MPs meet Hamas leader in Damascus

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Four members of the British parliament met Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal on Saturday and urged their government to end its boycott of the Palestinian group “to achieve just peace.”

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“We need to talk to Hamas to make progress (towards peace) because they represent a big proportion of the Palestinians,” Clare Short, an MP of 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 recognises Israel, renounces armed struggle and accepts interim peace accords.

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

The meeting was publicised, in contrast to several European politicians who met 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.

Israel and Hamas declared separate ceasefires in the Gaza Strip after the 22-day Israeli offensive devastated the densely-populated Palestinian territory and killed about 1,300 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis were killed.

Meshaal had urged the West lift its boycott of Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

Hamas 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.

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 Shi’ite 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 recognise Israel.

Leaders of Hamas have said they are not prepared to recognise 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.