updated 9/12/2006 7:20:55 AM ET 2006-09-12T11:20:55

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.

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.

Meanwhile, an Israeli military court ordered the release of 18 Hamas lawmakers, including three Cabinet ministers.

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

Hamas empowers Abbas
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.

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.

End to sanctions?
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 the visiting 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.

Israel cautious
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.”

Outside the Moratinos news conference at Abbas’ office, thousands of civil servants protested that they had not been paid since March, when Hamas took power. The demonstration broke up after a protester who talked to Abbas’ aides said the president had promised to pay their wages.

An open-ended strike by civil servants earlier this month was widely seen as a key factor in Hamas’ decision to relinquish power.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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