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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 October, 2003, 18:18 GMT
Hamas leader talks strategies
Barbara Plett
By Barbara Plett
BBC Middle East correspondent

For someone in Israel's gun sights, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin radiates confidence.

The bearded paraplegic is the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, the largest and most militant of all the Palestinian groups fighting the Israeli occupation.

Sheikh Ahmad Yassin
Our strategy is to defend ourselves against an occupying army
Israel tried to kill him in September.

But he was not in hiding when I met him. He was at home, attended by a single armed guard.

I asked him about the burning topic of the day, a possible Palestinian ceasefire.

Hamas has agreed to hold truce talks with the Palestinian Authority, but Sheikh Yassin said it was still waiting to hear the terms.

"The issue is where the Palestinian national interest is in all of this," he said.

"In the past we declared a unilateral ceasefire, we gave the Israeli enemy a truce for 50 days, but they did not commit to it even for one day. They continued with their killings and crimes, with demolishing houses and building settlements.

"So we have to study where the national interest lies: with resistance, or with declaring a ceasefire."

'Military battle'

Hamas has been calling for a mutual ceasefire, one that would mean an end to Israeli assassinations and incursions as well as Palestinian attacks.

Judging by public statements, Palestinian officials have also adopted that approach.

I asked Sheikh Yassin if Hamas would be willing to stop suicide bombings inside Israel.

Hamas members marching

Such attacks have killed hundreds of civilians and led to international condemnation of the Islamic movement.

On the ground they have also brought harsh Israeli retaliation and threats to expel the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

"Our battle is a military one, against soldiers and Jewish settlers. The attacks inside Israel, these are operations we carry out in response to Israeli crimes against our people," Sheikh Yassin replied, repeating Hamas' long-standing policy towards suicide attacks.

"They are not the strategy of our movement, our strategy is to defend ourselves against an occupying army, and against the settlers and the settlements."

Sheikh Yassin said recent talks between Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon were not about military co-operation, as Israel charges.

He said the two groups were talking about a prisoner exchange Israel is currently negotiating with the Lebanese militia.

State aid

But he also indicated there was potential for greater political co-ordination between Palestinian militant groups and those in Lebanon and Iraq, because of America's increasingly uncritical support for Israel.

"America's interests cannot be separated from Israel's interests, they are connected in a powerful way," he said.

"America is the one who gives Israel the money and the weapons. America is defending Israel in the UN Security Council by vetoing resolutions.

School children and Hamas members
Hamas has fired Qassam rockets into Israel during the intifada
"We did not fight the Americans, we did not fight the Europeans, we only fought on Palestinian land against the Israeli enemy who took our home.

"So why have America and Europe put us on the list of terrorists, when we never touched their interests?

"And why did they hit Iraq under the slogan of weapons of mass destruction? It's clear now America was lying to the world."

Sheikh Yassin has drawn his own conclusions.

'War against Islam'

He has always said that Hamas fights only against Israel, that the group is not interested in widening the struggle.

But now he is suggesting the Middle East conflict may not simply be about Israel's occupation of Arab land, it may also be about what he calls America's war against Islam.

"When George Bush declared his war on terrorism after 11 September, he said it was a crusader's war," said Sheikh Yassin.

"And there are voices in America today who also say this is a religious war. And the evidence shows that the war is against Muslims: in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and in Palestine."

The Hamas leader seems to be saying to America and Europe that the conditions are there for an ideological conflict, what some would call a clash of civilisations.

And although Israel and the West view Sheikh Yassin as an Islamic terrorist, he is also one of the most influential politicians in the Middle East.

So many people will take seriously his charge that the regional conflicts may be turning into a religious war.

The BBC's Barbara Plett
speaks to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin

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