GAZA, (Reuters) – A year-old diplomatic boycott of the Palestinian government eased on Monday when Norway’s deputy foreign minister met in Gaza with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.
The meeting was the first between Haniyeh and a senior European diplomat since Western powers imposed an economic and diplomatic blockade on the Palestinian Authority in March 2006 to pressure the ruling Hamas group to recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept interim peace deals.
Norway, which is not a member of the European Union, restored full relations with the Palestinian Authority after Haniyeh’s Hamas movement and President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction formed a unity government on Saturday. “We hope that all the European countries, and even other countries, will … support this unity government,” Norway’s deputy foreign minister, Raymond Johansen, told reporters.
“We hope that this unity government will work hard in order to fulfill the expectations from the international community,” he added.
The European Union’s position on the unity government has yet to be spelled out.
Israeli officials played down Johansen’s meetings with Haniyeh and the new Palestinian foreign minister, Ziad Abu Amr, saying economic anctions against the Hamas-led government remained in place.
At a joint press conference with Johansen, Abu Amr praised Norway’s “daring position” in being the first European country to fully recognise the new government. “We have discussed many issues, including how to secure international support towards lifting the siege,” Abu Amr said.
Palestinians and Israelis negotiated their first interim peace deal in Oslo and signed the accord in Washington in 1993 clearing the way for setting up a Palestinian Authority.
Russia’s foreign minister has met repeatedly with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal but not with Haniyeh.
The unity government says it will “respect” previous agreements. But its platform does not call for recognising Israel and asserts that Palestinian resistance against Israel in “all its forms” is a legitimate right.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed on Sunday to boycott the new government in its entirety, including non-Hamas ministers, and he made clear talks on Palestinian statehood with Abbas were not an option at this time.
It is unclear how much support Olmert’s policy has, both domestically and internationally.
An opinion poll in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper showed 39 percent of Israelis supported talks with the new Palestinian unity government. Another 17 percent backed talks with only Fatah ministers.
While the United States said it would boycott the new Palestinian government, it did not rule out unofficial talks with non-Hamas ministers.
Britain plans to allow diplomatic contacts with non-Hamas ministers, and the United Nations is expected to follow suit.