The Foreign Ministry said Thursday it has protested increasing the European Union's contacts with Hamas, saying it is pressing EU officials to maintain their official designation of Hamas as a terrorist group.

"We believe Europeans should be strengthening moderate Palestinians and not appeasing the extremists," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. "Anything that demonstrates acceptance of Hamas as a legitimate player is a problem."

Israel's protest came as the EU informed the U.S. administration of a substantial shift in its contacts with Hamas. The EU decision, which surprised the Americans, allows low-level European diplomats - below the rank of ambassador - to conduct talks with Hamas representatives who are running in the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization by both the U.S. government and the EU.

In Brussels, EU spokeswoman Elena Peresso said the union has reached no collective decision on whether to change its policy toward Hamas, which has recently increased its standing in the Palestinian territories through winning local elections.

Some, especially in the EU, have argued that talking to Hamas could help curb its extremist tendencies. Others say the contact will only prop up violent hardliners.

Regev said Israeli officials are in contact with EU diplomats, including discussions on Thursday morning, to express Israeli concerns about the meetings with Hamas.

"Hamas is a murderous terrorist movement that has been responsible for countless acts of suicide bombings throughout Israel against innocent civilians," he said.

Hamas officials said Thursday that the group is talking to EU diplomats despite the Europeans' official designation of Hamas as terrorists, and that the contacts have recently intensified.

"Every 10 days to two weeks we have at least one meeting with a European diplomat," said Mohammed Ghazal, a senior Hamas representative in the West Bank said. "No one can deal with the Arab countries without dealing with the Islamic movements, and no one can ignore Hamas when it comes to the Palestinian cause and Palestinian politics."

Ghazal said most of the contacts in the West Bank and Gaza were with lower-level EU diplomats, but that higher-level contacts between the EU and Hamas were taking place abroad. He did not elaborate.

Ghazal, Moussa Abu Marzouk, a Syria-based Hamas leader, and another Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Mushir Al Masri, said the EU diplomats had pressed Hamas to give up its weapons, but both indicated that wouldn't be possible as long as the "Zionist occupation of the Palestinian lands" continues.

Israel must decide whether to fight EU role in road map Israeli representatives have also exchanged harsh words with British officials on the matter, charging that this far-reaching step will weaken Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and the PA itself. The EU decision grants legitimacy to a terror group ahead of the elections - a move that will lead in the future to gradual EU recognition of Islamic Jihad as well, the Israeli representatives say.

The question that now faces Israel is whether to fight against EU involvement in the implementation of the internationally backed road map peace plan, and whether to agree to its direct involvement in the territories. The U.S. faces a similar dilemma, on a smaller scale, as it believes there should be no cooperation with Hamas, however indirect.

The EU decision does not demand any moves on the part of Hamas that could moderate the organization and get it to accept a resolution of the conflict with Israel through non-violent means. Such demands were made of the Palestine Liberation Organization when it first sought recognition and cooperation from Washington. Among the demands made of the PLO were a declaration that it no longer supported acts of terror, and recognition of UN Security Council Resolution 242 and the State of Israel.

The EU conducted no discussion of such conditions prior to its decision vis-a-vis Hamas.

On a visit to Israel last week, U.K. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told Haaretz that the revelation that British diplomats had met recently with Hamas mayors did not reflect Britain's general policy. Straw, who was among those who led the move to include Hamas on both Britain's and the EU's list of terrorist groups, said there should be no talks with Hamas' leadership until the organization abandoned violence and recognized Israel.

In 2002 the EU added Hamas' military wing to its list of terrorist groups, but refrained from blacklisting the organization's political arm. France argued at the time that the political arm could play a role in peace talks with Israel in the future. However, following Hamas' attack on a bus in Jerusalem that left 23 people dead, EU ministers denounced the organization's political arm and charged that Hamas was a terrorist group.