Hamas Leaders to Meet With Former President Jimmy Carter in Egypt

Former President Jimmy Carter is set to meet with Mahmoud Zahar, a top Hamas leader with control over militants in the Gaza Strip.

FOX News confirms the Islamic militant group will meet with Carter in Egypt about their demand that Israel open Gaza's crossings and stop military raids in the territory. The meeting is expected to take place Thursday.

The U.S. and Israeli governments brand Hamas a terror group and have refused to negotiate with the organization.

Carter says the search for Mideast peace should include reaching out to groups such as Hamas. The former president was the broker of Israel's peace treaty with Egypt peace treaty three decades ago.

The former president told FOX News Wednesday, "I'm going to try to get Syria to be constructive in the entire peace process, that would include Iraq and Lebanon, as well."

A group of more than 50 congressmen from both sides of the aisle sent a letter Tuesday beseeching former president Carter not to meet with Khaled Meshal, the head of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.

The letter, sponsored by Reps. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Shelley Berkeley, D-Nev., and signed by congressional leaders including House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and veteran representative Barney Frank, D-Mass., lists the 26 Americans who have been killed in terrorist attacks launched by Hamas.

"President Carter, do not meet with the man who ordered their deaths," wrote the congressmen.

Carter reportedly hugged — and kissed — a Hamas leader Tuesday in the West Bank town of Ramallah on a Mideast visit that is to culminate in a meeting Friday with the group's exiled leader in Damascus, Syria.

Carter's embrace of Nasser Shaer, a senior Hamas politician, at a closed-door reception organized by Carter's office was reported by several news outlets Tuesday. Carter has been widely criticized over the trip by both U.S. and Israeli officials, who have listed Hamas as a terror organization.

Carter also laid a wreath at the grave of Yasser Arafat, whom he praised as a man who fought for "just causes" in the world. The Bush administration and many Israelis blame Arafat for the breakdown of peace talks seven years ago and the violence that followed.

"He gave me a hug. We hugged each other, and it was a warm reception," Shaer told The Associated Press. "Carter asked what he can do to achieve peace between the Palestinians and Israel ... and I told him the possibility for peace is high."

"Carter has weight and respect, and I hope he'll have a role and effect on the Palestinian problem," Shaer said, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

The AP said Carter's office refused to comment, saying he does not discuss closed meetings.

Shaer, who served as deputy prime minister and education minister in the Hamas-led Palestinian government that unraveled last year, is considered a leading member of the Islamic militant group's pragmatic wing. After a stint in an Israeli prison last year, he is now a professor at a West Bank university, teaching comparative religion.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Carter's meeting with Hamas "dignified" a group committed to Israel's destruction. "One cannot but wonder how this attitude is supposed to promote peace and understanding," he said.

Israel and the West Bank are the first stops on a visit that also is to include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Syria — where the virulently anti-Israel Hamas movement is headquartered. Shunned by his Israeli hosts and criticized by the White House for his willingness to meet with Hamas, Carter has urged that both stop isolating the militant group.

"Since Syria and Hamas will have to be involved in a final peace agreement, they have to be involved in discussions that lead to final peace," Carter said Tuesday.

The U.S. has also expressed displeasure at Carter's overtures to Hamas, an Islamic group responsible for the deaths of some 250 Israelis in suicide bombings and labeled a terrorist organization by both countries.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is not meeting with Carter during his visit, and the only Israeli leader to host him, President Shimon Peres, scolded Carter for his planned meeting with Mashaal.

Critics say also say engaging Hamas will undermine moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as he tries to make peace with the Jewish state. Abbas is in a bitter rivalry with Hamas, which routed his forces in the Gaza Strip last year and seized control of the area.

The Israeli daily Haaretz on Tuesday criticized the government for giving Carter, a Nobel laureate who brokered Israel's first peace agreement with an Arab nation, a cool reception.

"The boycott will not be remembered as a glorious moment in this government's history," the newspaper said. "Jimmy Carter has dedicated his life to humanitarian missions, to peace, to promoting democratic elections and to better understanding between enemies throughout the world."

Earlier this week, Carter said isolating Hamas is counterproductive and volunteered to serve as a conduit between the group and the U.S. and Israeli governments.

Carter acknowledged Tuesday he was not on an official mission and had "no authority at all."

"I'm not a negotiator. I'm just trying to understand different opinions and provide communication between people," Carter said.

When meeting Meshal, Carter said, "I'm going to try everything I can to get him to agree to a peaceful resolution," both with Israel and with Hamas' internal Palestinian rivals.

Carter said he requested permission to enter Hamas-ruled Gaza but was turned down. He did not provide details. Israel and Egypt control Gaza's border crossings and such a visit would also require the approval of Carter's U.S. Secret Service detail. There have been no official visits to Gaza by Americans since Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in early 2006.

President Bush did not visit Arafat's mausoleum in Ramallah when he visited earlier this year.

Carter's office also said a request for security protection from Israel's Shin Bet agency had not been met.

The Shin Bet said it never received a request to provide security. Stewart Tuttle, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy, said the embassy never relayed a request for Shin Bet protection because Carter was on a private visit.

A statement from the Carter delegation said the former president's U.S. security detail "was always, without exception, assisted" by the Shin Bet in previous visits after he left office. However, the statement did not directly blame Israel.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.