Jerusalem The militant Islamic group Hamas left open the door Saturday to its participation in planned Palestinian elections, a move that would present a formidable challenge to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.
The extremist group, which is second in popularity among Palestinians only to Arafat's movement, also vowed Saturday to continue suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. It said it would not stop until Israeli soldiers halted attacks against Palestinian civilians.
Hamas, which boycotted the last elections in 1996, has indicated that it would consider fielding candidates in upcoming elections as long as the balloting has nothing to do with the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians.
Hamas does not recognize the peace agreement and calls for the destruction of Israel. The United States considers the group to be a terrorist organization.
"We do not recognize any elections that came as a result of the Oslo agreement and if the coming elections will be the same as the past we will consider it an obstacle for the participation of Hamas and other parties," Ismail Abu Shanab, a senior Hamas leader, told AP Saturday.
Arafat has not said that upcoming elections would have anything to do with the Oslo process but it's not clear if he would agree to Hamas participation. Palestinian officials were not immediately available for comment.
Abu Shanab said that Hamas also would consider fielding candidates in local elections, which would be held at the same time as the general elections.
The election of members of Hamas or other militant groups to the Palestinian parliament would be a massive setback to the already faltering peace process.
"These are organizations that have stated very clearly that they want the destruction of Israel," said Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.