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Oct 19, 1:14 PM EDT

US envoy: Hamas must disarm to join Palestinian government



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US envoy: Hamas must disarm to join Palestinian government

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JERUSALEM (AP) -- President Donald Trump's Mideast envoy said on Thursday that if Hamas wants to play a role in any Palestinian government, it must renounce violence and commit to negotiations with Israel - demands the Islamic militant group has always rejected.

Jason Greenblatt's statement was the first American comment on the advancing reconciliation efforts between the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions, and echoed Israeli demands.

"Any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognize the state of Israel, accept previous agreements and obligations between the parties - including to disarm terrorists - and commit to peaceful negotiations. If Hamas is to play any role in a Palestinian government, it must accept these basic requirements," Greenblatt said in a statement.

Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip from President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah-led forces in 2007, leaving Abbas only in control of autonomous areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Past attempts at reconciliation have repeatedly failed. But after a decade-long blockade by Israel and Egypt, and three wars with Israel, Hamas has said it is ready to compromise.

Under Egyptian auspices, the Palestinian factions last week reached a preliminary agreement and have formed committees to sort out unresolved issues, most notably who will control Hamas' massive arsenal. The deal has yet to be implemented.

Later Thursday, Greenblatt arrived in Cairo for talks on the Palestinian reconciliation efforts, Egyptian and American officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Greenblatt has been shuttling through the region in search of a formula to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which last broke down in 2014. His statement Thursday reiterated longstanding demands of Hamas by the international community.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also said this week there would be no talks with the Palestinians unless Hamas agrees to the same conditions. Netanyahu, who welcomed Greenblatt's statement, has made some additional demands, including that Hamas disarm and return the remains of two Israeli soldiers and send back two Israeli civilians believed to be in Hamas captivity.

Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and other Western nations, does not plan to officially be part of the next government.

The Palestinians appear to be hopeful that this will be enough to satisfy the international community. However, Hamas has said it will not dismantle its powerful military wing, and it is likely to wield influence behind the scenes.

In a statement, Hamas said it rejected "the extortion and American bias toward the Israeli positions expressed by Jason Greenblatt."

"Hamas will go ahead in the reconciliation and will not pay attention to any attempt to sabotage or block this track," it said.

Abbas seeks an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza. Israel captured the territories in 1967, though it withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

With peace efforts on hold, Israel this week pushed plans ahead for roughly 3,000 new homes in West Bank settlements, according to Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement monitoring group.

The planned units are scattered throughout the West Bank and at various stages of approval. Peace Now estimated that roughly 700 of them can be built immediately.

According to Peace Now, Israel has currently advanced plans for over 6,700 homes this year. That is more than double the number of last year and triple the 2015 level. It also is higher than the 6,293 units advanced in 2014.

The Palestinians and most of the international community consider settlements to be illegal and obstacles to peace. Israel says their fate should be determined in negotiations.

Abbas' spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, said the settlement plans are putting Trump's peace efforts in jeopardy.

"Netanyahu is defying the world, especially Trump's administration, by insisting on building settlements on the land of the state of Palestine," he said.

In a departure from Barack Obama's opposition to all settlement construction, Trump has taken a different approach, urging restraint by Israel but also saying a freeze on building is unnecessary.

Anat Ben Nun, a spokeswoman for Peace Now, said that Trump's approach, along with the international community's focus on other issues, such as the international refugee crisis, has resulted in less pressure on Israel and encouraged construction.

"This is definitely affecting the freedom of the Netanyahu government to develop settlements more rapidly," she said.

West Bank settlers, meanwhile, say Netanyahu is not doing enough. They accuse him of using inflated numbers of preliminary approvals to appease his hard-line base when the actual number of homes that can be built is much smaller.

"Hundreds of building tenders cannot fill the demand for the thousands that are needed across Judea and Samaria. Limiting Jewish building in Judea will not bring us closer to peace," said Oded Revivi, the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha Council, which represents the more than 400,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Judea and Samaria are the biblical terms for the West Bank.

The White House had no immediate comment on the latest settlement plans.

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Associated Press writers Menna Zaki in Cairo, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.

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