Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal admitted that Hamas members killed three Israeli teens in the West Bank in June, but claimed the leadership of the organization was not made aware of the details of the abduction plan in advance, in an interview published by Yahoo News on Friday.
Interviewed by Michael Isikoff in Doha, the Qatari capital, Mashaal said that the leadership of Hamas learned of the details of the killings of the three teenagers, Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, from the Israeli investigation into them.
The search for the killers prompted an Israeli crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, Hamas then escalated rocket fire at Israel from Gaza, triggering the current 47-day conflict.
“We were not aware of this action taken by this group of Hamas members in advance,” he said. “But we understand people are frustrated under the occupation and the oppression, and they take all kinds of action.”
He added, “We learned about these confessions from the Israeli investigation … Hamas political leadership was not aware of all these details. We learned about it later on.”
In the same breath, Mashaal claimed that Hamas differed from Syria and Iraq’s Islamic State (IS) — which he called a “religious, violent group” that is a “totally different phenomenon” from Hamas — in that it does not target civilians, aiming its rockets “most of the time” at military targets and IDF bases.
“Our view is that soldiers and settlers on the West Bank are aggressors, and they are illegally living in this occupied and stolen land. And the right to resist is the right of Palestinians,” he said, implying that the three youths who were found dead near Hebron were legitimate targets because their school was located in the West Bank.
“This is an opportunity for me to say we are against the killing of any civilians, any journalists,” he told Isikoff. Claiming that it was Israel who was killing civilians and journalists in an IS-esque fashion, not Hamas, Mashaal said that Hamas would, in the future, take measures to warn Israeli civilians of impending attacks, just as Israel does in the Gaza Strip.
He admitted, however, that Hamas has a “problem” directing its strikes at military targets only.
“We do not have sophisticated weapons. We do not have the weapons available to our enemy … so aiming is difficult … We promise that if we get more precise weapons, we will only target military targets,” he said.
Mashaal was keen to distinguish Hamas from IS, which was the target of an outpouring of criticism this week after releasing a video showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to point out the similarities between the tactics and objectives of the two organizations, stating that “Hamas is like ISIS, ISIS is like Hamas.” Mashaal, however, took issue with the comparison, calling it a “lie” concocted to “trick” the US public.
“We are not a religious, violent group,” Mashaal said, remarking that Hamas, unlike IS, operates only in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.
“We are fighting against aggression in our land,” he said.
Earlier Friday, Qatari state media reported that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Mashaal had urged the United Nations to draw up a “timetable” for the end of the “Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.”
Abbas and Mashaal issued the appeal during talks in Doha, as fighting continued in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, Qatar’s state news agency QNA said.
The two Palestinian leaders had been holding talks in Doha since Thursday, but little else has filtered out of their meetings which were hosted by the emir of Qatar, a key backer of Hamas.
Abbas left for Cairo later Friday.
Their discussions, at the palace of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, came after fighting in Gaza flared anew on Tuesday as Egyptian-brokered truce efforts collapsed after Hamas resumed its rocket fire.
Talks broke down with Israel insistent on its demand for security from rocket fire by Gaza militants, and Hamas defiant on its call for an end to the blockade imposed on Gaza in 2007 after the group violently seized control of the Palestinian enclave. Israel and Egypt maintain the blockade to prevent Hamas bringing in weaponry.
QNA said that Abbas and Mashaal discussed Israel’s “aggression” on Gaza and underlined “the importance of acting at all levels in order to… lift Israel’s blockade of Gaza.” Israel and Egypt maintain the blockade to prevent Hamas, designated by Israel, the US and others as a terrorist group, from importing more weaponry.
They also agreed to request from the United Nations “a resolution that would define a timetable for the end of Israel’s occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state”.
The agency said Abbas would undertake the diplomatic steps necessary to seek such a resolution.
During an earlier Abbas-Mashaal meeting on Thursday, Abbas reportedly took Mashaal to task over a Hamas plot to launch attacks against the PA in the West Bank, a senior Palestinian source told The Times of Israel.
Mashaal and Abbas had a “difficult” discussion, the source said, in which Abbas castigated Hamas and called its members “liars” over a Shin Bet allegation that captured Hamas operatives had confessed to a plot to attack PA forces in the West Bank and even stage a “coup” there.
Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8 to stop indiscriminate rocket fire by Gaza terror groups on Israeli cities and destroy a network of tunnels that inflitrate into Israel and which have been used in deadly terror attacks.
More than 2,000 people have been killed in Gaza since last month. Israel says 750-1,000 of the dead are Hamas and other gunmen. It also blames Hamas for all civilian fatalities, since Hamas set up its rocket-launchers, tunnel openings and other elements of its war machine in Gaza neighborhoods and uses Gazans as “human shields.” Israel has lost 64 soldiers and four civilians in the fighting; the fourth Israeli, 4-year-old Daniel Tragerman, was hit in his home by shrapnel from a Hamas mortar shell that exploded outside the house on Kibbutz Nahal Oz on Friday. Eleven of the soldiers were killed by Hamas gunmen emerging from cross-border tunnels dug under the Israeli border.
Hamas has fired over 3,500 rockets at Israel, including some 600 from close to schools, mosques and other civilian facilities, the Israeli army says.
AFP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.