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Last Updated: Monday, 12 July, 2004, 05:32 GMT 06:32 UK
Hamas 'must be in peace process'
By James Shaw
BBC Radio 5Live

A former British intelligence officer who played a leading role in organising ceasefires by militant Palestinian groups is warning that there can be no lasting peace in the region until they are included in the process.

Palestinian boys wave Hamas flags in Gaza
Hamas influence has grown in recent years

It is highly unusual for a former officer in the Secret Intelligence Service to go public on such a sensitive issue.

Alastair Crooke's views will be seen as controversial because of the numerous suicide bombings and attacks on the Israeli Army carried out by groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

But Mr Crooke, who spent six years in the Middle East as security adviser to the EU High Representative Javier Solana, continues to take a close interest in the region and his views cannot be easily dismissed.

He is the only British official to have established long-term contacts with leaders of the intifada. And as an intermediary between the Israelis and Palestinians, he was trusted by both sides.

Growing support

He facilitated a unilateral ceasefire by Palestinian groups in June last year and also helped end armed confrontations at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah.

Mr Crooke has carried out conflict-resolution work in trouble spots around the world, including Colombia, Pakistan and Northern Ireland.

The effort to marginalise or to exclude groups that do represent a significant proportion of popular sentiment ultimately only weakens the process
Alastair Crooke
Speaking to BBC Radio Five Live, he explained his argument that Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority can no longer be said to represent the vast majority of Palestinians.

He said the growing popularity of the Islamist groups means they cannot be branded simply as terrorists.

Mr Crooke says Hamas' schools and hospitals in particular have boosted their credibility among Palestinians.

"They are seen to provide one of the few forms of active, direct support on the ground and that support is acknowledged by everyone to be not corrupt and to be even-handed in its application.

"They are a group which has political aspirations and I think that the effort to marginalise or to exclude groups that do represent a significant proportion of popular sentiment ultimately only weakens the process."

Stumbling block

Mr Crooke acknowledges that the violence perpetrated by Hamas and other groups has damaged their standing in Europe and America.

He says this is an issue Hamas understands and it would enter talks to take civilians out of the conflict.

He also believes that the founding aim of the organisation, to destroy the state of Israel, has undergone a profound shift.

"Clearly there has been a change in their position, from the period when they were first founded, towards recognition of Israel, but only if that enjoys the support of Palestinians as a whole."

Alastair Crooke has many years of experience in the Middle East
His case for trying to include militant groups in the peace process echoes the approach taken by the British Government towards the IRA in the 1990s, which eventually lead to the Good Friday Agreement.

Alastair Crooke is now setting up a campaign group to encourage greater understanding in the West of what he calls "political Islam".

One of his main concerns is that the campaign to encourage more democracy in the Middle East fails to take account of the fact that many opposition groups are Islamist and for that reason viewed with suspicion in the West and by secular Arab governments.

"Many of the groups that represent the other views and are campaigning for elections for reforms are being isolated and marginalised and removed from the political equation.

"This could lead to a very dangerous situation in the region as a whole."




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