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South Africa joins countries inviting Hamas for meetings

JERUSALEM -- South Africa yesterday joined countries inviting Hamas leaders for discussions, raising Israeli concerns that the front against the Islamic militants who won Palestinian elections may be crumbling.

As Hamas pressed on with efforts to form a Palestinian government and gain world support, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned that Al Qaeda operatives are trying to infiltrate the West Bank and Gaza.

''We have information, yet to be confirmed, that Al Qaeda, just as it sends its operatives to Jordan and other countries like Saudi Arabia and others, also might send us operatives for sabotage," Abbas said after meeting the Israeli Labor Party leader, Amir Peretz, between Jordan and the West Bank.

''We must be alert, and all our security forces are trying with all means to prevent their arrival here, or their carrying out any sabotage acts in this region," Abbas said. He appeared to be backtracking from a report in Al Hayat, a newspaper based in London, that quoted him as saying that Al Qaeda already had a presence in the Palestinian areas.

Last week, the deputy chief of staff of the Israeli military, Major General Moshe Kaplinsky, told the newspaper Yediot Ahronot that Al Qaeda is operating in Jordan and Lebanon and is trying to establish a presence in the West Bank.

Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told reporters on Thursday that Israel is also monitoring the Al Qaeda efforts. He said the two violent Islamic groups in the Palestinian areas, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are ''part of the international terrorist movement, and have always received assistance from international terrorist elements."

Israel has been trying to isolate Hamas to counter its rise to power in the Palestinian territories. Israel's efforts absorbed a blow when Russia invited Hamas leaders for talks, due to begin today.

Although Russia has insisted it will press Hamas to recognize Israel and renounce violence, the invitation was a crack in an front against the group, considered a terror organization by the United States, Israel and the European Union. Hamas has sent dozens of suicide bombers to carry out attacks in Israel and does not accept the presence of a Jewish state in the Middle East.

Yesterday, another crack appeared in the facade. Hamas said South Africa has invited its leaders; it said no date had been set. The South African Foreign Ministry confirmed the invitation.

Public Hamas contacts with governments have been limited since its victory. The invitation to Moscow was followed by talks between Hamas and the Turkish foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, and an invitation from Venezuela.

While refusing to meet Hamas officials, the European Union decided to send $143 million in emergency aid to the Palestinian Authority. The EU pledged to reconsider its position when a Hamas Cabinet takes office, probably this month.

Israel criticized the invitation.

''We would be concerned that giving legitimacy to an unreformed Hamas could stifle the possibility that the movement will transform itself from a terrorist organization to a political party," said the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mark Regev.

In Washington, the State Department's deputy spokesman, Adam Ereli, supported the Israeli view. ''The United States is not going to meet with a terror group," he said.

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