//South Africa invites Hamas leaders to talk

South Africa invites Hamas leaders to talk

Jerusalem, Mar 03: South Africa on Thursday joined a growing list of countries inviting Hamas leaders for talks, raising Israeli concerns that the international front against the Islamic militants is crumbling.

As Hamas pressed on with efforts to form a Palestinian government and gain world support, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned that al-Qaida terror operatives are trying to infiltrate the West Bank and Gaza.

"We have information, yet to be confirmed, that al-Qaida, just as it sends its operatives to Jordan and other countries like Saudi Arabia and others, also might send us operatives for sabotage (acts)," Abbas said after meeting Israeli Labor Party leader Amir Peretz at the border between Jordan and the West Bank.

"We must be alert, and all our security forces are trying with all means to prevent their arrival here, or their carrying out any sabotage acts in this region," Abbas said, backtracking from a report in the London-based Al Hayat newspaper quoting him as saying al-Qaida already had a presence in the Palestinian areas.

Last week the deputy chief of staff of the Israeli military, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, told the Yediot Ahronot daily that al-Qaida is already operating in Jordan and Lebanon and is trying to establish a presence in the West Bank.

Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told reporters on Thursday that Israel is also monitoring the al-Qaida efforts. He said the two violent Islamic groups in the Palestinian areas, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are "part of the international terrorist movement, and have always received assistance from international terrorist elements."

Israel considers the Islamic terror threat as a main security challenge, but the equation has changed since Hamas swept to victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections in January.

Israel has been trying to isolate Hamas to counter the effect of its imminent rise to power in the neighboring Palestinian territories. Israel’s efforts absorbed a blow when Russia invited Hamas leaders for talks, due to begin Friday.

Although Russia has insisted it will press Hamas to recognize Israel and renounce violence, the invitation was the first crack in an international front against the group, considered a terror organization by the United States, Israel and the European Union. Hamas has sent dozens of suicide bombers to carry out attacks in Israel and does not accept the presence of a Jewish state in the Middle East.

On Thursday, another crack appeared in the facade. Hamas said South Africa has invited its leaders for talks, though it said no date had been set. The South African Foreign Ministry confirmed the invitation.

Public Hamas contacts with world governments have been limited since its election victory. The invitation to Moscow was followed by talks between Hamas and the Turkish foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, and an invitation from Venezuela.

Also, Hamas leaders have been consulting the Iranian president and spiritual leader, hoping for financial support to make up for the funds Israel is holding up — with the prospect of financial sanctions by the Western world looming when a Hamas Cabinet is sworn in. Hamas is based in Syria.

While refusing to meet Hamas officials, the European Union decided to send $143 million in emergency aid to the Palestinian Authority. The EU pledged to reconsider its position when a Hamas Cabinet takes office, probably this month.

Israel criticized the South African invitation.

"We would be concerned that giving legitimacy to an unreformed Hamas could stifle the possibility that the movement will transform itself from a terrorist organization to a political party," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

In Washington, the State Department’s deputy spokesman, Adam Ereli, supported the Israeli view. "The United States is not going to meet with a terror group," he said. Other countries are free to make their own decisions, he said, but they should make clear to Hamas its actions are unacceptable.

In an interview to a news channel broadcast early Friday, incoming Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh did not deny that the long-range Hamas goal is to take over Israel after the West Bank and Gaza.

"You can’t divide rights," he said, according to the CNN translation. "It has to be a process."

He repeated his offer of a long-term cease-fire if Israel withdraws from all of the West Bank and frees Palestinian prisoners, adding that if Israel makes an offer, "we will study it."

Haniyeh said his first priorities would be improving living conditions and restoring order.