A senior United Nations official in Gaza gave Sen. John Kerry a letter from an adviser to the militant Islamic group Hamas without informing Mr. Kerry of the letter's origin, a spokesman for the senator said Friday.
The letter was addressed to President Obama, said Frederick Jones, spokesman for Mr. Kerry, who was visiting Gaza in his capacity as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
It was the first such apparent attempt at communication between a member of the group, which is on the State Department's terrorism list, and the Obama administration, although it is not clear when or if Mr. Obama will see the letter.
Mr. Jones said Mr. Kerry gave the letter to the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem which would pass it on to Washington.
Karen AbuZayd, head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), gave the letter to Mr. Kerry, Mr. Jones said, along with other materials about the plight of Palestinians in Gaza.
Only later did Mr. Kerry discover from news reports that the letter was from Hamas, Mr. Jones said.
Andrew Whitley, who runs the UNRWA office in New York, told The Washington Times that a man left the envelope with a security guard outside the fence surrounding the UNRWA compound in Gaza.
"It wasn't treated as a serious issue," Mr. Whitley said.
He said it wasn't clear who the letter was from.
"It didn't have an official seal, and no return address. I cannot tell you what was inside the envelope; we are not in the business of opening other people's mail," he said.
It is not clear whether Ms. AbuZayd knew the letter was from a Hamas member.
The policy of the Obama administration has not changed from the Bush administration, which shunned the militant group.
The U.S. position on Hamas "is very clear," said Gordon Duguid, a State Department spokesman. "Should they accept the existence of the state of Israel, should they stop trying to violently overthrow the state of Israel, should they wish to reengage in the peace process and stop trying to rearm by smuggling rockets and other arms into Gaza, then there could be a place for them in future discussions. But until that happens, I don´t see our position changing."
A Palestinian official familiar with the letter told Reuters news agency that it was written by Ahmed Youssef, an adviser to Hamas who has urged Western governments to end their boycott of the organization.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told Reuters that the letter was not endorsed by Hamas or the Gaza government.
"At the same time we stress that we are open to hold dialogue with any country, and our only enemy is the Zionist occupation," he said.
Mr. Kerry and two U.S. congressmen visited Gaza to see the consequences of last month's 22-day Israeli offensive in which 13 Israelis and more than 1,300 Palestinians died.
During the visit, Mr. Kerry said Hamas was at fault for provoking the conflict by firing rockets into Israeli cities and towns.
• Betsy Pisik reported from New York.