In an apparent shift of views within Hamas, one of its senior officials said this week that the militant group sees nothing wrong with negotiating with Israel.
Hamas does not recognize Israel and has opposed direct talks. Israel in turn considers Hamas a terrorist organization and will not hold direct negotiations until the group renounces violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist.
Mousa abu Marzouk, deputy director of Hamas, said Wednesday in an interview with Al Quds television, an affiliate of his group, that "from a legitimate point, there is nothing wrong with negotiations with the enemy. Just as we negotiated with it with arms, now we negotiate with words."
However, Hamas denied in a statement Thursday that the Islamist movement has changed its policy, saying: "Direct negotiation with the Zionist enemy is not the policy of the movement and it is not on its table of discussions."
Abu Marzouk, who is based in Cairo, said Hamas may be forced to negotiate with Israel under pressure from the people of Gaza.
Israel bombarded the coastal enclave this summer for 50 days in an attempt to stop rocket attacks and incursions by militants through tunnels out of Gaza. More than 2,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed in the conflict and about 11,000 others wounded. Thousands of people were left homeless, and billions of dollars in damage was done to buildings and infrastructure.
"Hamas may find itself compelled to follow this line [negotiations] when efforts to regain the natural rights of the people of Gaza become too heavy for our brothers in the Palestinian Authority and the government," said Abu Marzouk.
However, suggesting that Hamas may negotiate with Israel in place of the Palestinian Authority has upset the movement's main rival, Fatah, which dominates the Ramallah-based Palestinian government.
Fatah spokesman Ahmad Assaf condemned Abu Marzouk's comments on negotiations with Israel, describing them as "treason."
"Holding negotiations with the Israeli enemy outside the framework of the legitimate Palestinian authority is a betrayal," he said in a statement.
"Since when does every Palestinian political faction negotiate with Israel separately?" he asked. "Wouldn't that be the height of treason and persistence in efforts to break up the unity of the Palestinian people and its political position?"
Assaf maintained that Hamas had been holding both direct and indirect secret talks with Israel through regional and international mediators.
The bickering reflects the growing schism between the two main Palestinian political groups, which formed a national unity government in June, especially since the end of Israel's offensive against Gaza late last month.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has regularly accused Hamas of plotting to undermine his position in the West Bank and of refusing to turn over power to the unity government in Gaza, which the militant group has ruled since ousting Abbas' Fatah forces in 2007.