Hamas' top political leader, in a message to the Obama administration, said the militant group is determined to be part of a solution to the Palestinians' conflict with Israel.
Khaled Mashaal, the group's exiled leader, struck a more conciliatory tone toward the U.S. in an interview with The New York Times published Tuesday, saying President Barack Obama's "language is different and positive." But he did not offer any new concessions.
"I promise the American administration and the international community that we will be part of the solution, period," the paper quoted Mashaal as saying.
But he refused to budge on key demands by the U.S. and Israel that Hamas recognize the Jewish state and renounce violence. He said Islamic militant group that rules Gaza would effectively accept a two-state solution, though only for a 10-year period and only if Israel agrees to absorb Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendants, a condition Israel rejects out of hand.
The Obama administration has pushed both the Israelis and the Palestinians to pursue a permanent two-state solution in which Hamas and other Palestinian groups recognize the Jewish state.
Mashaal noted that Hamas has halted its rocket fire from the Gaza Strip on communities in southern Israel following the Jewish state's devastating three-week offensive that ended in mid-January. But he said on Hamas' Web site Tuesday that the group's aim was to expose that Israel is "the party that always begins aggression on our people."
Hamas officials often send mixed signals, including on whether they would be willing to accept a Palestinian state within only the territory Israel seized in the 1967 war _ Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem _ rather than in Israel itself.
The rare interview with the Times was conducted in five hours spread over two days at his home in the Syrian capital, Damascus. Many of the 53-year-old leader's comments echoed those he made about two weeks ago in a live television address that was intended for British lawmakers, but was not delivered because of a technical glitch.
Mashaal's tone may have been more conciliatory. But before the U.S. and its allies in Europe will engage with the group, which they consider a terrorist organization, it will have to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept previous Palestinian peace agreements with the Jewish state.
Mashaal, one of Hamas' founding members, pointedly rejected such a prospect.
"There is only one enemy in the region, and that is Israel," he said.
Mashaal argued that the Palestinian leadership's recognition of Israel under the late Yasser Arafat failed to end the occupation of lands that Palestinians want for a future state.
The demand for recognition, he said, is "just a pretext by the United States and Israel to escape dealing with the real issue and to throw the ball into the Arab and Palestinian court."
He also said he would not revoke the group's founding charter, which calls for Israel's destruction. But he suggested outsiders should ignore it, noting that it is 20 years old and adding that Hamas is "shaped by our experiences."
Mashaal, who just days ago was re-elected to a four-year term as the group's political chief, explained why he agreed to the interview.
"To understand Hamas is to listen to its vision directly. Hamas is delighted when people want to hear from its leaders directly, not about the movement through others."
The Obama administration has reached out to U.S. adversaries Syria and Iran, which were isolated by former President George W. Bush, but has continued to refuse any dealings with the Iranian-backed Hamas.
Mashaal said Hamas backs the idea of a Palestinian state next to Israel along the outlines of that sought by the Palestinian Authority and the 23-member Arab League. But he said that Hamas would offer only a temporary cease-fire, not a permanent peace.
"We are with a state on the 1967 borders, based on a long-term truce," he said _ defining long-term as 10 years. "This includes east Jerusalem, the dismantling of settlements and the right of return of the Palestinian refugees."
He said Hamas was eager to reach a cease-fire with Israel, something the two sides have failed to achieve in indirect talks under Egyptian mediation since Israel's recent offensive in Gaza.
He also repeated Hamas' aim of reaching a deal that would involve the release of captured Israeli soldier Sgt. Gilad Schalit _ held since June 2006 _ in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Speaking about Iran's support for Hamas, Mashaal said the group was not beholden to the Islamic Republic.
"Iran's support to us is not conditioned. No one controls or affects our policies," he said.
Iran's hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was visiting Syria Tuesday and was expected to meet with Mashaal and leaders of other hard-line Palestinian factions based in Damascus.