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JERUSALEM – In what may be the first attempt by Hamas to negotiate indirectly with the Jewish state since it won last week’s Palestinian elections, the terror group has asked Egypt to petition Israel and European countries to allow its overall leader Khaled Meshaal to enter Gaza, a top Hamas official told WorldNetDaily.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Hamas is presenting Meshaal – responsible for directing dozens of suicide bombings and shooting attacks – as a “moderating influence” on the terror group who is capable of restraining “hardline elements.”

Meshaal currently operates from Syria, where he runs the organization and grants interviews to the media. He was named the most senior figure in the terror group after the assassination in March 2004 of Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin, as well as the elimination of Hamas leader Abdel-Aziz Rantisi a month later. Israel attempted to assassinate Meshaal in 1997.

On Monday, Meshaal met in Damascus with Egyptian Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, asking him to negotiate with Israel and the Europeans his smooth passage from the Sinai desert into Gaza through the Rafah Crossing, the terminal at the Egypt-Gaza border, the Hamas official said.

After a deal brokered in November by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the Rafah crossing now is controlled jointly by Egypt and the Palestinian Authority. It is partially manned by a rotating team of European inspectors.

Israel monitors the area by camera and under select conditions can shut down the crossing for a period of several hours.

In the past two months, the Rafah crossing has been breached several times by Palestinian gunmen. More than 15 senior Hamas terrorists have crossed unimpeded, and Israel says tons of weapons have been smuggled across the border.

Top Hamas officials say they consider the return of Meshaal crucial for their preparations to assume power, saying they want him to enter Gaza within the next three weeks. Hamas won last week’s Palestinian parliamentary elections by a large margin and will form the next government in the coming weeks.

Meshaal is due in Egypt this weekend to meet with President Hosni Mubarak and hold talks with top PA leaders. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzippy Livni travels to Cairo tomorrow.

An Israeli spokesman told WND that although the Egyptians will brief Livni on their relationship with Hamas, she will not accept any direct messages from the terror group or use Egypt to pass convey messages.

Israel is on record as opposing the entrance of Meshaal into Gaza, threatening in the past to close the Rafah crossing should he attempt to enter. However, Israel’s leading Yediot newspaper recently quoted an Israeli official who said Meshaal might be allowed to cross if Hamas agrees to recognize Israel and to extend a long-term cease fire.

Israeli security officials say Meshaal eventually wants to travel from Gaza into the West Bank.

Hamas’ request for Egypt to broker Meshaal’s return likely marks the first time the terror group has attempted to negotiate with Israel through a third party since assuming power last week.

In a widely circulated interview, Hamas chief Mahmoud al-Zahar told WND last week he would not rule out the possibility of using mediators to speak with Israel.

“If the Israelis have an offer to be discussed and [the offer includes] two very important points – the release of all [Palestinian] detainees and a stop of all Israeli aggression, including the process of withdrawal from the West Bank – then we are going to search for an effective and constructive process [that will bring this] at the end,” al-Zahar said.

But he said he would not amend the official Hamas charter, which rejects peace talks with the Jewish state and calls for the destruction of Israel by “assaulting and killing.”

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