The State Department confirmed Friday U.S. diplomats have received a letter to President Obama from the militant Islamic group Hamas, which controls the Gaza strip. The letter was passed to U.S. Senator John Kerry when he visited Gaza Thursday.
Officials here are not revealing the substance of the letter. But they say it is now in the hands of the U.S. Consulate-General in Jerusalem, which handles U.S. relations with the Palestinian areas, and that the letter or certainly its contents will be communicated to Washington.
A senior State Department official told reporters that Senator Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, received the letter among other documents from U.N. staffers during his tour of Gaza Thursday, which was the highest-level visit by a U.S. political figure since Hamas seized control there in 2007.
He said Kerry, on a visit to assess humanitarian needs in Gaza after the conflict between Israel and Hamas, had no personal contact with any Hamas members himself. He said the White House has been informed of the development.
President Obama has spoken of the need to improve U.S. relations with the Muslim world and for dialogue with countries like Iran with which the United States has no formal relations.
But at a news briefing earlier Friday, State Department Deputy Spokesman Gordon Duguid indicated there has been no change in long-standing U.S. policy shunning contacts with Hamas as long as it does not recognize Israel. "Should they accept the existence of the state of Israel, should they stop trying to violently overthrow the state of Israel, should they wish to re-engage in the peace process and stop trying to re-arm by smuggling rockets and other arms into Gaza, then there could be a place for them in future discussions."
There have been conflicting comments from Hamas about the letter. One spokesman for the group said the Obama letter had come from a mid-level Hamas official who acted on his own, rather than as representative of the militant group.
Another denied the group had written a letter to the President but said Hamas was generally open to dialogue.
In another development, the State Department confirmed Friday that Syrian Ambassador to Washington Imad Mustafa has been invited to the department next week for a discussion with Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman.
Relations between the two countries have been strained and such meetings are infrequent. The United States has not had a full-fledged ambassador in Damascus since 2005, after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Spokesman Duguid said Feltman would reiterate long-standing U.S. concerns about Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs, support for radical opponents of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and efforts to acquire non-conventional weapons.
Thursday, the State Department expressed concern about a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency that traces of enriched uranium were found at a Syrian nuclear site bombed by Israel in 2007, and it urged full Syrian cooperation with the IAEA.
Duguid said the Syrian envoy will be free to raise all issues of concern to Damascus at the State Department meeting, the first of its kind since last September.