Hamas has been holding secret political talks with five European Union member states in recent months, a senior official in the Islamic militant group told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
If confirmed, such talks would be a sign that the isolation of the Gaza-based Palestinian movement is easing in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings that have brought Islamists to power in parts of the Middle East.
The EU and the U.S consider Hamas a terror group and refuse to deal with it unless it renounces violence and recognizes Israel.
However, the West is reassessing its Mideast policy following the uprisings of the past year that toppled several pro-Western regimes in the region and gave rise to the Hamas parent movement, the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood.
It appeared possible that some EU member states are now softening their approach toward Hamas.
In an interview Wednesday, Beirut-based Hamas official Osama Hamdan said his group has been talking to government officials from five major EU member states in recent months. He 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," said Hamdan, who handles the group's foreign relations and spoke at a Hamas office in Beirut's southern Dahiya neighborhood. "It's not just a contact. It's channels of talking."
Hamas won Palestinian parliament elections in 2006 and seized control of the Gaza Strip by force a year later. Since then, the West has demanded that the group recognize Israel and renounce violence, in exchange for international acceptance. The Islamists, whose top leaders live outside the Palestinian territories, have largely observed an unofficial truce with Israel in recent years but balk at recognizing Israel.
Hamdan is the first Hamas official to speak publicly and in some detail about purported contacts with Western governments.
In Gaza, three Hamas officials said 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, while officials in Sweden could not immediately be reached for comment.
In the backchannel talks, Hamas is seeking assurances that European countries will recognize the outcome of future Palestinian elections, Hamdan said. It's not clear when such elections would be held, since they are linked to a stalled reconciliation agreement between Hamas and its main rival, Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"They have to accept the Palestinian democracy," Hamdan said 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."
Hamdan said he believes the changes in the region, with its resurgence of Islamist movements, have prompted some European countries to review their policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 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," he said.
Hamdan said European officials keep bringing up the issue of recognition of Israel in backchannel talks, but that Hamas won't budge.
Hamdan and others in Hamas argue that recognition cannot be granted as long as Israel controls war-won territories the Palestinians want for a state. The Hamas founding charter calls for Israel's destruction. In recent years, senior Hamas officials held out the possibility of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but they refuse to say this could be the permanent solution to the conflict.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said he couldn't confirm European meetings with Hamas. The group can only play a role if it meets the long-standing demands by the international community, he said.
Barzak reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Associated Press writers David Stringer in London, George Jahn in Vienna, Jamey Keaten in Paris, Toby Sterling in Amsterdam and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed reporting.