TCS Daily

Dealing with Hamas

By Rory Miller - September 30, 2005 12:00 AM

In early August, the week before Israel's unilateral disengagement from Gaza, I argued that following the withdrawal the onus would be on the international community, and especially the EU, to acknowledge the huge political and personal risks that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had taken by implementing this plan. I wrote that it should begin pressuring Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and the governing Fatah party to try harder to re-establish control over Gaza before the parliamentary elections to the Palestinian National Council scheduled for January.

This has happened. British Prime Minister Tony Blair summed up the general response to disengagement among EU leaders when he wrote to Sharon: "I greatly admire the courage with which you have developed and implemented this policy. I believe you are right to see disengagement as an opportunity to pursue a better future for Israelis and Palestinians. I look forward to working with you to help achieve this, and to continue working together towards a just and lasting peace, free from the scourge of terrorism."

Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, who was the first high-level post-disengagement international visitor to the region (soon followed by French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos), also commended Israel in the wake of disengagement. "Sharon had the courage to make the decision, which was implemented in a highly professional manner," Solana said. "

Along with this applause for Israel's successful disengagement Blair and Solana, and most other EU leaders, have also begun to pressure Abbas. Blair told the PA president that "more clearly needs to be done for the Palestinian Authority to make a success of governing Gaza...Your personal leadership will be crucial. You will have our full support." Solana has been no less adamant that "Both for the sake of disengagement, but also to promote a return to political negotiations afterward, the PA must move against those individuals and groups who continue to use violence." A statement issued by the international Quartet (of the US, UN, EU and Russia) in late September 2005 followed suit by urging the PA leadership "to maintain law and order and dismantle terrorist capabilities and infrastructure".

Apart from the EU's willingness to hold the PA accountable for its failure to live up to its responsibilities, the test case as to whether these words mean anything and whether the disengagement has really contributed to a change in the EU's previous policy will ultimately come down to how it deals with Hamas, the extreme Islamist group, which is now the dominant political and military player in Gaza.

Hamas, which tried to undermine the Oslo process during the 1990s, still has not altered its position. In late 2004, in the period of uncertainty and opportunity following Yasser Arafat's death, it rejected all talk of a truce with Israel and restated its commitment to destroying the Jewish state. It also initially rejected the truce agreed upon in February 2005 between Abbas and Sharon at Sharm el-Sheik. When it subsequently reversed this decision, it did so for tactical reasons. As Mohammad Nasal, a senior Hamas figure, put it, the ceasefire was "a fighter's rest to rebuild the Palestinian house". He added: "Resistance is the only way we can liberate our lands." Moreover, Hamas has become increasingly outspoken since the disengagement, with Mashal predicting in an Arabic newspaper published in London that "today it is Gaza, tomorrow it will be the West Bank, and later it will be all of the Land - it is the beginning of the end of Israel".

Thus, not surprisingly, since disengagement Israeli officials have tried to alert the international community, including the EU, to the danger of Hamas becoming a political force in the upcoming elections. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told journalists at this month's UN Summit that electoral gains by Hamas would "move us backward maybe 50 years". While Ariel Sharon, speaking during the same month, told members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that Israel wouldn't stop elections that include Hamas, but also would not provide any support-which would make it difficult for the Palestinians to proceed. He added that the participation of Hamas, would be "unbearable" for Israel.

So how will the EU respond? From 2001 when the EU first decided to follow the US precedent and annually publish its terror blacklist, there has been much debate within the Community over whether Hamas should be added to that list. In 2002, the EU agreed to proscribe Izzedin al-Kassam, Hamas' military wing but the consensus view remained that Hamas' political wing had a role to play in the political process and should not be isolated. As then-EU special envoy to the Middle East, Miguel Angel Moratinos, explained before the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee in December 2002, "Hamas faces a clear choice between the Turkish model of democratic Islam, and the Al-Qaeda model."

However, the group's refusal to abandon its terrorism resulted in Britain, along with the Netherlands, demanding a crackdown on Hamas and calling for the introduction of strict limits on charities raising funds for the organization in Europe. In June 2003 British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw increased British pressure on its EU partners on this issue by arguing that the military and political wings of the organization were "extensively intertwined", and by calling for Europe-wide sanctions against Hamas on the grounds that it was "literally trying to blow [up] this peace process".

Despite opposition from other members, particularly France, the British position finally gained EU-wide support in 2004. But the subsequent revelation by Solana that he had met secretly with Hamas in late 2004 not only highlighted the EU's ongoing failure to develop, and apply, a consistent approach to this militant group, but also underlined the continuing sympathy within the EU for the argument put forward, among others, by Alistair Crooke, a former senior MI6 officer, who between 1997 and 2003 acted as the EU's official link to Islamist groups in the West Bank and Gaza: that the West reassess its approach to Hamas and create a framework for discussions with it and other Islamist groups.

The success of Hamas in the third round of Palestinian municipal elections in May 2005 -- the group won 27 local councils, compared to Fatah's 33, gaining more than twice as many votes as Fatah -- also provided ammunition for those within the EU keen to end Hamas' status as a terror group. Indeed, the argument put forward at this time that the group was earning legitimacy through the ballot box, meant that by mid-June, only months before the disengagement process, there was a renewed debate on whether or not to remove Hamas from the EU's terrorism list.

This move not only had the support of those same EU member states and senior European Commission officials who had always been skeptical about placing Hamas on the terrorism list, but also appeared to be winning over the Netherlands and the UK, both of whom supported the original Hamas ban. At this time, for example, the Dutch foreign minister urged the EU to consider revising its ties to Hamas, given its likely successes in future Palestinian elections, while the British Foreign Office also acknowledged it was considering engaging openly with the group.

It is true that the EU cannot ignore Hamas, now a key Palestinian actor. As well as becoming the de facto authority in Gaza following disengagement, Hamas is very likely going to become a dominant political party in the Palestinian legislature following elections scheduled for January 2006. But it is also true that any EU decision to work with or legitimize Hamas, without that group abandoning its desire to destroy the Jewish state, will once more severely strain the EU-Israeli relationship. If this is not enough of a reason for the EU to take a tough line with Hamas it should also bear in mind that the group is only committed to the destruction of Israel but also to the defeat of democratic and secular forces among the Palestinians. Thus, granting it acceptance or legitimacy will not only retard the chances for real and lasting peace and turn Gaza into a hotbed anti-Israeli and anti-Western Islamist terror but will make the establishment of a functioning democratic Palestinian state, a central foreign policy objective of the EU, impossible.

How the EU responds to Hamas is important, because it is likely that the group will follow the footsteps of Arafat and the PLO during the 1970s and 1980s and focus its attempts to gain international legitimacy through political acceptance in Europe. It was an effective strategy then -- lets hope that history does not repeat itself.

Rory Miller is a senior lecturer in Mediterranean Studies at King's College London.


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