Gov’t denies official meetings with Hamas legislators in 1st visit to EU country since its 2003 terrorist classification.
She added that the Hamas representatives are “on a private visitation of a NGO” in Sofia.
A spokeswoman for Israel’s Ambassador to Bulgaria, Shaul Kamisa Raz, conveyed a statement to the Post from Israel’s top envoy. Raz said,” Hamas is recognized as a terror organization by the EU.
There can be no ambiguity about this group and its purposes. As for this recent visit to Bulgaria, we are looking into this. In order to understand the exact circumstances under which this visit took place,we prefer not to make any further comments at this point.” Ismail al-Ashkar, head of the Hamas parliamentary list, Change and Reform, headed the delegation.
Hamas legislators Salah Bardaweel and Mushir al-Masri, who is also a spokesman for the Islamist movement in the Gaza Strip, accompanied him. The three Hamas officials arrived in Bulgaria at the invitation of the Center for International and Middle East Studies, sources close to the movement said.
Austrian and Arab media reports say the Hamas visit to Bulgaria is the first EU visit Hamas to a European Union country since the EU designated the group a terrorist entity in 2003. Switzerland, a non-EU country, permits Hamas representatives to travel to the central European country.
The foreign ministry spokesman told the Post that “Bulgaria is part of the EU politics as listing Hamas as a terror organization.” She said Bulgaria maintains diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the PLO’s embassy in Sofia.
Former countries who were part of the Soviet Union’s Warsaw pact upgraded the PLO in 1988 to embassy status during the communist period. When asked why the Hamas representatives were allowed to travel to Bulgaria ,she said there is no European list for a travel ban and the terror “ list prescribes financial transactions and organizations…These folks are not on a travel ban list,”.
A spokesperson for Bulgaria’s interior ministry wrote the Post by email that “There is not an official visit or official meetings, concerted/coordinated between the diplomatic Representations of Bulgaria and Palestine. The Hamas-representatives are visiting our country as their private initiative.”
The Post learned that a program for the Hamas representatives contain visits with the radical right-wing extremist party Attack and the left-wing Socialist party headed by former Bulgarian prime minister Sergei Stanishev. . It is unclear if the meetings will proceed. Critics in Bulgaria say Attack and its founder – Volen Siderov stoke xenophobic ,anti-Semitic and racist ideologies.
According to the Sofia News Agency, Bulgaria’s Center for Global and Middle East Studies and its director Mohammed Abu Assi invited Hamas. Assi told the news outlet Dnevnik.bg Bulgaria’s foreign minister Nikolay Mladenov “should not worry, he should assure his Israeli friends that the visit does not have anything to do with the Bulgarian government.”
Critics accuse the center and Assi of pro-Hezbollah activities and inflammatory anti-Israel rhetoric. Solomon Bali, president of the B’nai B’rith Carmel lodge in Sofia, told the Post Middle East Studies center and its director are serving as the “official representatives of Hezbollah” in Bulgaria.
Assi said in late December 2008 that Israel was creating a Holocaust in the Gaza Strip during an interview with the FOCUS news agency.
The Center for Middle East Studies Studies played a role in sending Bulgarian journalists from TV station 7 to Beirut after the Burgas attack to broadcast anti- Israel interviews via Al-Manar ,a Hezbollah- controlled television network. France banned Al-Manar reception because the station’s programming is contrary to French values and promotes anti-Semitism. Germany has outlawed reception of Al-Manar in Hotels.
It is unclear who funded the Hamas trip and the nature of Center for Middle East Studies funding streams. The foreign ministry spokeswoman told the Post “it is not in our portfolio in the foreign ministry research their activities from view point from national security.”
The Center is slated to hold a panel discussion on Friday with the Hamas representatives to cover the Palestinian perspective on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The visit of Hamas follows on the heels of a Bulgarian report into the July terror attack in Burgas, which resulted in the deaths of five Israelis and a Bulgarian national. Bulgaria’s government blamed the terror attack on Hezbollah.
Khaled Abu Toameh contributed to this report.