Hamas warns Blair not to ignore them
Islamic militant group says new Mideast envoy's credibility will be damaged if he marginalizes them; meanwhile, Hamas replacing Gaza courts
Hamas warned Tony Blair on Saturday his credibility as the new international Mideast peace envoy will be damaged if he ignores the militant Islamist organization.
The former British prime minister was expected in Israel and the West Bank early next week in his maiden visit since his appointment as envoy of the diplomatic Quartet - the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia.
''We warn the new envoy that any attempt to marginalize the Hamas movement will cost him his credibility,'' said Hamas hard-liner Mahmoud Zahar, a former Palestinian foreign minister.
Blair's mandate is limited: to help Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas build the Palestinian economy and infrastructure. He also has been instructed to have no dealings with Hamas, which last month forcibly seized control of Gaza from forces of the Fatah movement loyal to Abbas.
The Quartet refuses to deal with Hamas because it refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist, renounce violence or accept agreements by previous Palestinian governments with Israel.
That policy won't change to accommodate Blair, Zahar said. ''We are not ready to sit with anyone calling on us to abandon our national constants and to foreswear the aspirations of the Palestinian people,'' he said.
After his first meeting with Quartet leaders Thursday, Blair said he will need all the optimism he can muster to make headway in his new task, ''but I am determined to try.''
Meanwhile, Hamas said it is replacing Gaza's defunct courts with a legal committee comprised of an Islamic law expert, a military court lawyer and the head of the main prison.
The committee will not be used to impose Islamic law any more than it already is applied, specially in issues of marriage and divorce. said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman.
''Even in the (old) courts, many people used Islamic law with the consent of both parties to resolve their disputes, and the courts would approve such rulings,'' he said. Abu Zuhri said the committee is a temporary alternative, until the courts start functioning again.
Ali Khashan, justice minister in Abbas' West Bank-based caretaker government, denounced Hamas' decision. ''These steps are illegal,'' Khashan said.
The legal system in Gaza stopped functioning after Hamas took over the area, with Abbas ordering judges, prosecutors and police to stop cooperating with Gaza's new rulers.
Even before the takeover, the judiciary was overburdened and seen as largely ineffective. Many Palestinians instead resorted to tribal law, an ancient custom in which clan leaders negotiate punishments for offenses committed against family members.
The three-member legal committee will now deal with hundreds of criminal complaints that would normally have been referred to the courts, said Islam Shahwan, spokesman of Hamas' Executive Force, the armed group policing Gaza.
Issam Younis, head of the Gaza-based human rights group Mezan, said alternatives to the existing courts are unacceptable. He blamed the Abbas-installed government in the West Bank for ordering the courts to stop operating.
In the absence of an effective legal system, Hamas has been accused of beating or torturing several detainees. Two prisoners have died in Hamas custody. Hamas officials have said those engaged in ''violations'' against detainees are being investigated, but has not given details.