Hamas officials on Tuesday gave Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas the go-ahead for negotiations with Israel, a major shift in the militant Islamic group's position toward the Jewish state as it worked to end its international isolation.
As Palestinian officials pushed ahead with efforts to form a national unity government, an Israeli military court ordered the release of 19 Hamas officials — including Cabinet ministers and lawmakers — from an Israeli prison.
The men, arrested by Israel following the June 25 capture of Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit by Hamas-linked militants, will remain behind bars for several more days pending an appeal by prosecutors.
Israeli officials said the court decision was not meant to reward Hamas for its moves toward moderation.
"I don't think that right now we would be making gestures of goodwill for the Hamas. We would be making gestures of goodwill to Abu Mazen," Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said, referring to the moderate Abbas by his nickname. Eisin said the courts were independent of the government.
In other developments:
Hamas, whose ideology calls for Israel's destruction,in an effort to end the financial crisis crippling the Palestinian economy. International donors cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority when Hamas formed its Cabinet six months ago. Hamas is listed as a terror group by Israel and the West.
Israel says the new Palestinian government could be a positive development if it renounces violence and recognizes the Jewish state. But that's unlikely to happen, reports . Hamas officials say they won't recognize Israel, a state the group seeks to destroy. The new government's platform is based on a document which legitimizes attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank. Israel says that's a non-starter.
Abbas has long pushed for a resumption of peace talks with Israel, and Hamas said Tuesday he would have full authority to hold those negotiations.
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, said the government itself would not be involved in the talks because negotiations are supposed to be handled by the Palestine Liberation Organization, headed by Abbas. The distinction could allow Hamas to retain its hard-line credentials with the Palestinian street — while the government gains international acceptance.
Ghazi Hamad, a spokesman for the Hamas-led government, told Israel's Army Radio in Hebrew that the Palestinians would be ready to establish a state in territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.
Visiting Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos said the new Palestinian coalition could be a "positive step in principle," but he stopped short of saying whether it would be sufficient to persuade the EU to restore aid to the Palestinian Authority. "We'll have to study the details at the next meeting in Brussels, which will be on Friday, before we can come to an answer," Moratinos said.
While he said Hamas would not recognize Israel's right to exist, the joint government is to be based on a platform that many believe implies recognition of the Jewish state.
"We have nothing against negotiations, we have nothing against a diplomatic process, but we have rights," Hamad said. Later, Hamas said in a statement that it would not recognize Israel, implicitly or explicitly.
Israel, the United States and the European Union have said Hamas must renounce violence, recognize Israel's right to exist and accept past peace agreements.
With negotiations over the government guidelines continuing, no date was set for it to take office.
Israel wants to ensure that the international community does not reward Hamas for half measures, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.
"If the new Palestinian government reaches the three benchmarks and Gilad Shalit is released, then things could move ahead very quickly," Regev said. "Anything less than that is just a recipe for further stagnation."
Shalit's capture sparked a broad Israeli offensive in Gaza, and security forces arrested three dozen Hamas officials on charges of belonging to a banned group.
The military judge, who ruled Tuesday that 18 of those officials should be released, questioned the timing of the arrests, noting that the men were permitted to run for office and serve in the Palestinian government for months before their detentions. He said the politicians — including parliament speaker Abdel Aziz Duaik and Religious Affairs Minister Nayef Rajoub — should be set free. In a separate hearing, a judge ordered Deputy Prime Minister Nasser Shaer freed.
Prosecutors plan to appeal Thursday. Decisions are expected next week. In the meantime, the men remain in prison.
Earlier this week the court ordered the release of three other Hamas members. That appeal is to be heard Wednesday.
"The arrest of the parliamentarians and ministers was from the beginning an unjust arrest," Haniyeh said. "We hope all of them will be released."