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GAZA (Reuters) - Hamas has begun a training programme for diplomats in the Gaza Strip where it rules, a senior official of the Islamist group said, raising the spectre of divisions in the Palestinian national movement spreading to its representation abroad.
Hamas seized Gaza in a 2007 civil war with the Western-backed Fatah party that long dominated Palestinian politics and now rules parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. But Hamas has hitherto not challenged the Palestine Liberation Organisation, dominated by Fatah and recognised by the United Nations as the Palestinians' sole representative abroad for almost 40 years.
It may be time to end that diplomatic monopoly, Hamas deputy foreign minister Ghazi Hamad suggested on Wednesday.
"We have relations with some countries and we need to prepare our cadres and develop the diplomatic skills of staff to deal with those countries on joint projects," he told Reuters.
"The aim of such a step and training is to develop relations with world countries when time and conditions permit," said Hamad. He declined to say how many diplomats-in-waiting would be trained, what tasks they would perform or where.
Hamas officials seemed keen to play down the scheme to matriculate envoys from its mostly makeshift and short-staffed foreign ministry. They said they hoped a deal with Fatah could remove any need to deploy Hamas diplomats, but planned to have a corps of envoys ready should reconciliation prove impossible.
The PLO, with roots as a paramilitary organisation and umbrella body for the many, often feuding Palestinian factions, finally won recognition from Israel in the landmark Oslo interim peace deal of 1993. But Hamas is not part of the PLO.
The United States and the European Union have classified Hamas as a terrorist organisation over its refusal to renounce violence, recognise Israel and accept existing interim Israeli-Palestinian peace deals co-authored by the PLO.
Hamas already has delegations in Yemen, Lebanon and Iran. Now Hamas's foes in the West Bank fear it aims to expand its profile after its prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, met Egypt's newly elected Islamist president, Mohamed Mursi, this summer.
"We believe that our Egyptian brothers and the rest of the Arab world are aware of Israeli plans seeking to deepen Palestinian divisions, and to suggest that there are two legitimate powers, one in Gaza and the other in Ramallah," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told WAFA news agency.
Ramallah is de facto capital of the West Bank and seat of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority government.
Abbas, who condemned the 2007 split as a "coup" and power grab by Hamas, has said that continued Israeli occupation could be effectively confronted - and the Palestinians' statehood goal advanced - if the two biggest Palestinian factions reconcile, a goal that has long eluded Qatari and Egyptian mediators.
Hamas has rejoiced in the rise to power of Islamist parties following Arab popular uprisings last year, hoping to parlay them into increased international recognition.
Iran, an important supporter of Hamas, invited Haniyeh to a summit of non-aligned nations held earlier this month. But Haniyeh declined in the face of sharp accusations by Fatah leaders that such a trip would worsen the internal discord that has damaged Palestinians' diplomatic quest for statehood.
Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; and Noah Browning in Ramallah; Editing by Mark Heinrich