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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli leaders shunned former U.S. President Jimmy Carter during a visit because of his plans to meet Hamas and Israel's secret service declined to assist U.S. agents guarding him, U.S. sources said on Monday.
"They're not getting support from local security," one of the sources said, on condition of anonymity.
An American source described as "unprecedented" the lack of Shin Bet cooperation with the U.S. Secret Service, which protects all current and former U.S. presidents, as well as Israeli leaders when they visit the United States.
Carter, who brokered Israel's first peace treaty with an Arab neighbor, Egypt, signed in 1979, met Israel's largely ceremonial president, Shimon Peres, on Sunday. But Israel's political leadership, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, steered clear of the Nobel Peace Prize winner.
The former U.S. leader has angered the Israeli government over plans to meet Hamas' top leader, Khaled Meshaal, in Syria, and for describing Israeli policy in the occupied Palestinian territories as "a system of apartheid" in a 2006 book.
An Israeli security source said the Shin Bet security service provided no protection to Carter during his visit to the Jewish state because no request was made.
Asked about the Israeli account, Carter's delegation, which had previously declined to comment, told Reuters in a statement: "The Carter delegation inquired with both the lead agent of the Secret Service detail (protecting Carter) and the State Department Regional Security Officer and were told unequivocally that an official request for assistance had been made."
American sources close to the matter said the Shin Bet, which helps protect visiting dignitaries and is overseen by Olmert's office, declined to meet the head of Carter's Secret Service detail or provide his team with assistance as is customary during such visits.
Israel and the United States have sought to isolate Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip in June from more secular Fatah forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas holds sway in the occupied West Bank and has launched U.S.-backed peace talks with Olmert.
The Bush administration and Israel oppose Carter's planned meeting with Meshaal, whose Islamist group won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 but was boycotted by the West for refusing to renounce violence and recognize Israel.
Carter has defended talks with Hamas as an opportunity to gauge the group's willingness to accept Arab peace overtures.
U.N. humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York it would be positive if Carter's talks with Hamas could achieve a breakthrough.
"Anything which will help to produce some political progress ... would be extremely welcome and if Jimmy Carter can achieve that by talking to Hamas, why not?" he said.
Holmes added the United Nations was not in a position to engage in political discussions with Hamas, though U.N. humanitarian officials were in touch with the group at a practical level to carry out aid work in Gaza when necessary.
Carter visited the Israeli border town of Sderot on Monday and said he was "distressed" by cross-border rockets fired by militants in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
"I think it's a despicable crime for any deliberate effort to be made to kill innocent civilians," Carter said, adding that he hoped a ceasefire would be reached soon.
Hamas leaders have offered a long-term truce with Israel in return for a viable Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but the group's 1988 founding charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.
Israel said it rejected Carter's request to meet jailed Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouthi, who is seen as a possible successor to Abbas.
Barghouthi was convicted in 2004 of murder by an Israeli court over the killing of four Israelis and a Greek Orthodox monk in attacks by Palestinian militants. He is serving five life sentences.
Additional reporting by Brenda Gazzar, and Louis Charbonneau in New York; Editing by Mary Gabriel