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Interview: Hamas No. 2 rejects Gaza arms halt

AP Photo/Bernat Armangue
Palestinian schoolchildren walk by a damaged school, right, in Gaza City, Saturday, the day schools in Gaza opened for the first time since the truce, which calls for an end to Gaza rocket fire on Israel and Israeli airstrikes on Gaza.

– Gaza's ruling Hamas will not stop arming itself, the No. 2 in the Palestinian group told The Associated Press on Saturday, signaling tough challenges ahead for indirect negotiations between Israel and the Islamist militants on a new border deal for Gaza.

The talks are being brokered by Egypt, which also helped forge a cease-fire deal that ended eight days of Israel-Gaza fighting earlier this week.

The truce went into effect late Wednesday and has largely held. Residents in Gaza said Israel has begun easing some border restrictions, allowing fishermen to head further out to sea and permitting farmers inspect land in a former no-go zone.

Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy to Hamas' top leader in exile Khaled Mashaal, said talks on a further easing of restrictions are to be held in Cairo on Monday. Hamas and Israel do not meet directly and the indirect talks are held through Egyptian intermediaries.

An Israeli security official has said Israel would likely link a significant easing of Gaza's border blockade to Hamas' willingness to stop arming itself. Israeli officials were not immediately available for comment Saturday.

However, Abu Marzouk rejected such demands. "These weapons protected us and there is no way to stop obtaining and manufacturing them," he said in an interview at his office on the outskirts of Cairo.

Hamas officials in Gaza have said they have developed a local arms industry. Meanwhile, Mashaal has said the group has received weapons from Iran since Israel's last Gaza offensive four years ago.

Hamas smuggles such weapons into Gaza through tunnels under the border with Egypt.

Israel and Hamas have clashed repeatedly over the years, most recently in the cross-border battle that began Nov. 14.

The fighting has killed 166 Palestinians and six Israelis.

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