JERUSALEM – Israel on Thursday said it has protested increasing European Union (search) contacts with the Hamas (search), while the militant group confirmed that its contacts with EU diplomats are on the rise.
"We believe Europeans should be strengthening moderate Palestinians and not appeasing the extremists," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. "Anything that demonstrates acceptance of Hamas as a legitimate player is a problem."
In Brussels, EU spokeswoman Elena Peresso said the union has reached no collective decision on whether to change its policy toward Hamas, which has recently increased its standing in the Palestinian territories through winning local elections.
No further comment was immediately available from the EU.
Both the U.S. and the EU list Hamas as a terrorist group, but the militants' growing clout is posing an increasing dilemma for the West. U.S. and European agencies are locked into arrangements with Palestinian towns now run by newly elected Hamas-backed mayors.
Regev said Israeli officials are in contact with EU diplomats, including discussions on Thursday morning, to express Israeli concerns about the meetings with Hamas.
"Hamas is a murderous terrorist movement that has been responsible for countless acts of suicide bombings throughout Israel against innocent civilians," he said.
Two senior Hamas spokesman said Thursday that the group is talking to EU diplomats despite the Europeans' official designation of Hamas as terrorists, and that the contacts have recently intensified.
"Every 10 days to two weeks we have at least one meeting with a European diplomat," said Mohammed Ghazal, a senior Hamas representative in the West Bank said. "No one can deal with the Arab countries without dealing with the Islamic movements, and no one can ignore Hamas when it comes to the Palestinian cause and Palestinian politics."
Ghazal said most of the contacts in the West Bank and Gaza were with lower level EU diplomats, but that higher level contacts between the EU and Hamas were taking place abroad. He did not elaborate.
Ghazal and a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Mushir Al Masri, said the EU diplomats had pressed Hamas to give up its weapons, but both indicated that wouldn't be possible as long as the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land persists.
"In all the meetings ... we affirmed that ending the role of Hamas' armed wing is linked to the end of the Zionist occupation of the Palestinian lands, and we will affirm this stand in any meeting in the future," Ghazal said.
While it protested EU contacts with Hamas, Israel was pressing ahead Thursday with efforts to coordinate this summer's Gaza withdrawal with the Palestinian Authority.
A Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman said Israeli and Palestinian security officials have agreed to set up a "joint operations" panel to improve coordination during the Israeli pullout.
The spokesman, Tawfik Abu Khousa, said that at a meeting Wednesday night, commanders from the two sides also agreed to revive a lapsed military liaison committee, which enables security forces to talk to each other about security operations such as closing weapons smuggling tunnels from Egypt into Gaza.
Also Thursday, Israeli undercover troops arrested Mohammad Jaradat, a senior official of the militant Islamic Jihad group, in the West Bank town of Jenin, Khader Adnan, a spokesman for the movement said.
"Jaradat is one of Islamic Jihad's political leaders, not a militant," Adnan said. "The Israeli military tried many times to arrest him so he is considered to be a fugitive."
A military statement said four additional Islamic Jihad (search) activists were arrested Wednesday night in two separate operations near the West Bank town of Ramallah.
Also Thursday, diplomatic activity intensified ahead of a planned visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
U.S. officials were meeting with Palestinian officials on Thursday in advance of the Rice visit, and a senior Egyptian official met Palestinian and Israeli officials on Wednesday.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Thursday he met a senior advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) in preparation for a June 21 summit meeting between Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search), and said he was due to meet American envoys later in the day.
Erekat said Sharon and Abbas would discuss the handover of West Bank towns and the Gaza withdrawal, among other issues.