The former US president Jimmy Carter is to give a full report to Barack Obama after becoming easily the highest-profile Western figure to meet Hamas leaders in Gaza since the international boycott imposed after the party's election victory in 2006.
Mr Carter held three hours of talks with Ismail Haniyeh, the de facto Prime Minister of Hamas-controlled Gaza, and other senior figures in the Palestinian movement yesterday after issuing a ringing appeal for an end to the two-year blockade which, he said, had treated Gaza's 1.5 million people "more like animals than human beings".
Mr Carter, who handed over a letter from the parents of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli army corporal seized by Gaza militants three years ago, is believed to have discussed with Mr Haniyeh both the prospects of a prisoner release for Cpl Shalit, and whether Hamas will move towards the three preconditions imposed by the international community for opening contacts with the Islamic faction.
Earlier, at a UN Relief and Works Agency event north of Gaza City, Mr Carter – who has campaigned for peace in the Middle East since he brokered the talks which led to the 1978 treaty between Egypt and Israel – said he had urged Hamas to accept the three conditions, reiterated by Mr Obama in Cairo a fortnight ago, of recognising Israel, renouncing violence and abiding by previous agreements.
Mr Carter said the Damascus-based Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, had told him he would accept an agreement with Israel for a Palestinian state, negotiated by the moderate Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, if it was approved in a referendum. Mr Carter insisted that the Arab Peace Initiative – which offers pan-Arab recognition in return for a Palestinian state on 1967 borders – was now being "considered on all sides".
After his meeting with Mr Haniyeh, Mr Carter, now 84, stressed that he was "not representing the US government in any way" and had come as a private citizen. But he said he would be writing a report on his trip, which has also included Israel, the West Bank, Lebanon and Syria, for Mr Obama, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the President's Middle East envoy George Mitchell.
Although Hamas has shown no sign of accepting the three preconditions, Mr Haniyeh repeated yesterday that Hamas would accept a Palestinian state based on its 1967 borders, and that the movement had "listened carefully" to Mr Obama's speech in Cairo, which acknowledged that Hamas had support among Palestinians but also had responsibilities. "We found a new tongue, a new language, a new spirit," Mr Haniyeh declared.
Mr Carter fiercely denounced the blockade imposed by Israel after Hamas seized full control of Gaza almost two years ago. Referring to the "313 innocent children" killed and more than 50,000 homes destroyed or damaged by Israel's military offensive in January, he said: "Never before in history has a community been savaged by bombs and missiles and then deprived of the means to repair itself." He added: "My country and our friends in Europe must do all that is necessary to persuade Israel and Egypt to allow basic materials into Gaza. At the same time, there must be no more rockets and mortar shells falling on Israeli citizens."
He said the issue of who controlled Gaza was irrelevant to the supply of building materials because internationally acceptable channels were available to bring them in.
He noted that a recent Israeli-US delegation was stopped from bringing in toys and children's play equipment – such as "slides, swings, kites, and magic castles" – for Gaza children, and that even crayons and paper were treated as a "security hazard".
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