ROME (EJP)---Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has sparked a new row over the attitude his country should have towards Hamas.
He declared Sunday that there is a need for dialogue with Hamas to help the Palestinian group develop politically.
"Hamas exists. We should not ignore this fact. It’s a complex structure that we should help to evolve towards pro-peace positions but this should be done with transparency," Prodi told a conference in a summer resort in Tuscany, central Italy.
"One must push for dialogue so that it happens, and not shut anyone out of dialogue as there will be no peace in the Middle East as long as the Palestinians are split in two,” he said in his address to a crowd of young people that included Israeli, Palestinian and Russian students that gathered for an inter-faith seminar.
Hamas warmly welcomed Prodi’s comments. "We are ready to start a frank dialogue with the international community as wished by Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi," Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman said on Monday in Gaza.
Speaking to the Iranian media, another Hamas official, Fouzi Iberahim, said that "Italy’s position is the most advanced within the international community and it shows that Rome walked out of the U.S. political umbrella".
A Prodi spokesman said the Prime Minister’s comments in no way suggested a break with European Union policy on Hamas, which is still listed as a terror organisation in Brussels, or that it be brought into negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The aim of having a channel open, the spokesman said, was to encourage moderation and avoid dividing the Palestinians.
Hamas, which won Palestinian parliament elections in January 2006, seized control of the Gaza Strip in June after ousting forces loyal to Abbas’s Fatah movement.
Prodi said he had already warned Olmert and Abbas against seeking peace with only some Palestinians.
"I told the two political leaders that there cannot be a peace with Palestinians divided and even they understand that," he said.
Critics from centre-right opposition
Prodi’s controversial declarations have been slammed by the Italian centre-right opposition. Luca Volontè, a leader of the Catholic centrist UDC party, accused the Premier of "taking Italy out of Europe, by inviting Hamas, Hezbullah and the Talibans over for lunch".
Maurizio Gasparri from the rightist AN party criticised the "dangerous role played by the Italian government, which is known in the Middle East for its understanding for bloodthirsty movements in Palestine and in Lebanon." "We want the Prime Minister to clarify his position before the Parliament", he added.
During the last weeks, Italian political debates have been focusing on the Hamas issue.
In July, Israel’s ambassador to Italy expressed outrage after Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema declared that the Islamic movement was a "popular movement" which had won democratic elections and that “yet it was still considered a terrorist group by the Western world.”
Accused by the centre-right opposition and by the more moderate fringes of the centre-left governing coalition of “legitimizing terrorism”, D’Alema denied the charges and explained that he did not intend to open direct negotiations with Hamas but only to avoid the "isolation of the Gaza Strip and prevent Hamas falling into the arms of al-Qaida".