Israel's point man in indirect, Egyptian-mediated talks with Hamas on Wednesday said the Islamic militant group is more powerful than the Western-backed Palestinian government and is "like cancer."
Senior Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad said talks with Hamas designed to secure the release of a captured Israeli soldier have gone better since a truce went into effect in June. But he added that a deal is "not close."
"Since the truce we are discussing more seriously, but I am impressed only by results," he said.
Gilad's comments came as a senior Hamas official warned that any Israeli military option in Gaza could lead to more kidnappings of Israeli soldiers.
Gilad, making a rare appearance before foreign diplomats and journalists in Jerusalem, said current peace talks between Israel and the moderate Palestinian forces in charge of the West Bank are not likely to bear fruit until those forces retake Gaza from Hamas.
"It's very difficult to sign an agreement with half your body," he said.
Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza 15 months ago has created a two-headed Palestine, with the militants ruling Gaza and their moderate Fatah rivals controlling the West Bank. The two territories, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, are located on opposite sides of Israel. The moderate Palestinian leadership seeks both areas for a future independent state.
Gilad said he believes Hamas' goal is to take over the West Bank as well. For the time being, however, he said the militants have decided to halt suicide bombings and rocket attacks on Israel because "the price is too high" - an apparent reference to harsh Israeli reprisals.
Gilad has made several trips to Egypt in recent weeks in an effort to win the release of Israeli Sgt. Gilad Schalit, captured by Hamas-linked militants in a cross-border attack in June 2006. The ceasefire is supposed to be part of a larger deal between Israel and Hamas in which Schalit would be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners and the Israeli and Egyptian-imposed closure of Gaza's border crossings would be eased.
But while the violent cycle of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli military strikes has subsided, the punishing blockade of Gaza remains largely in place and little progress has been reported on a prisoner exchange.
"We are not close to the release of Gilad Schalit," Gilad said.
Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas leader in Gaza, was quoted Wednesday in the London-based Asharq al Awsat newspaper as saying that Israeli military action in Gaza could lead to more abductions of Israeli soldiers.
This, he said, could put Gazan resistance movements in a better position to demand the release of even more Palestinian prisoners. Israel holds some 9,000 Palestinians in its jails.
Gilad said the forces of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have had some success in establishing law and order in the West Bank. But he said they still had a long way to go before installing the security Israel would require before it could evacuate the West Bank to make room for a Palestinian state.
He repeatedly referred to Hamas-ruled Gaza as "Hamas-stan," saying "Hamas-stan is more powerful than the Palestinian Authority" and likening the militant group to "cancer."
Gilad said his country's relations between Egypt, one of two Arab countries which has signed a peace treaty with Israel, have improved since the ceasefire with Hamas. He said Egypt is working to prevent weapons smuggling across its border with Gaza. And he praised Egypt for keeping its border crossing with Gaza closed.
The Israeli official said Hamas, along with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, is receiving support from Iran to cause troubles on Israel's northern and southern flanks.
Gilad said international sanctions designed to prevent Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon have not worked, and that Israel is "absolutely confident" that Iran is aggressively pursuing the bomb.
"They are determined to have it," he said.
Iran denies its nuclear program is for obtaining an atomic weapon, saying instead it's for electricity generation.
Gilad would not say if Israel is likely to strike Iran militarily, but repeated the often-heard Israeli line that "all options are on the table."
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