WASHINGTON (Mar. 2)
The State Department acknowledged this week that American diplomats have been meeting with members of the Hamas movement and said it was calling a halt to contacts with the Islamic fundamentalist group.
Reports had surfaced in recent days that Hamas leaders had met in Jordan with a diplomat stationed at the U.S. Embassy, in what apparently was just one in a series of such meetings.
The reports came as something of an embarrassment to the State Department, which had announced last month that it would include Hamas for the first time in its annual report on global terrorism, to be released in April.
In response to a reporter’s question about contacts with Hamas, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said at his daily briefing Tuesday that the U.S. Embassy in Amman and other U.S. embassies had maintained in the past “a variety of contacts” to discuss “developments in the Islamic world,” especially “political Islam.”
“Given the current situation,” Boucher said, “we have instructed our embassies not to continue those contacts.” This directive, he said, was given within the past week or so.
Hamas has been in the news recently. Many of the 415 Moslem fundamentalists whom Israel deported to Lebanon in December had ties to the group. And in late January, Israel arrested two Palestinian Americans accused of funneling money to the group.
Hamas is firmly opposed to the Middle East peace talks, and its members have claimed responsibility for a number of recent deadly attacks on Israeli soldiers in the administered territories.
During his recent trip to the Middle East, Secretary of State Warren Christopher attempted to give a boost to the peace talks, which ground to a halt over the deportation issue.
NO SUCH CONTACTS WITH PLO
On Capitol Hill, Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), joined by at least 55 other senators, have written a letter to Christopher supporting the decision to include Hamas in the terrorism report.
Also, Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) is planning to introduce a resolution urging the U.S. government to increase its monitoring of radical Islamic fundamentalist groups including Hamas, a spokesman for the congressman said Tuesday.
The FBI is reportedly increasing its monitoring of Moslems in the United States that have links to Hamas, following reports that Hamas is now being directed by leaders in this country.
At the State Department, Boucher said he thought that the discussions between American diplomats and people associated with Hamas “might go back some time,” and that “what we were talking to them about was political Islam and the currents like that in the Islamic world.”
In response to a question, he pointed out that such discussions were not being held with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Christopher, while on his trip, reportedly told Palestinian leaders that he regards the PLO as a group with terrorist tendencies and that the United States presently has no intention of reviving the dialogue with the organization that was begun in December 1988 and suspended in June 1990.
While some might question why the State Department would talk to Hamas, while at the same time rejecting a resumption of the dialogue with the PLO, others see the U.S.-Hamas contacts as typical diplomatic behavior.
The United States is “talking to Hamas because diplomats talk,” said Daniel Pipes, director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. “There’s a presidential order not to talk to the PLO,” which is not the case with Hamas, he said.
Boucher, in his explanation to reporters, made a distinction between political discussions, which he said the United States was not having with Hamas, and “keeping in touch with people to learn about them.”
The spokesman had no specific information on why the contacts were cut off.
Pipes speculated that the State Department was embarrassed by the recent reports of the contacts with Hamas, coming at a time when the group is under fire for its links to terrorism.
“It’s pretty appalling,” he said, “when the rude light of day is cast upon this.”
Pipes pointed out that “this was not the first time American diplomats have talked to terrorists.” Therefore, he said, “I am unhappy, even outraged, but not surprised.”