Hamas dismisses Bush Mideast visit as “photo op”

GAZA – Palestinian Islamist group Hamas on Saturday dismissed U.S. President George W. Bush’s upcoming visit to the Middle East as a “photo opportunity” and said he was not welcome in the region.

Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip in June and opposes Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s bid to make peace with Israel, said Bush’s visit was aimed at shoring up support for the Jewish state and its occupation of Palestinian land.

“Bush’s visit is unwelcome because it aims to serve the occupation and provide it with political and psychological support,” Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement.

“The visit is nothing but a farewell visit to get some photo opportunities as Bush prepares to leave the White House.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas agreed at a conference in Annapolis, Maryland, in November to try to forge a deal on Palestinian statehood by the time Bush leaves office in early 2009.

Skeptics say the president’s hands-off approach to Middle East peacemaking during his almost seven years in office as well as Hamas’s control of Gaza undermine chances for a breakthrough.

Hoping to bolster fragile peace efforts, Bush will make his first presidential visit to Israel and the West Bank next week.

Israel and its Western allies are trying to bolster Abbas against his Hamas rivals and have shunned the Islamist group for refusing to renounce violence and recognize the Jewish state.

Abu Zuhri said Bush’s visit was meant to fuel internal Palestinian divisions, and said the president’s policies were “completely biased” in favor of Israel.

Hamas seized control of Gaza after routing Abbas’s Fatah forces in June, prompting Abbas to sack a Hamas-led government and appoint a new administration led by Western-educated Salam Fayyad, paving the way for U.S. talks with Israel.

Fayyad told a Palestinian radio station on Saturday Palestinians would press Bush on Israel’s settlement activity — an issue that has already soured talks and which Bush this week called “an impediment” to peace efforts.

Talks launched at Annapolis have faltered since Israel announced plans to build hundreds of new homes on occupied land — a move the Palestinians say contravenes its obligations under a 2003 U.S. peace “road map”.

Israel argues the Palestinians have failed to meet their own road map commitments on reining in militants.

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