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British MPs urge govt. to end Hamas boycott

Israel, Hamas step up talks on prisoners’ swap

Four members of the British parliament met Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal late Saturday, urging their government to end its boycott of the Palestinian group "to achieve just peace" as Israel and Hamas stepped up talks on prisoners' swap.

"We need to talk to Hamas to make progress (toward peace) because they represent a big proportion of the Palestinians," Clare Short, an MP in the governing Labour Party, told reporters.

Britain, along with the European Union and the United States, has said there can be no dealing with Hamas until it recognizes Israel, renounces armed struggle and accepts interim peace accords.

Short said after meeting Meshaal in Damascus that opening up discussions with Hamas immediately would "move things forward in the hope that we in the end achieve just peace."

First public meeting with Hamas

The latest meeting with European politicians was publicized in contrast to several several meeting with Meshaal in the last few months away from the spotlight.

The delegation included a second Labour member of the House of Commons and two Liberal Democrat members of the upper chamber, the House of Lords. One Irish parliamentarian and one member of the Scottish parliament were also present.

Parliamentarians from Italy and Greece are expected to visit Damascus to meet Meshaal next week. Calls have increased in the West to deal with Hamas after the Israeli invasion of Gaza which was halted in January.

Meshaal had urged the West to lift its boycott of Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. The Islamist movement won a parliamentary election in 2006 and drove its Fatah rivals from Gaza by force in 2007. The two groups are currently holding talks on a Palestinian unity government under Egyptian auspices in Cairo.

We need to talk to Hamas to make progress because they represent a big proportion of the Palestinians

Clare Short

Hamas is mainly backed by Syria and Iran, and Hamas's exiled leadership lives in Syria, including Meshaal. The two countries also support Lebanon's Hezbollah.

Britain said this month it was open to hold talks with the political wing of Hezbollah after the Shiite group joined a unity government last year.

France, which played a role in halting the Gaza war, has indicated that it might be prepared to hold talks with Hamas even if Hamas did not recognize Israel.

Leaders of Hamas have said they are not prepared to recognize Israel but would accept establishment of a Palestinian state on land occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war in return for a truce with the Jewish state lasting decades.

Prisoners’ swap

In other developments, two senior Israeli officials headed to Cairo on Saturday to pursue Egyptian-brokered talks with Hamas for the release of an Israeli soldier held in Gaza, the prime minister's office said.

Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dispatched his special negotiator, Ofer Dekel, and the head of Israel's internal security services, Yuval Diskin, to Cairo to continue "intensive negotiations," his office said.

The two will return to Israel on Sunday evening ahead of a special cabinet meeting Olmert called for Monday to discuss the progress made in the protracted talks on the release of conscript Gilad Shalit, who was captured in June 2006.

Hamas wants the release of several hundred Palestinians held in Israeli jails in exchange for Shalit.