Hamas leader Meshaal warns of Israeli 'extremism' after elections

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Khaled Meshaal: "We are expecting difficult times with Netanyahu"

The political leader of the militant Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas says the results of Israel's elections will further diminish hopes for peace.

Khaled Meshaal told the BBC the victory of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party and its right-wing allies meant there would be "more extremism".

He said Hamas was not looking for any escalation, but would defend itself.

Militants in Gaza led by Hamas fought a 50-day war with Israel last summer that left more than 2,200 people dead.

Last week, Amnesty International said rockets and mortar attacks on civilian areas in Israel during the conflict amounted to war crimes.

'Right on the rise'

Hamas is designated a terrorist organisation by Israel, the US and other countries due to its long record of attacks on Israelis and its refusal to renounce violence. Under its charter, the group is committed to the destruction of Israel.

Image source, Reuters
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Benjamin Netanyahu's pre-election vow not to allow a Palestinian state was criticised by the US

But to its supporters Hamas is seen as a legitimate resistance movement.

In an interview with BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen in Qatar, Mr Meshaal said attacks on Israel would continue "as long as there is occupation, aggression, war and killing".

But he stressed that Hamas was "careful to respect international humanitarian law and to target only military targets".

Analysis: Jeremy Bowen, BBC Middle East editor

Khaled Meshaal looked to be in good health. "Keep fit to keep on resisting," he joked before the interview.

He was noticeably slimmer than when we last met in Damascus, before he relocated to Doha with his staff. For years, President Bashar al-Assad gave Mr Meshaal an HQ and protection. But he said "when we were asked to side with the regime against the will of the people, we refused."

Most of the armed rebels in Syria are, like Hamas, Sunni Muslims. Mr Meshaal rejected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's accusation that Hamas was the same as the jihadist groups Islamic State and al-Qaeda, condemning them as un-Islamic.

He seemed to be calibrating his comments on the conflict with Israel to catch the prevailing mood of anger towards Mr Netanyahu in the White House, after his sharp turn to the ultra-nationalist Israeli Right in the last days of the election campaign.

Mr Meshaal called for a sovereign independent Palestinian state and an end to the occupation of land captured in the 1967 Middle East war. So did the White House chief of staff earlier this week.

The Palestinians, he asserted, had shown that they were "flexible, serious and keen to achieve a just and rightful peace".

"But Israel killed the peace process," he added, blaming Mr Netanyahu's outgoing government, along with "extremist forces" in Israel, for the collapse of the US-brokered direct negotiations last year.

Image source, EPA
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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wants the UN to take steps to recognise Palestinian statehood

"Israeli policies have always been bad, but today the Israeli Right is on the rise, and that produced Netanyahu's victory in the last election. So it is going to get more difficult and we will see more extremism in the Israeli mentality."

Although Hamas has opposed years of on-off peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, Mr Meshaal said he and the group had agreed to accept the boundaries which existed before the 1967 Middle East war as the basis for those of a future Palestinian state.

'Just cause'

Mr Meshaal urged the international community to grant the Palestinians full recognition at the United Nations. He noted Mr Netanyahu's pre-election vow not to allow a Palestinian state, which was criticised by US President Barack Obama.

The Israeli leader has since insisted that he was not rejecting a two-state solution outright, but that he believed it was impossible right now.

Image source, AP
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Hamas considers itself as a resistance movement and rejects comparisons to Islamic State and al-Qaeda

Dore Gold, a former adviser to Mr Netanyahu and Israeli ambassador to the UN, told the BBC it was impossible for Israel to agree to a two-state solution given the threat posed by Hamas, which he insisted was a jihadist group.

"Hamas in the Gaza Strip is allied with Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, the jihadist movement in the Sinai peninsula. They work together, and that organisation is now part of Islamic State," he said.

"You can tell what an organisation is by the friends it keeps, and Hamas is clearly in the jihadist category."

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Former adviser to Israeli PM: "Hamas is clearly in the jihadist category"

In his interview, Mr Meshaal dismissed comparisons between Hamas and IS.

"This is an obvious Israeli game," he said. "They are trying to be on the same page as the West and the US administration - that they are together in the 'War on Terror'."

Hamas, he added, was "an active resistance with a just cause, battling the occupier."

"Others practice violence under the name of jihad, which we condemn. And this is not Islam. Islam encourages its followers to fight those who occupy their land and their sacred places. But Islam does not allow killing innocent people, civilians, or killing based on identity, belief and different views, political or religious."

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