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(photo credit: AP [file])
Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal was set to address British lawmakers in an unprecedented video link Wednesday, as part of a campaign to persuade the West to talk to the Islamic group if it wants peace in the Middle East.
The Damascus-based leader will answer questions for lawmakers inside a Parliament meeting room. Event organizers hope the session will help persuade the US and European governments to review policy toward Hamas.
Several European governments, however, said Tuesday they had no plans to open contacts with Hamas.
In Israel, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor criticized the planned session. "It is regrettably ironic that a man who could never receive an entry visa to Britain because he is considered a terrorist would have the privilege to address MPs in parliament, thanks to new technologies," Palmor said.
Britain, along with the United States and the European Union, regards Hamas as a terrorist organization and refuses to hold talks with the group, however a group of six British lawmakers who met with Mashaal last month in Syria say opening a new dialogue could be crucial to winning a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
"Anyone who genuinely wants to see peace in the Middle East ought to listen to what he has to say, and engage with him - he is a powerful figure" said Lynne Jones, a lawmaker with Britain's governing Labour Party who traveled to Syria.
British lawmakers have stepped up pressure on Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government after it opted last month to reach out to the political wing of Hizbullah.
London cut contact with the group in 2005 and listed its military arm as a terrorist organization, but British officials have begun meetings with Hizbullah lawmakers aimed at encouraging the group to shun violence.
Several European governments, including Britain, say they plan no change in policy toward Hamas.
"We do not believe it is productive to talk to Hamas directly. Hamas is a terrorist organization. They fire rockets at innocent civilians. They put ordinary Palestinians in harm's way," Britain's Middle East minister Bill Rammell said in a statement. "We believe that to talk to Hamas directly at this time would simply undermine those Palestinians who are committed to peace."
Germany's Foreign Ministry said there would be no change in policy until Hamas meets demands from the Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators - the UN, the US, the European Union and Russia - to renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist.
Britain's main opposition Conservative Party said it has complained that parliamentary facilities were being used for the talk.
"We are seriously concerned at the proposed event," said David Lidington, a main opposition Conservative party lawmaker and spokesman on foreign affairs. "Hamas remains a proscribed terrorist organization under UK law."
Independent lawmaker Clare Short, an ex-Labour Cabinet minister, said legislators were under no obligation to attend the session. A small group was expected and no explicit approval was needed to book the meeting room.
British officials said Mashaal would be almost certain to be refused entry to Britain if he attempted to visit in person.