Israel calls on EU to keep Hamas on its terror list

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Israel has renewed calls for the European Union to tighten its boycott of Hamas after reports of diplomatic contact between member states and faction officials.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry yesterday put pressure on the EU to maintain its formal listing of Hamas - which has been making significant gains in recent local elections - as a terrorist organisation.

Mark Regev, the Ministry's spokesman, said it was pressing its case with EU diplomats and added: "We believe Europeans should be strengthening moderate Palestinians and not appeasing the extremists. Anything that demonstrates acceptance of Hamas as a legitimate player is a problem."

The issue first surfaced last week when Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary, admitted that British diplomats had been authorised on at least two occasions to make contact with elected local officials who were affiliated to Hamas. Mr Straw and his officials made it clear however that Britain would not be making contact with the Hamas leadership or with members known to have been involved in militant violence.

He did not rule out the possibility that British diplomats might make contact - subject to the same restrictions - with Hamas members once elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). EU officials said that no decision had yet been taken on that issue. But Mr Straw was adamant that Britain was in favour of maintaining the listing of Hamas as long as it refused to renounce violence or abandon its commitment to the elimination of the state of Israel.

Western countries have repeatedly urged the Palenstinians towards a democratic process, and the success of Hamas - a proscribed organisation - at the polls has created a dilemma for the west. Having urged the vote to take place, how do they deal with formerly blacklisted elected officials?

The issue has been discussed within the governments of EU member states, including Britain.

But there was bemusement among diplomats representing EU member states here yesterday over the report from Washington in yesterday's Haaretz that the EU had told US officials of a significant shift in policy. A senior EU official in Jerusalem last night denied that there had been any change of policy by the EU in relation to Hamas.

Diplomats instead confirmed that EU election observers who will be dispatched to monitor the PLC elections when they take place would be authorised to discuss day-to-day electoral practicalities with Hamas candidates as they would with those of any other faction. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, earlier this month postponed the PLC elections - originally planned for 17 July - in which Hamas had been expected to return score a significant result.

Israel's own adamant opposition to political contacts with Hamas is itself complicated by the fact that the army's Civil Administration in the West Bank has freely made it clear that it has no problem with contacts between its own officials and Hamas members who are elected as mayors and other ranking local officials on normal day-to-day municipal issues such as infrastructure, roadblocks and health care.

Although Britain is the only country to admit to relatively low-level contact with Hamas elected officials it is widely assumed that such contacts are pursued by other prominent EU member states. Several of those nations channel aid funds directly to municipalities, which Britain does not. Mr Straw also made it clear last week that diplomats always stress their adamant opposition to the use of arms by Hamas when they hold such meetings.

Since 2003 the EU listing - which amounts to a European-wide freeze on the faction's assets - has made no distinction between Hamas's political and military wings. Britain, which was one of the main architects of the EU listing, has further proscribed Hamas's military wing but proscription of the organisation - and the issue of individual contact - are matters for member states to deal with on their own.

In Brussels yesterday, EU spokeswoman Elena Peresso said the union had reached no collective decision on whether to change its policy toward Hamas.