Israel defense chief gives interview to Palestinian daily

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) " Israel's defense chief threatened Gaza's militant Hamas rulers and dismissed the Palestinian president as an incapable leader in a rare interview published Monday in the main Palestinian newspaper.

The positions of ultranationalist minister, Avigdor Lieberman, are well known but it's unusual for Palestinian media to interview him. The interview in the Al Quds daily comes at a time of heightened tensions between the two sides.

Lieberman said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was not capable of signing a peace deal with Israel. "This agreement needs someone else, someone capable of taking a tough decision," he said.

Lieberman, a West Bank settler, has stoked controversy in the past with incendiary remarks about the Palestinians and the Arab minority in Israel. Lieberman, who became defense minister earlier this year, is one of Israel's most polarizing politicians.

The interview angered some Palestinians, with the Palestinian Ministry of Information issuing a statement criticizing the reporter as "giving a stage to the murderer Lieberman."

He started his interview saying "it's important for me to talk directly to Palestinian people ... I tried to do that since I took office ... because I believe there is misunderstanding."

Lieberman warned Hamas against testing Israel with violence

"If they (Hamas) impose the war on Israel, this war will be the final war for them; we are going to destroy them completely," Lieberman was quoted as saying in the full-page interview.

Hamas has fought three wars with Israel since 2007 when the militant group seized power in Gaza after ousting forces loyal to Abbas in street battles. Since then, Hamas has ruled Gaza and Abbas governs parts of the West Bank.

A cease-fire has largely held since 2014 after Israel and Hamas fought a 50-day war, but Gaza militant groups occasionally launch rockets toward Israel, which retaliates with airstrikes

Hamas official Fathi Hammad said his group is "in no way afraid and this is a powerful message from Gaza to Lieberman."

Israel, along with Egypt, has imposed a blockade on Gaza since Hamas seized power there. The blockade has stifled Gaza's already-weak economy, where unemployment is over 40 percent. Israel says the restrictions are needed to prevent Hamas from acquiring weapons. It considers Hamas, an armed group sworn to Israel's destruction, a terrorist group.

Critics say the blockade is tantamount to collective punishment.

In the interview, Lieberman also said that Israel is ready to invest in an airport, sea port and industrial park in Gaza " if Hamas "stops building tunnels and launching rockets."

"Gaza could be the Singapore or Hong Kong of the Middle East," he said.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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