MOSCOW (AFP) – The radical group Hamas admitted it would have to “change its manners” now that it was the elected representative of the Palestinian people and said it viewed its landmark visit to Russia as a first step in that direction.
Senior Hamas leaders however maintained their uncompromising line on Israel, saying any softening of the organization’s positions would come about only with strictly reciprocal change in Israel’s policies in dealing with the Palestinians.
“We don’t say ‘no’ to everything,” Mohammed Nazzal, a senior Hamas political figure accompanying Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to Moscow, told AFP ahead of the delegation’s meeting with Patriarch Alexei II, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, the group’s last formal event in Moscow Sunday.
“We know that we are in a new phase, a new stage” following Hamas’ shock victory in the January 25 Palestinian elections, he said.
“Hamas must change its manners. We know that very well. But what we are saying is that we want a response from the Israelis. If you want Hamas to change its policies, you must also request that the Israelis change their policies.
“We are saying ‘yes’ to peace. We are sayihg ‘yes’ to building relations with the international community. We are saying ‘yes’ to anything we feel will be in the interest of the Palestinian people,” Nazzal said.
Nazzal and other Hamas officials described their visit to Russia, their first official contact with a major power, as a “breakthrough” they hoped would help their group — listed as a “terrorist organization” by Israel, the United States and Europe — establish legitimacy on the world stage.
“This visit will encourage many countries to contact Hamas and invite Hamas to their countries,” Nazzal said.
The Hamas visit to Russia was made at the invitation of President Vladimir Putin, who caught the other three members of the international Middle East “quartet” of mediators — the United States, the European Union and the United Nations — by surprise with the move.
The high point of the trip was a meeting Friday between Meshaal and his delegation and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who made clear after the meeting that its purpose had been to convey the quartet’s expectations of Hamas, including recognition of Israel.
Hamas officials admitted that Lavrov and other officials had stressed the quartet’s positions, which also include demands that Hamas renounce violence and stick to previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements, but said the trip was a success anyway simply because it occurred.
“We consider this visit a success because it is a first step to talks,” Nazzal said.
“If you want to change things, you must start contacts.”
Although Israeli officials have called Putin’s invitation to Hamas a “knife in the back” and the United States has watched Moscow’s moves warily, Washington’s official position appeared to support the Kremlin’s view that Hamas had to be cautiously engaged in talks in light of its election win.
The US State Department on Friday called the meeting between Lavrov and Meshaal “useful” because it was used to impress upon the Hamas leadership the position of the international mediators trying to find ways to broker a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
“To the extent that hearing it directly and forcefully from the Russians can serve that purpose, then that’s all well and good,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said.
Putin has worked the phones heavily since the Friday meeting, placing calls to his counterparts from Egypt, France, Germany and the United States — in that order — to brief them on the purpose and results of the discussions with Hamas.
In a reminder however of Hamas’ relations — at least as they are perceived by Western governments — to other radical Islamist groups, the idealogue of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called on the group to fight on against Israel despite — or because of — its election victory.
Speaking in video footage broadcast on the Arabic television channel Al-Jazeera, Zawahiri described prior agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Israel as “surrender accords” and called on Hamas “to continue the armed struggle.”
“The surrender accords signed by the lay members of the Palestinian Authority must not be recognized. Your only alternative is to pursue the armed struggle until the liberation of Palestine and the building of an Islamic state,” he told Hamas.