Members of a high-profile European parliamentary delegation are urging their governments to engage in direct talks with Hamas and end the Islamic movement's international isolation. The push comes after a marathon meeting Saturday between the delegation and Hamas's political leader Khaled Mashaal, who is in exile in Damascus.
The six-member delegation, which includes lawmakers from Britain, Scotland and Ireland, said its first public move would be to encourage more Europeans to recognize Hamas as a legitimate movement that was democratically elected in January, 2006.
Labor Party member Clare Short told reporters following the talks that she would call the British government to also undertake face-to-face talks with Hamas "in the interest of peace." Britain recently softened its stance on dialogue with the political wing of Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement, a political cousin of Hamas which has received the same treatment from Western countries.
Britain, the United States and the European Union all consider Hamas a terrorist organization and refuse to have talks with the group until it renounces violence, recognizes Israel and agrees to all previous peace agreements signed by Palestinian negotiators.
A Damascus-based British diplomat told CBS News that his embassy had "no coordination whatsoever" with the delegation which was "paying the visit on his own contacts."
Another EU delegation, composed of lawmakers from Greece and Italy, was also expected to land in Damascus within a few days for talks with Hamas — another indication that the Islamist group could no longer be sidelined or ignored in regional peacemaking.
Israel's 22-day Gaza war, which killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, half of them children, has fueled demands in Europe that Hamas be treated as an inevitable participant in diplomatic dealings. However, the group was not invited to a recent global conference in Egyptian resort Sharm El-Sheikh to discuss the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip.
"We believe that we should start talking with Hamas, and the more the delay, the more the suffering," Irish EU parliamentarian Chris Andrew said following the talks in Damascus.
Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas leader based in Lebanon who joined in today's talks, said his group had held several prior meetings with Europeans who asked for a total media blackout.
"But this time the British have decided to get today's talks out from the shadows because they may have realized the failure of the policy of isolating Hamas," Hamdan said.