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Hamas team crosses to Egypt for talks

Mahmoud Zahar, a top Gaza leader, emerges from six weeks in hiding to join in discussing terms for a cease-fire.

February 08, 2009|Associated Press

GAZA CITY — One of the Gaza Strip's top leaders emerged Saturday from six weeks in hiding, leading a Hamas delegation to Egypt for cease-fire talks and reiterating that the Islamic militant group is "flexible" over who should lead reconstruction in the devastated territory.

Mahmoud Zahar, a former Palestinian Authority foreign minister, and three other Hamas officials crossed from Gaza en route to Cairo.

Egypt is mediating indirect talks between Israel and Hamas to reach a durable truce. Hamas wants Israel and Egypt to lift their 20-month border blockade of Gaza, and Israel wants improved guarantees that Hamas will be prevented from smuggling weapons into Gaza.

On the Egyptian side, Zahar told reporters that Hamas would be flexible about who will take charge of reconstruction. Thousands of homes and buildings were destroyed or damaged during the recent Israeli offensive, causing an estimated $2 billion in damage.

Hamas initially insisted that it should supervise the spending. However, international donors are reluctant to hand huge sums to the Islamic militants.

"We are flexible on who should be in charge of rebuilding," said Zahar, who, apparently fearing assassination, had been in hiding during the three-week offensive and even after a tentative cease-fire took hold in mid-January.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh still has not appeared in public.

In the West Bank, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad of the Fatah faction, Hamas' rival, said Saturday that he would transfer $50 million in emergency aid to Gazans whose homes were destroyed or damaged in the offensive.

The United Nations is putting together a detailed report on the war damage to be presented to donor countries in Egypt on March 2. The conference is expected to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for rebuilding Gaza. Fayyad said the emergency payments would be taken from the current Palestinian budget.

Israel unilaterally halted its three-week military offensive on Jan. 18, and Hamas militants halted fire a day later, but sporadic violence continues.

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