Hamas said on Wednesday that it has been holding secret political talks with five European Union member states in recent months, according to a report in The Associated Press.
In an interview Wednesday, Beirut-based Hamas official Osama Hamdan told AP his group has been talking to government officials from five major EU member states, but would not list the countries.
“I can say it’s an important level (of officials), without defining whether it’s junior or senior, and the channels are working,” Hamdan, who handles the terror group's foreign relations, told AP. “It's not just a contact. It's channels of talking.”
Hamas won the elections for the Palestinian Authority parliament in 2006, and violently seized control of Gaza by force a year later. Hamas is considered a terror group by both the EU and the United States, and the West has demanded that the group recognize Israel and renounce violence in exchange for international acceptance.
Hamdan is the first Hamas official to speak publicly and in some detail about purported contacts with Western governments, AP reported.
In Gaza, three Hamas officials told AP that Britain, France and the Netherlands are among the countries involved in backchannel talks. Two also mentioned Austria, and one added Sweden to the list.
The officials said talks have been held in Gaza, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey. The three spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the diplomatic contacts.
Officials in Britain, France, Austria and the Netherlands denied their governments are conducting talks with Hamas.
Hamdan told AP that in the backchannel talks, Hamas is seeking assurances that European countries will recognize the outcome of future PA elections. It remains unclear when such elections would be held, since they are linked to a stalled reconciliation agreement between Hamas and the rival Fatah faction headed by PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
“They have to accept the Palestinian democracy,” Hamdan told AP of the international community. “We believe that if ... they are ready to accept the results, regardless to the names and the organizations, that would be fine for the Palestinians.”
He added that he believes the changes in the region, with its resurgence of Islamist movements, have prompted some European countries to review their policy toward the conflict between the PA and Israel, including Hamas.
“I think the Europeans also understand that if they want to deal with the region in the Arab Spring, they will face big questions from the region toward the Palestinian cause,” Hamdan said.
Hamdan said European officials keep bringing up the issue of recognition of Israel in backchannel talks, but that Hamas won't budge. Hamas’ founding charter calls for Israel's destruction.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said he couldn't confirm European meetings with Hamas, adding the group can only play a role if it meets the long-standing demands by the international community.