Israel has urged Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, to maintain the boycott on Hamas after he admitted publicly for the first time that British diplomats had met elected local officials affiliated to the faction.
After arriving here for talks with Israeli and Palestinian ministers last night, Mr Straw was at pains to make it clear that the loosening of the ban on contacts did not apply to the Hamas leadership or to individual members associated with militant actions by the faction's armed wing.
Since local elections in January, the British government and others in the EU have agreed that their diplomats can make the usual calls on mayors and other elected officials which in the past they would have made on their Fatah Party counterparts. Hamas made significant gains in two rounds of council elections at the expense of Fatah.
The contacts include a meeting between middle-ranking British diplomats and Mohammed al-Masri, the acting mayor of Qalkilya, the West Bank village where Hamas took all 15 council seats. The mayor himself, Wajia Nazal, is in an Israeli prison under administrative detention.
The diplomatic tensions triggered by Mr Straw's admission came as the fragile four-month-old ceasefire was exposed to fresh strains in a day of violence in the West Bank and Gaza, where Hamas claimed responsibility for four Qassam rockets that hit the Israeli town of Sderot, injuring a woman and two children. In separate incidents, two Islamic Jihad militants were killed in a gunfight in Qabatiya near Jenin, while two foreign workers were killed in a mortar attack on the Jewish settlement of Gannei Tal in Gaza.
Sylvan Shalom, the Israeli Foreign Minister, went out of his way at the opening of his meeting with Mr Straw to underline his argument that Hamas was seeking to undermine the chances of agreement with the Palestinian leadership and that Western countries should be bolstering 'moderate' forces instead.
Although Mr Shalom and his British counterpart expressed strong mutual trust and support of what one official described as their 'common understanding' on Hamas, Mr Shalom also said in the privacy of the meeting that Israel did not accept any distinction between the political and military wings of Hamas.
Earlier, Mr Straw had stressed in a BBC Radio interview that the boycott on talks with the Hamas leadership would remain as long as the armed faction declined to renounce violence and its ideological stance of seeking the elimination of the state of Israel. Acknowledging two meetings between UK …