Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom asked visiting Italian counterpart Gianfranco Fini Tuesday to refrain from donating money to West Bank cities under Hamas control, signaling a new front in Israel's efforts to isolate Hamas.
Municipal elections over the past year have given Hamas control of a number of cities and towns in the West Bank, including Kalkilya, Sair and Shayoukh. In addition, Hamas has gained control of a number of municipalities in the Gaza Strip.
One Israeli diplomatic official said that money transferred to Hamas-controlled municipalities was not "transparent," and could be used for terrorist purposes. The official said that this was not the first time Shalom has raised the issued with his European counterparts.
A senior Italian official said that Italy does not transfer money directly to West Bank municipalities, but rather supports various projects.
Shalom's call for money not to be transferred directly to Hamas-run cities comes at a time when Israel's campaign to prevent Hamas from taking part in the upcoming elections has failed to gain much altitude.
While the EU, at its General Affairs and External Relations Council meeting on November 7, was expected to call on Hamas to disarm and recognize Israel's right to exist, the statement would likely stop short of adopting an explicit call for Hamas to be barred from the upcoming elections, saying instead only that terror and terrorism have no place in the democratic process.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon raised this issue with Fini when he met him Tuesday. Sharon said Hamas participation in the elections before it disarmed and annulled its covenant calling for Israel's destruction was "a danger threatening the continuation of the diplomatic process."
Sharon, according to his office, said that Hamasâ€š participation in the elections could lead to the end of the road map and put the diplomatic process between Israel and the PA in doubt.
He said that while Israel would not prevent elections that included Hamas participation, "we will be unable to aid and assist [the Palestinian Authority in holding the elections] as we did during the elections for PA chairman [in January]."
Fini, during separate meetings with Sharon and Shalom, expressed an understanding of Israel's position, but reiterated what he said was the EU position on the matter: that the Palestinians needed to organize their elections as they saw fit, and that there was no practical way to keep Hamas out of the process at this time.
Both Sharon and Shalom also expressed Israel's displeasure at a meeting Italy's ambassador in Lebanon had recently with Hizbullah's Muhammad Fneish, Lebanon's energy and water minister.
Sharon noted that on Fini's previous visit Israel asked him for his help in placing Hizbullah on the EU list of terrorist organizations. "Instead of doing so," Sharon told his guest, "you are meeting with Hizbullah representatives and are thus providing the organization with legitimacy, before it disarms and ceases terrorism against Israel."
Fini, according to Sharon's office, said Israel did not need to worry about Italy's strong position against terrorism. "We are very familiar with both the nature of Hizbullah and its involvement in terrorism," he said. He said the meeting in Lebanon had "no significance regarding either the good relations between Israel and Italy or our strong position against terrorism."
During a joint press conference with Shalom, Fini labeled Hizbullah a "terrorist organization," said it needed to disarm, and then went on to say that the Italian ambassador's meeting with Fneish had to do with Italian economic interests.