China invites Hamas foreign minister as part of an outreach to Arab states

China said Wednesday that it will host the foreign minister of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, and that Beijing's interests in the Middle East range beyond oil to development issues and the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar is among 23 ministers from Arab states and entities invited to Beijing later this month for a conclave on China-Arab relations, Zhai Jun of the Chinese foreign ministry said at a news conference.

Zahar's government, which came to power in elections in January, has largely been shunned by the U.S. and European Union, which consider Hamas a terrorist organization and demand it renounce violence and recognize Israel.

The invitation to Zahar, considered a Hamas hard-liner, comes as frictions between Beijing and Washington are rising over another Middle East issue: oil.

China is trying to secure supplies for its booming economy often from governments at odds with Washington. A recent U.S. document on national security strategy has accused China of trying to lock up oil resources. In closed door meetings Chinese officials have forcefully told U.S. not to interfere in China's hunt for oil.

Shying away from controversy, Zhai said that China is playing a positive role in the Middle East and suggested, without naming the U.S., that it was not trying to supplant American influence in the region.

"China has been playing a constructive role on all issues and as China's ties grow with countries in the region, China is playing a bigger role," Zhai, who handles Western Asia and Northern Africa affairs, told reporters. "We don't think that such a role has received pressure from other certain countries."

But in Israel, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev voiced his country's concerns about China's invitation to Zahar.

"Giving recognition and legitimacy to an unreformed Hamas, a Hamas that says no to dialogue and yes to terrorism, cannot in any way contribute to stability in the Middle East," he said, reports AP.

O.Ch.