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Sep 18, 12:38 PM EDT

AP Interview: Hamas No. 2 says war a lesser option


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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Hamas does not want another war with Israel, the Islamic militant group's No. 2 leader said in an interview Thursday, but he suggested more fighting is inevitable unless a deal is reached on ending seven years of Israeli-Egyptian border closures of Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Such a deal remains elusive, in part because Hamas refuses to disarm - a key Israeli condition for lifting the blockade. Hamas also remains locked in bitter disputes with its main Palestinian rival, the Fatah movement led by Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas, whom the international community views as a central guarantor of any new arrangement for Gaza.

Three weeks after the end of the latest Israel-Hamas war, the third in five years, it is still unclear when Egyptian-mediated talks between Israel, Hamas and Abbas on Gaza's future will be held.

In the meantime, Israel says it has agreed to allow larger amounts of construction material into Gaza under United Nations supervision to begin reconstruction, though details are sketchy. Israel says tight supervision is needed to prevent Hamas from diverting cement and steel for military use.

During 50 days of fighting, Israel launched thousands of airstrikes at what it said were Hamas-linked targets in Gaza, killing more than 2,100 Palestinians, the vast majority civilians, and destroying more than 18,000 homes, according to U.N. officials.

Gaza-based militants, in turn, launched thousands of rockets and mortar shells, many intercepted by an anti-missile system. On the Israeli side, 66 soldiers and six civilians were killed.

Israel said it destroyed Hamas' network of attack tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border and that the group's arsenal of about 10,000 rockets was reduced by two-thirds.

The deputy leader of Hamas, Moussa Abu Marzouk, insisted Thursday that Hamas won the war, despite the apparent military setbacks.

He said his group's popularity among Palestinians has increased and that it would likely defeat Abbas and his Fatah movement if elections were held today.

Early this month, a survey conducted by a prominent West Bank pollster found a significant increase in support for Hamas after the war.

Abu Marzouk warned that failure to negotiate a new Gaza deal and a lifting of the blockade would "lead to another war."

"We don't want that, and the Israelis, I guess, don't like to see that (war) again," he said in halting English, speaking in an office in a Gaza City high-rise overlooking the Mediterranean.

He said the people of Gaza lived in a difficult situation before the war, as a result of the blockade. "We can't put the Palestinians after the war in the same situation," he said. "They (the Israelis) have to change their policy."

Abu Marzouk has been based in Egypt in the past three years, but frequently visits Gaza. He is the deputy of Hamas' top leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal.

Israel and Egypt sealed Gaza's borders after Hamas seized the territory from Abbas in 2007. After several failed attempts, the rivals reached a deal before the war under which Abbas would head a unity government of technocrats in the West Bank and Gaza.

However, major disputes were left unresolved and the unity government never got off the ground. Israel and Egypt expect Abbas to play a key role in any new arrangement for Gaza, including posting his forces at the border crossings.

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Daraghmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank

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