- The Washington Times - Friday, June 17, 2005

JERUSALEM — Israel has protested growing European contacts with Hamas, urging the EU to keep the group on its list of terrorist organizations and warning that talking to the Islamic militants undermines Palestinian moderates.

Three senior Hamas members said Thursday their group has been talking to European Union diplomats regularly. EU officials denied the contacts, but acknowledged that meetings with Hamas may be inevitable now that Hamas has won control of dozens of West Bank and Gaza towns in recent local elections.

“We believe Europeans should be strengthening moderate Palestinians and not appeasing the extremists,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Thursday. “Anything that demonstrates acceptance of Hamas as a legitimate player is a problem.”

Both the United States and the EU list Hamas as a terrorist group, but its strong showing in local votes poses a problem for the West, which must figure out how to handle existing aid projects in towns now run by Hamas-backed mayors.

Hamas members said their group is in contact with EU diplomats, and the meetings have grown more frequent following Hamas’ victory in more than a third of 120 towns up for grabs in three rounds of municipal voting since December.

“Every 10 days to two weeks we have at least one meeting with a European diplomat,” said Mohammed Ghazal, a senior Hamas representative in the West Bank.

Israel and the United States lobbied hard in 2003 for Europe to include Hamas on its terrorist list. Signs that Europe may now be softening that stance — including calls by some to differentiate between Hamas’ political and military wings — have alarmed Israeli officials, who said they’ve expressed their displeasure to EU officials, including during discussions Thursday.

“The EU has put Hamas on its list of terrorist organizations, and since this decision has been taken there’s been no change in Hamas that would signal any change in the character of that organization,” Mr. Regev said. “Hamas is a murderous terrorist movement that has been responsible for countless acts of suicide bombings throughout Israel against innocent civilians.” Hundreds of Israelis have been killed in bombings during more than four years of violence.

In Brussels, EU official Elena Peresso said the EU “was not aware of any contacts” and has reached no collective decision on whether to change its policy toward Hamas.

“Hamas is still on the terrorist list,” she said.

Added Bob Hiensch, the Netherlands’ ambassador to Israel: “It’s very clear that we will not have a political dialogue with Hamas as long as they do not denounce all acts of violence and explicitly recognize Israel’s right to exist.”

He did not rule out, however, that member states may be meeting on their own with Hamas but said “it’s not a European decision.”

The United States has held to its policy of not speaking to Hamas members, though current U.S. aid projects in Hamas-run towns have not been halted.

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