party.

Hamas, which Israel and the West have labeled a terrorist group, also agreed to give Abbas authority over dealings with Israel. Abbas has long called for a resumption of peace talks with Israel.

Ghazi Hamad, the spokesman of the outgoing government, said Hamas is ready to give Abbas a chance to pursue his agenda.

Hamas has ``no problem'' with the government pursuing peace talks with Israel, he told Israel's Army Radio in Hebrew. His comments could not be immediately confirmed by more senior officials in the Islamic group.

Speaking later Tuesday, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said the government will not actually be involved in any peace talks, because negotiations are supposed to be handled by the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is also headed by Abbas.

``The negotiations, this responsibility, is related to the PLO, not to the Palestinian government,'' he said.

The Palestinians, Hamad said, would also be ready to establish an independent state in territories occupied by Israel after the 1967 Mideast war.

While he said Hamas will not recognize Israel's right to exist _ a key demand by Israel and the West _ the new coalition agreement is based on a platform that many believe implies recognition to the Jewish state.

That proposal calls for a Palestinian state alongside Israel _ effectively abandoning the Hamas goal of destroying the Jewish state _ and accepts U.N. resolutions that call for compromise with Israel.

``This government, with Hamas in the national unity government, we don't have problem accepting a state,'' Hamad said. ``We have nothing against negotiations, we have nothing against a diplomatic process but we have rights.'' He said, however, he is skeptical Abbas will succeed in negotiations with Israel.

Israel and its Western allies, the U.S. and European Union, have said Hamas must renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept past peace agreements.

The EU cautiously welcomed the moves to form a new Palestinian government, while Israel took a wait-and-see attitude.

The Palestinians are hoping that Europe will be the first to lift the economic sanctions, which made it impossible for the Hamas-led government to pay salaries to its 165,000 employees. Widespread hardship in the West Bank and Gaza Strip appeared to contribute to the Islamic group's decision to invite Fatah into its government.

With negotiations continuing, it's not clear when the new government will take office. Abbas is expected to dissolve the current government in the coming days.

In Gaza, Abbas declined to give details on the governing platform, but said ``we do have a positive agenda, an acceptable agenda that will allow the new government to deal with Arab and international resolutions.''

Abbas spoke after meeting Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos, who said the new Palestinian coalition could be a ``positive step in principle.'' EU officials in Brussels have made similar comments.

``We'll have to study the details at the next meeting in Brussels, which will be on Friday, before we can come to an answer,'' Moratinos said.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said he hoped the new government would accept the international conditions, but warned Hamas could be covering up its true intentions.

``If the (government) guidelines include recognition of Israel, it will certainly indicate a change,'' Peretz said. ``On the other hand, we have to make sure that this is not an attempt to make the Hamas government look better when in practice they have no intention of living up to the conditions of the international community.''

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was heading to Washington later Tuesday, where she will discuss the new Palestinian government with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Israel wants to ensure that the international community remains insistent that the Palestinians meet its demands and win the release of the captive Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

``If the new Palestinian government reaches the three benchmarks and Gilad Shalit is released, then things could move ahead very quickly,'' Regev said. ``Anything less than that is just a recipe for further stagnation.''

Soon after his capture, Israel arrested three dozen Hamas officials, arguing that the belonged to a banned group.

The military judge who ruled Tuesday that 18 of those officials should be released pending trial questioned the timing of the arrests, noting that the men were permitted to run for office and serve in the Palestinian government for months before their detentions. He said the politicians should be freed on bail while their trials continued.

Prosecutors appealed the ruling. A decision is expected Thursday.

The army suffered a similar setback earlier this week, when the court ordered the release of three other Hamas members. That appeal is set to be heard Wednesday.

``The arrest of the parliamentarians and ministers was from the beginning an unjust arrest,'' Haniyeh said. ``We hope all of them will be released.''
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