U.N. envoy to Middle East acknowledges ‘quiet engagements’ with Hamas


JERUSALEM — The United Nations envoy to the Middle East acknowledged Sunday that he has maintained quiet contacts with the Islamist group Hamas for “years,” despite the international community’s policy to isolate the group.

In an interview with McClatchy, Robert Serry described his office’s contacts with Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, as “quiet engagements” and said his office was now “hoping to help the parties get to a more durable solution” after, a cease-fire that ended eight days of Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

“Because we are on the ground we have our informal contacts with Hamas. How could we not?” he said. “We also have our quiet engagements with Hamas to work for a calm. In the last years I have been working to pass on messages to Hamas.”

Serry, a Dutch career diplomat, visited the Gaza Strip and southern Israel this weekend to survey the damage from the latest round of hostilities between Israel and militants in Gaza. At least 163 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed in the violence, which included aerial and naval bombardment of Gaza by the Israelis and the targeting of Israeli cities by Gaza militants firing hundreds of rockets.

Officially, the international community has no direct contact with Hamas. The U.N., the United States and other Western governments renounced any dialogue with Hamas after the Islamist group, which has never acknowledged Israel’s right to exist, won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006.

In a statement that year, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said the international community would accept Hamas only if it showed “a commitment to the principles of nonviolence, recognition of Israel and the acceptance of previous agreements and obligations.”

Israel has consistently pressed for a complete isolation of Hamas, which it and the United States call a terrorist group. In addition to the freeze on all diplomatic and political contacts, Israel has enforced a blockade that includes controlling the movement of goods into Gaza.

But after the Arab Spring turmoil in which Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown and the election of a former member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to succeed him, Hamas’ isolation has been easing. Egypt has talked of opening its border with Gaza and facilitating trade, and last month, Bahrain and Qatar became the first two countries to send their heads of state to visit Gaza. Other Arab nations promised to quickly do the same.

Last week’s cease-fire, which called for Israel to ease its blockade of Gaza, raised questions about whether the isolation of Hamas can continue.

Western governments, including the United States, have remained adamant that they have no direct contact with Hamas.

In a briefing in Washington last week, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States was aware of other parties who were visiting Gaza and engaging in dialogue there as a way of advancing a truce between the Gaza Strip and Israel. But she said there was no change contemplated in U.S. policy toward Hamas.

“You know what our conditions for contact with Hamas have been,” she said. “They have not changed; they will not change in this circumstance. They need to recognize Israel’s right to exist. They need to renounce violence and take those other measures that we’ve always called for.”

Serry also said the U.N. had no “official” contact with Hamas because his current mandate prohibited it. But he said his office has passed on messages involving diplomatic and political issues pertaining to the cease-fire with Israel and to reconciliation with the Palestinians other political major movement, Fatah, which governs the West Bank. Hamas and Fatah fought a battle in 2007 that ended with Fatah forces being largely ejected from Gaza.

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“But I have a political role to play,” Serry said.

Serry noted that Hamas has still not met the U.N.’s demands that it recognize Israel and renounce violence. But he said that Hamas officials have recently made statements suggesting that they were willing to moderate their position on some key points.

In an interview over the weekend with CNN, Hamas political head Khaled Mashaal said his group was willing to accept a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, “or 22 percent of ‘historical Palestine.’ “

He also suggested that his group would be willing to recognize Israel once progress was made toward the establishment of an independent Palestinian State.

An Israeli official who is not authorized to discuss the matter publicly but spoke on the condition of anonymity said that as far as Israel was concerned, Hamas would continue to face widespread isolation unless it renounced violence and formally accepted the State of Israel’s right to exist, among other steps.

“I am surprised to hear the UN and other international groups are considering various levels of dialogue considering this is a terror group which has never shown itself to be anything else,” the official said.

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Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.