France acknowledged on Monday that it had informal contacts with Hamas.
Washington swiftly condemned the move, but French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said such contacts are needed to gauge the humanitaraian and political situation in the Middle East. He said other European countries had quietly done likewise, a contention supported by Hamas.
The opening, however slight, exposed new discord over how to deal with an extremist group that much of the international community has treated as a pariah since it seized control of the Gaza Strip by force last June. Word of the contacts comes after former US.
Former US president Jimmy Carter met with Hamas leaders in Syria last month.
It was even more striking because French President Nicolas Sarkozy has embraced Israel since taking office a year ago, in contrast to predecessors who nurtured France’s traditionally strong relations with the Arab world. But experts noted Sarkozy has signaled the need for “bridges” in response to Carter’s contentious visit.
Speaking on French radio Europe-1, Kouchner insisted the French contacts with Hamas over “several months” did not amount to “relations” or “negotiations.”
He did not delve into the substance of the contacts, but said Hamas has become more “flexible” — even if it still refuses to recognize the Jewish state’s right to exist.
These are “contacts, and nothing else, to inform us about the situation — first on the humanitarian front, and then especially the political one. That’s it,” Kouchner told reporters later at the Foreign Ministry.
“I think ... we’re not the only ones to have contacts of this type — just to inform ourselves — and particularly in the European Union,” he said.
The US government frowned on Kouchner’s comments and reiterated that the administration of US President George W. Bush feels Hamas should be shunned until it changes its behavior.
“We don’t think it is wise or appropriate,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said “We don’t believe it is helpful to the process of bringing peace to the region.”
Israeli officials said they would seek clarification from Kouchner when he visited Israel later this week as part of a previously planned trip. Sarkozy is scheduled to visit the region next month.
In Brussels, Belgium, EU officials insisted the 27-member bloc had no official contact with Hamas — other than when EU aid officials come into contact intermittently with local elected leaders or low-level authorities on projects.
Western officials noted the Quartet of Middle East mediators — the US, the EU, the UN and Russia — has demanded Hamas renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept previous peace accords as a condition for any talks.
The French Foreign Ministry sought to play down the remarks by the frank-speaking Kouchner, insisting there was no change in French policy.
Hamas quickly corroborated the French minister’s report of contacts and it claimed communication with other European countries.
Spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said talks were “about exploring Hamas’ positions on political issues” and were not discussions about opening formal relations.
“It reflects Europe’s awareness that it made a mistake in boycotting Hamas,” he said, without identifying any countries.
A Hamas legislator, Ismail Ridwan, said that there had been “formal contacts, semi-formal, informal,” in Gaza on ways to bring about talks. Hamas has had contact with Norwegians, Italians, Swedes and Russians, he said.