By IBRAHIM BARZAK and KARIN LAUB, Associated Press
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Gaza's ruling Hamas on Wednesday sent conflicting signals on whether it would stay on the sidelines if war breaks out between Israel and Iran.
A Hamas spokesman said the group didn't have enough firepower the enter a regional war, while a senior official later reportedly threatened "retaliation with utmost power."
The comments coincided with speculation that Israel might strike Iran to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons. Such concerns were heightened by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's tough rhetoric on Iran during his high-profile visit to Washington this week.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told The Associated Press that the group has only "humble weapons that aim to defend and not to attack." This limited arsenal "does not give us the ability to be part of any regional war," he said. Salah Bardawil, a member of Hamas' top decision-making body, the political bureau, reportedly adopted a similar view.
Later Wednesday, Iran's semi-official Fars news agency quoted another senior Hamas official in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, as saying that "retaliation with utmost power is the position of Hamas with regard to a Zionist war on Iran." Zahar could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.
There have been increasing signs of rifts in Hamas, including between Gaza strongmen like Zahar and leaders in exile who advocate a more pragmatic line. It's not clear who will prevail, including on ties with Iran.
Israel believes Iran is trying to produce nuclear weapons, while Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. Israel has been hinting at a military strike.
President Barack Obama told Netanyahu at the White House that diplomacy and sanctions must be given more time, but he did not rule out military action if necessary to protect U.S. interests.
Israeli military officials have said that in the event of Israel-Iran hostilities, Tehran's proxies on Israel's borders — Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon — could open fire at Israel. Israel's military intelligence chief has warned that Israel's enemies have about 200,000 rockets and missiles that could strike all parts of the country.
Hamas has a long history of attacks on Israel, including suicide bombings and thousands of rockets and mortars fired from the Gaza Strip over the past decade.
In its 24-year existence, Hamas has also stayed out of other conflicts, saying its sole purpose is to shake off Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands. Hamas does not accept Israel's existence.
In recent months, Hamas has distanced itself from longtime allies Iran and Syria, mainly over Syrian President Bashar Assad's brutal crackdown on regime opponents, but it has not cut ties with Iran, which provides Hamas with vital funding.
Hamas has largely observed an informal truce with Israel since suffering heavy losses during an Israeli military offensive in Gaza three years ago. The group does not want to provoke another round of heavy fighting, though it has done little to stop militants from smaller groups from firing rockets and mortars into Israel.
Hezbollah has also been unclear on how it would respond to an Israeli strike on Iran. Last month, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said Iran would not ask Hezbollah to retaliate.
"There is speculation about what would happen if Israel bombed Iran's nuclear facilities," Nasrallah said at the time. "I tell you that the Iranian leadership will not ask Hezbollah to do anything. On that day, we will sit, think and decide what we will do."
In 2006, Hezbollah and Israel fought a 34-day war that killed about 1,200 people in Lebanon and 160 in Israel. Hezbollah fired nearly 4,000 rockets at Israel.
In Israel Wednesday, Netanyahu's national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, welcomed an upcoming round of talks between six world powers and Iran over its suspect nuclear program. No date has been set.
Amidror said Iran can be prodded into concessions only by the threat of military action, and that there is a chance the talks might fail.
"Without a real military alternative, the Iranians will not make concessions in the talks," he said.