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

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 25, 2012 

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

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 working now, in the wake of a cease-fire agreement that ended eight days of Israeli bombardment of Gaza, “hoping to help the parties get to a more durable solution.”

“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 career Dutch diplomat who serves as the U.N. envoy to the Palestinian Authority, 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 formally 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, then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said that the international community would only accept Hamas if it showed, “a commitment to the principles of non-violence, 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 label a terrorist group. In addition to the freeze on all diplomatic and political contacts, Israel has enforced a strict blockade of Gaza that includes controlling the movement of goods into Gaza. ‘

But in the wake of the Arab Spring turmoil that saw the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his replacement by a former member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, 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 follow suit.

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 told reporters that 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 that 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 bloody battle in 2007 that ended with Fatah forces being largely ejected from Gaza.

“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 this weekend with CNN, Hamas political head Khaled Mashaal said that his group was wiling 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 spoke to McClatchy on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the topic publically 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,” said the official.

Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @sheeraf

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