DAMASCUS, Syria — Khaled Mashaal, Hamas' most influential political leader, told McClatchy Newspapers that his Islamist organization is unwilling to make any significant concessions to Israel or to its Palestinian rivals in Fatah to repair fractured Middle East peace talks.
In a rare 90-minute interview with an American news reporter earlier this week, Mashaal dismissed any suggestion that Hamas would recognize Israel or agree to early elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He said Hamas wouldn't release an Israeli soldier captured last summer in the Gaza Strip unless Israel releases hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.
And he warned that the Palestinians could stage a third violent uprising, known as an intifada, if Israel doesn't relinquish control of the West Bank.
"The Palestinian people will never stop the intifada," Mashaal said. "Maybe they will calm down. Sometimes they might stop to catch their breath. But the only thing that will stop resistance is ending the occupation."
Mashaal's agreement to an interview in his secure office in a quiet hillside neighborhood outside central Damascus comes as the United States and Israel have pledged to strengthen Fatah and the caretaker government appointed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the standoff with Hamas.
Neither Israel nor the United States will talk to Hamas, and it's certain that no representative of the group will be at a Middle East conference that the Bush administration hopes to hold this fall.
But many diplomats believe that any long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will need approval from Mashaal, who as Hamas' political director has become a pivotal player in the region in the 10 years since Israeli agents attempted to kill him with poison in Jordan.
"The American administration should know that time is not on their side in the region," Mashaal said. "Using force alone is not the final option."
Next month will mark the anniversary of the failed assassination attempt. Mashaal's would-be assassins were captured and returned to Israel after Israel agreed to release from prison Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who was later assassinated himself in 2004 by an Israeli airstrike.
The failed attempt colors both Mashaal's outlook and his life.
A rotating team of guards keeps watch outside the Hamas offices. Visitors are escorted to the neighborhood in a chauffeured car and are required to turn their cell phones off en route. The phones aren't allowed in the building.
Mashaal's guards carefully inspect cameras and recorders through an X-ray machine, and visitors must pass through a metal detector.
Mashaal, who once taught physics, said the assassination attempt stripped him of any fear of death and helped him put his role as a Hamas leader in perspective.
"The experience I had with death helped me not to have any fear of it," he said. "I never have any worries about death. Death is the natural end for everyone, and death defending your nation is martyrdom. And this is the glory and honor for everyone."
With an intense gaze and appetite for debate, Mashaal is one of the group's more eloquent leaders. Though he understands English well, he preferred to answer in his native Arabic during Tuesday's interview.
Mashaal was pivotal to Hamas' decision to take part in last year's Palestinian election and to agree to join Fatah in a brief, and failed, coalition government meant to end months of deadly factional clashes.
He said he's still interested in repairing the rift with Fatah, which was created by the Hamas military takeover of the Gaza Strip in June, and he went out of his way to avoid criticizing Abbas, who is widely known as Abu Mazen.
"I didn't say that I don't want to deal with Abu Mazen," he said at one point. "Don't make me say what I didn't say. I deal with Abu Mazen. I deal with Fatah. I deal with all Palestinian parties."
But he said Hamas wouldn't apologize for its actions in Gaza — a precondition that Abbas has set for any talks with Hamas.
"Maybe we should ask who should apologize to whom," said Mashaal, who criticized Fatah for cooperating with the United States and Israel, both of which refused to deal with Hamas after it won elections last year.
"Who should apologize: the victim or the assailant?" asked Mashaal. "Who should apologize? The one who won the elections and was besieged, or the people who were cooperating with the enemies of the Palestinian people?"
Mashaal said Hamas wouldn't cooperate should Abbas and his supporters succeed in changing Palestinian laws to call early legislative elections. Not only would Hamas boycott the elections, he said, but it would thwart attempts to vote in the Gaza Strip.
"Those who are practicing democracy with dictatorship — this is not democracy; it's a game," he said. "It's misleading. And Hamas will not accept it."
Mashaal also dismissed talk of explicitly recognizing Israel. He criticized both the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Abbas for having done so, saying the concession had done nothing for either political leader.
At one point, Mashaal pulled out a blank piece of paper and began to sketch a blocked road, which he said was the path of failed political negotiations with Israel.
He then added arrows around the blockade to signify the Hamas road of resistance, which he said is the only path that leads to a Palestinian state.
"When a series of Palestinian leaders tried one road — the way of political dialogue — and then hit a blockade, do you think it is realistic to keep going down the same path?" Mashaal said.
Mashaal, who was born outside Ramallah in the West Bank, said he still holds hope that he will one day return to his family home.
"If I don't return, I'm sure my son or my grandson will go there," he said. "I have no doubt about it."