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Jimmy Carter: Give Hamas a chance

Former president says U.S. should not cut off aid to Palestinians

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Jimmy Carter on "Larry King Live" Wednesday.

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(CNN) -- Hamas deserves to be recognized by the international community, and despite the group's militant history, there is a chance the soon-to-be Palestinian leaders could turn away from violence, former President Jimmy Carter said Wednesday.

Carter, who monitored last week's Palestinian elections in which Hamas handily toppled the ruling Fatah, added that the United States should not cut off aid to the Palestinian people, but rather funnel it through third parties like the U.N.

"If you sponsor an election or promote democracy and freedom around the world, then when people make their own decision about their leaders, I think that all the governments should recognize that administration and let them form their government," Carter said. (Watch the former president cautiously defend Hamas -- 4:35)

"If there are prohibitions -- like, for instance, in the United States, against giving any money to a government that is controlled by Hamas -- then the United States could channel the same amount of money to the Palestinian people through the United Nations, through the refugee fund, through UNICEF, things of that kind," he added.

Carter expressed hope that "the people of Palestine -- who already suffer ... under Israeli occupation -- will not suffer because they are deprived of a right to pay their school teachers, policemen, welfare workers, health workers and provide food for people."

As president, Carter brokered a 1979 peace accord between Israel and Egypt at Camp David. That effort helped earn him the Nobel Peace Prize. Through his work at the Carter Center in Atlanta, he regularly monitors elections in numerous countries.

Hamas, which has called for the destruction of Israel and has long been considered a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department, was expected to fare well in last week's elections. But it dominated them, winning 76 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Fatah, which had been in power for decades, earned only 43.

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday passed a resolution saying that no aid should be provided to the Palestinian Authority "if a ruling majority party within the Palestinian Parliament maintains a position calling for the destruction of Israel."

Carter said "there's a good chance" that Hamas, which has operated a network of successful social and charitable organizations for Palestinians, could become a nonviolent organization. (Watch how democracy and religion coincide among Palestinians -- 2:30)

The 39th U.S. president said he met with Hamas leaders in Ramallah, in the West Bank, after last week's elections.

"They told me they want to have a peaceful administration. They want to have a unity government, bring in Fatah members and independent members," Carter said. But he added that "what they say and what they do is two different matters."

However, Carter noted, Hamas has adhered to a cease-fire since August 2004, which "indicates what they might do in the future." He said Hamas is "highly disciplined" and capable of keeping any promise of nonviolence it might make.

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