Hamas leader's invitation to address MPs provokes fury

Foreign Office warns video link to Parliament will boost Islamic extremists

The former Labour minister Clare Short has been embroiled in a row after inviting senior Hamas leader Khaled Meshal to address MPs in Parliament.

Ms Short faced strong criticism from both the British and Israeli governments for her part in organising tonight's question-and-answer session between Mr Meshal and a backbench committee of MPs.

Mr Meshal, the head of Hamas's political bureau, is based in Damascus and is considered by many to be the No 1 decision maker in the Islamic fundamentalist organisation. He was the target of a bungled Israeli assassination attempt in Jordan in 1997.

He is set to speak to the committee via a video link. The session was arranged when Ms Short and a group of MPs met the senior Palestinian hardliner during a visit to the Syrian capital.

British and French parliamentarians have held meetings with Hamas representatives in the Middle East, but the European Union adheres to the rules of the international Quartet for Middle East peace – which groups the US, the EU, Russia and the UN – and does not speak to the Palestinian faction on the grounds that it remains committed to the destruction of Israel.

A Foreign Office spokesman said last night: "We do not believe in talking to Hamas as things stand, as we do not think that anything positive would result from it. Indeed it will undermine the position of those Palestinians who are working towards a peaceful solution to the crisis. It is, however, up to individual MPs to make decisions about the organisation and people like Mr Meshal."

Ms Short, who resigned as Tony Blair's secretary for international development in 2003 over the war in Iraq, has voiced support for boycotting Israel and compared Israel's actions in the occupied territories to those of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The Israeli government claimed yesterday that the invitation to Mr Meshal could provide legitimacy to Hamas. "We are talking about the head of a terrorist movement. This is absurd," said Yigal Palmor, a foreign ministry spokesman. "It is clear that a person who would never get a visa to enter Britain should not be addressing MPs."

Mr Palmor added that Ms Short "is well known for her anti-Israel positions". Of the other MPs who are said to have played a part in organising the session, he said: "They are the usual suspects. They are crossing line after line and now they've crossed another one. But I don't think the British public at large find it logical to have this well-known terrorist promoting his views in Parliament."

Israeli media reports said the country's embassy in London tried unsuccessfully to get the link-up cancelled through the intervention of pro-Israel MPs.

Hamas, which espouses Islamic rule in all of historic Palestine but has also conditionally backed the idea of a long-term ceasefire with Israel, won Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January 2006. The British Government and much of the international community have set three conditions for dealing with it, none of which have been met thus far: renouncing violence, recognising Israel and accepting previous agreements between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel. Hamas forcibly seized control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah in June 2007. It withstood a devastating Israeli military onslaught in January this year which Israel said was prompted by rocket fire by the group.

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