Hamas Seeks International Recognition in Travels to Russia

Hamas said Friday it will send a top-level delegation to meet Russian officials in Moscow next week, part of the Islamic militant group's efforts to gain international legitimacy after winning Palestinian parliamentary elections.

Russia's invitation to Hamas angered Israel, which is seeking to isolate the group and cut off its international funding. Israel also condemned Turkey after Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul met Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Ankara on Feb. 17.

Hamas, which scored a surprise victory in the Jan. 25 elections, is responsible for dozens of suicide bombings in Israel and is sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state. Israel, the United States and the European Union list Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Israel has said it will have no ties with the new Hamas-led Palestinian government unless the militant group denounces violence, recognizes Israel's right to exist and accepts past peace deals.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said the Moscow talks would be used to try to pull Hamas into the Mideast peace process. He said Russian officials would negotiate according to the position of the so-called Quartet of Mideast peace mediators — Russia, the United States, the United Nations and the European Union.

The Hamas delegation, to be headed by Mashaal, is to arrive in Moscow on March 3, according to an announcement posted on the group's Web site.

Israel's Cabinet Sunday approved an immediate freeze on the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax money to the Palestinians. Israel held off on adopting even more drastic measures recommended by security officials, mindful of possible international reaction, but has said it could push ahead with those steps later.

In Nablus Friday, thousands of Palestinians joined a funeral procession for four of five people killed a day earlier in an army sweep in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus. The sweep has left eight people dead since Sunday.

The military said 15 fugitives had been arrested, and the Palestinians shot on Thursday had fired at troops or thrown firebombs.

One of the dead was Mohammed Shtawi, a leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant group linked to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party. Rabiya Abu Liel, an al-Aqsa Brigades leader, threatened to avenge the killing.

"What they did to us we will do to them. They killed our leader so we will kill their leaders," he said.

Troops had left Balata by early Friday.

In Gaza City on Thursday evening, Hamas supporters marched toward the Palestinian parliament building to protest the Israeli operation. Incoming Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh addressed the rally, denouncing the "aggression committed against our people."

He said Hamas has a two-pronged program for the people: "One hand resists and the other hand builds."

Abbas warned the operation would endanger a cease-fire that has been in effect for a year, according to the Palestinian news agency WAFA.

He appealed to the U.N. Security Council and international mediators to pressure Israel to stop military operations that have killed 15 Palestinians this month, an Abbas aide said.

Also on Friday, the army killed two Palestinians it said were planting bombs along the border fence separating Israel and the Gaza Strip. One of the Palestinians killed was the son of a Hamas lawmaker.

At the funeral for legislator Abdel Fattah Dukhan's son, Haniyeh vowed that the Palestinians "will not be broken" by the Israeli military operations.

The army launched an airstrike early Friday at Gaza militants who it said were firing rockets at Israeli targets. Two Palestinians were lightly injured.

A Hamas militant was killed in Gaza while improperly handling explosives. Hamas identified the man as Abed Moati Abu Daf, 28, "the most prominent trainer" of militants in Gaza, and said he died on a "training mission."