Israeli fury as Straw admits Britain has held talks with Hamas

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The Independent Online

Israel has urged Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, to maintain the boycott on Hamas after he admitted publicly for the first time that British diplomats had met elected local officials affiliated to the faction.

Israel has urged Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, to maintain the boycott on Hamas after he admitted publicly for the first time that British diplomats had met elected local officials affiliated to the faction.

After arriving here for talks with Israeli and Palestinian ministers last night, Mr Straw was at pains to make it clear that the loosening of the ban on contacts did not apply to the Hamas leadership or to individual members associated with militant actions by the faction's armed wing.

Since local elections in January, the British government and others in the EU have agreed that their diplomats can make the usual calls on mayors and other elected officials which in the past they would have made on their Fatah Party counterparts. Hamas made significant gains in two rounds of council elections at the expense of Fatah.

The contacts include a meeting between middle-ranking British diplomats and Mohammed al-Masri, the acting mayor of Qalkilya, the West Bank village where Hamas took all 15 council seats. The mayor himself, Wajia Nazal, is in an Israeli prison under administrative detention.

The diplomatic tensions triggered by Mr Straw's admission came as the fragile four-month-old ceasefire was exposed to fresh strains in a day of violence in the West Bank and Gaza, where Hamas claimed responsibility for four Qassam rockets that hit the Israeli town of Sderot, injuring a woman and two children. In separate incidents, two Islamic Jihad militants were killed in a gunfight in Qabatiya near Jenin, while two foreign workers were killed in a mortar attack on the Jewish settlement of Gannei Tal in Gaza.

Sylvan Shalom, the Israeli Foreign Minister, went out of his way at the opening of his meeting with Mr Straw to underline his argument that Hamas was seeking to undermine the chances of agreement with the Palestinian leadership and that Western countries should be bolstering "moderate" forces instead.

Although Mr Shalom and his British counterpart expressed strong mutual trust and support of what one official described as their "common understanding" on Hamas, Mr Shalom also said in the privacy of the meeting that Israel did not accept any distinction between the political and military wings of Hamas.

Earlier, Mr Straw had stressed in a BBC Radio interview that the boycott on talks with the Hamas leadership would remain as long as the armed faction declined to renounce violence and its ideological stance of seeking the elimination of the state of Israel. Acknowledging two meetings between UK diplomats and Hamas mayors, Mr Straw said: "On each of those occasions our staff have spelt out to the elected official ... our position overall in respect of no dealings with Hamas as an organisation as long as it continues to support violence."

His formulation did not appear to close off completely the possibility that British diplomats might in time open similar contacts with other Hamas members as and when they are elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), provided they have not been actively engaged in armed activities and are not part of the central leadership.

The urgency of the issue has been significantly reduced by the decision at the weekend by the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, to postpone the PLC elections, possibly until the end of the year. But there has been some discussion within the British government - and within the US administration, to judge by some weekend reports - about how to react if Hamas scores significant electoral gains in the Palestinian legislature.

Earlier one unnamed Israeli official said in reaction to Mr Straw's interview that it was a "dangerous" premise to assume that there was a distinction between political and military wings of the faction. But while the official said: "Hamas is a terrorist organisation, period", the army's Civil Administration in the West Bank made it clear last month that it was perfectly prepared to discuss routine issues like infrastructure and health services with leaders of Hamas councils. The Administration's spokesman, Adam Avidan, said: "We are professionals and we will talk to anyone on professional matters."

He cited the example of talks that had taken place between the Hamas mayor of Jayyous near Qalkilya and an Israeli military official on the passage of local Palestinians through gates in the separation barrier.

The Israeli army said that Maraweh Ikmil, who was shot dead in the raid on Qabatiya, had been planning to send suicide bombers to strike inside the Jewish state and that its operation had not violated a ceasefire declared in February. Major Sharon Asman told Reuters: "We said that the calm would be preserved except in the case of ticking bombs. This was a ticking bomb."

Local residents and medics initially said a uniformed Palestinian policeman, who was not carrying a weapon, was also killed by Israeli forces during fighting with militants in the village. But the army and Islamic Jihad both said later that the second man had been one of the faction's operatives.