Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian President, held a meeting with Hamas members. It was the first time they met since the Islamic group had forced out his militants and took over the Gaza Strip.
Abbas' aides described the meeting with four West Bank-based Hamas members as an informal gathering after Friday prayers at Abbas' presidential compound, saying it was not an official contact between the two movements. Abbas has repeatedly said he would have no contact with Hamas until it cedes power in Gaza and Israel has said that if he does it will break off fledgling peace talks with the Palestinians.
But one of the Hamas men, Hussein Abu Quaik, said Abbas invited them to prayers.
"Everybody in Hamas knew about this," Abu Quaik said. "This will contribute to strengthening our relationship, and lay the basis for national unity, God willing."
Nasser al-Shaer, who was deputy prime minister in the Hamas-led unity government that broke apart after the Gaza takeover, in June said the group discussed "internal affairs in an open atmosphere" with Abbas, but added that the visit was "not a meeting between Hamas and the President."
He said he asked Abbas to ease its clampdown on Hamas in the West Bank, and respect human rights. He said the meeting sent a "message to the Palestinians that we are one people."
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said the Gaza leadership knew about the meeting in advance and downplayed its significance.
"It has no political meaning in light of Abbas's continued meetings with the leaders of the occupation and Abbas' boycott on holding talks with Hamas," he said.
Israeli government spokesman David Baker said Israel objected to any contacts with Hamas.
"It's Israel's position that Hamas should be sidelined and kept out of the game until it accepts the conditions placed upon it by the international community," Baker said. Those conditions are recognizing Israel, renouncing violence, and agreeing to respect past peace agreements. Hamas has refused to meet any of the conditions.
For the Hamas men, Friday's meeting appeared to be an attempt to distance themselves from their movement's members in Gaza, where a Hamas leader said this week that Abbas would soon be deposed and that the Islamic group would take over the West Bank as it did Gaza.
Ahmed Abdel Rahman, an Abbas adviser, denied the Hamas men had been invited, and reiterated that Abbas would resume contacts with Hamas only if it apologized for the Gaza takeover and withdrew from security installations there.
The Hamas men came to express their "rejection" of their counterparts in Gaza, Abdel Rahman said.
"The four members expressed their commitment to the legitimacy and the authority of Abbas...and reiterated their respect for law and order," he said.
Hamas members in the West Bank have been increasingly cowed since their movement's June takeover in Gaza. After his forces were routed in Gaza, Abbas ordered a clampdown on Hamas in the West Bank, arresting hundreds of activists, closing Hamas-linked charities and issuing an anti-money laundering decree meant to dry up donations to the group.
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