Israelis, Government Divided on Dealing with Hamas

Israeli government policy remains that Israel will not have any direct, or indirect, contacts with Hamas, which it sees as a terrorist organization. But more and more Israelis say Hamas is here to stay and Israel should hold at least indirect negotiations with the group.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's report next on a conflict that's gone on long enough to make some people wonder whether they need a new approach. Israel has vowed to continue its attacks against the militants of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip. The Israeli government insists there will be no let-up as long as Hamas and other militants continue to fire rockets at Israel. And yet there are some in Israel who say it's time for talks with Hamas, as NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: Shlomo Brom spent more than 30 years in the Israeli army, rising to the rank of brigadier general and eventually becoming Deputy National Security Advisor. Now a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, he says it's time to talk to Hamas.

Mr. SHLOMO BROM (Tel Aviv University): The purpose of the dialogue is simply to clarify, to find out how far we can go with Hamas.

GRADSTEIN: Brom is not the only former senior official calling for a dialogue with Hamas. Former Mossad head Efraim Halevy has repeatedly called for talks with the Islamist group. And the Israeli public seems to be listening.

A recent poll in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz found that almost two-thirds of Israelis favored direct talks with Hamas. That directly contradicts the Israeli government's position. Spokesman Mark Regev says the government's policy is to strengthen Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas while trying to weaken his rivals in Hamas.

Mr. MARK REGEV (Israeli Government Spokesman): Unequivocally there are no direct or indirect talks with Hamas. No one has been authorized to ask as an intermediary. The only exception is, of course, the issue of the Israeli serviceman Gilad Shalit, who has been held hostage now by Hamas for all too long. And there are indirect contacts to see if we can get him released. But barring that, no other contacts with Hamas.

GRADSTEIN: But privately, Israeli officials say there have been indirect contacts over a possible ceasefire in Gaza. Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman has shuttled between Israel and Gaza trying to mediate between the two sides.

Giora Eiland, a former national security advisor, describes what a ceasefire deal with Hamas might look like.

Mr. GIORA EILAND: First is mutual comprehensive cessation of violence in Gaza, in Gaza and around Gaza. Number two, an exchange of prisoners. Number three, Israel will make a commitment to continue to supply all the economic needs of Gaza and to reopen the passages, etc.

GRADSTEIN: Hamas has signaled interest in such an arrangement. But spokesman Mark Regev says Israeli military operations against Hamas have begun to succeed. To stop now, he says, would be a mistake.

Mr. REGEV: Hamas would like a time-out, a time to rest and regroup and rearm. And we would be irresponsible if we allowed that to happen. And then we'd just face a much more difficult crisis a month from now.

GRADSTEIN: At a Jerusalem coffee shop, opinion was divided about whether Israel should talk to Hamas. Some, like Lyndi Gellman(ph), who runs a nonprofit organization, say Hamas is a terrorist organization that can't be trusted.

Ms. LYNDI GELLMAN: I don't believe that they would uphold their end of the deal. Their relationship with Iran - I mean, the president of Iran has said his goal is to wipe Israel off the map.

GRADSTEIN: But another coffee shop patron, Ito Groner(ph), who works for Channel 2 television, says while Israel should keep up the pressure on Hamas, the government should open a dialogue with the Islamist group.

Mr. ITO GRONER: We need to talk with them, because it's better to have a short break from the fighting than the all the time fighting.

GRADSTEIN: Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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