Concern for Israel’s interests and security is the primary determinant of the European behavior and policies with regard to various Palestinian forces, including Hamas. The European desire to reach a long-term resolution for the Palestinian issue and a short-term one for the worsening conditions of Gaza Strip (GS) is to be seen in this context. The tightening of the GS blockade and the weak performance of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) with respect to their responsibilities in GS, made Hamas spare no effort to lift the siege and alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians there. Dialogue with the Europeans was an attempt in this direction.
It appears that the most likely scenario for the European contacts with Hamas is to come out with a European bid to secure a truce in return for reconstruction and development. It is not expected that Hamas would offer any political concessions in return for these contacts. Furthermore, Hamas is seeking for any potential agreement to take place as part of a national consensus that preserves the resistance and its popular base, and rejects the separation of GS from the West Bank (WB).
Historically speaking, and for various geopolitical, religious, and cultural reasons, Palestine has received special attention from the European powers. However, this interest, and since the creation of Israel, became largely based on the interests and role of the latter in the region. It is in this context that Europe is taking interest in Hamas as a key political player in Palestine.
Although Hamas was placed on the EU list of terrorist organizations in 2003, Western countries did not stop engaging with Hamas, albeit this took on a non-official form where Europe relied on ex-officers and diplomats in their countries or non-EU member states such as Norway and Switzerland.
The European contacts with Hamas over the past months led by Tony Blair, Switzerland, and Norway, did not take the form of negotiations. Rather, they focused on the truce with Israel, lifting the GS siege, and reconstruction there, as well as removing Hamas from the EU terror list.
Hamas refused to offer any political concessions whether they were in return for these contacts, or for a ceasefire or truce with Israel. Rather, Hamas insisted that ending the siege and the reconstruction, are part of the conditions of ceasefire reached in the last 2014 war. So far, Israel has stalled and failed to abide by these conditions, based on a regional and international climate that is biased in its favor.
Different Visions and Objectives
The two sides have different visions regarding the nature and significance of their relationship, due to their different goals. While Europe is seeking a supporting political role on the side of Israel that would ultimately lead to Palestinian and Hamas’s recognition of Israel as legitimate, Hamas is seeking to boost the legitimacy of its program for the liberation of Palestine and the restoration of Palestinian rights, lost since the European powers played a vital role in establishing Israel. The goals of each side can be summed up as follows:
The European Goals in the Relationship with Hamas
1. Being acquainted with the ideology and political positions of Hamas.
2. Studying the possibilities and odds of successfully integrating Hamas in the political process, and the possibility of Hamas recognizing and coexisting with Israel.
3. Influencing Hamas and its political decision vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue and the mechanisms of its resolution, and putting pressure on Hamas in different ways to comply with the international vision for ending the conflict based on UN resolutions and the two-state solution.
4. Preserving the European role in the Palestinian issue, an issue of major international strategic importance, and taking advantage of the historical and strategic vacuum in the region that has left local traditional forces weakened.
5. Helping Israel develop its policies towards Hamas as a faction, and towards the situation in Palestine and all its components.
Hamas’s Goals in the Relationship with Europe
1. Reaching European recognition of Hamas’s role as a player that cannot be bypassed in the Palestinian issue.
2. Getting removed from the EU list of terrorist organizations, and obtaining international legitimacy in addition to national legitimacy as a representative and a leader of the Palestinian people.
3. Alleviating the suffering of the Palestinian people and lifting the blockade on them, especially in GS.
4. Not confining mediation with Israel to certain countries, and taking advantage of Europe as a mediator acceptable to both parties.
5. Overcoming political vacuum in the region, and not leaving the Palestinian issue in a state of vacuum and stalemate, pending a change in the Arab and regional scene.
The relationship between Hamas and the European countries seems sustainable and capable of further development, given Hamas’s clout and active role in the Palestinian issue. This applies to both GS, which Hamas fully controls, and the WB, in which all indications suggest Hamas is very popular. The same goes for the Palestinians in the diaspora, who have been gravely neglected by the PLO after the establishment of the PA in the Palestinian territories. Furthermore, the impasse in the Oslo peace process, which failed to deliver a viable solution to the Palestinian issue, and the ensuing decline of the political forces engaged in it-mainly Fatah, has prompted the Europeans to engage with the party likely to inherit the Palestinian political project. Particularly so when Fatah’s decline is coinciding with shifts in the region and the collapse of key regional countries, in parallel with the rise of Islamic movements. This makes a relationship with Hamas, an ideologically moderate Islamic movement, crucial.
Europe will continue to be the second most-committed international entity to Israel after the United States. It was Europe that founded, supported, and protected Israel for decades, and for many reasons, it will continue to be committed to Israel’s interests and role. For this reason, Europe will deal with all influential actors in the region that can affect Israel’s future.
Moreover, the proximity between Europe and the Arab region, and the historical bonds it has with the region, makes Europe better able to understand the requirements of dealing with it. Since developments in the region will greatly impact Europe, for geopolitical, economic, and security considerations, it seems that the growing extremism in the region, which is essentially linked to Western extremism towards the peoples and causes of the region, could push the West to deal with realistic and moderate Islamic forces, and improve relations with them for purely pragmatic reasons.
Possible Scenarios Regarding European Engagement of Hamas and GS
First Scenario: The European movements are tactical and meant to buy time, while allowing Israel to rearrange its cards, particularly militarily, and plug the gaps exposed during the recent war. They want to prevent the situation in GS from exploding at a time that does not suit Israel. The European efforts would also be seeking to probe Hamas’s political position.
Second Scenario: Truce in return for development: to resolve the GS problems and lift the blockade imposed on it, and launch reconstruction and development. The aim would be to prevent a new war, by subduing the “rebel” strip, where three wars failed to do so. The approach is to preoccupy GS with development and economic growth, which makes decision-makers reluctant to fight a war that would take GS back to the current situation. Consequently, this would deter the resistance from using military force.
Third Scenario: The initiative of truce in return for reconstruction would be a first step towards a new political path in the Palestinian issue, in which the Europeans want Hamas to be a key player and partner.
The second scenario is the most likely scenario, namely, reconstruction in return for truce, for the following considerations:
1. The failure of military solutions in subduing Gaza and the resistance there. Three wars in five years could not force the resistance to bow to Israeli and international conditions, particularly those of the Quartet.
2. The lack of an Israeli desire for a new war on GS in the foreseeable future, for both military and security considerations. Israel has also failed to achieve the stated objectives of previous wars. Furthermore, Israel’s wars cause huge political and human rights outcries internationally, in light of the crimes and massacres Israel has perpetrated in its wars, some of which often prompt legal action against Israel before international courts.
3. The economic blockade and isolation of GS from the outside world has increased the strength of the resistance, and did not impact Palestinian popular support for it.
4. There is a desire among the Israelis and Europeans to try a new approach in dealing with GS and the resistance there, based on “development in return for de-escalation.” This aims at giving the Palestinians in GS the chance to engage in reconstruction, development, and caring for their daily life, with a reasonable amount of economic improvement, with a view to alter their priorities away from resistance and wars.
5. The absence of a clear political vision of how to deal with the resistance, led by Hamas, which rejects the conditions of the Quartet and the Arab Peace Initiative. This makes a political engagement of Hamas non-encouraging, and confines the current engagement to a tactical and exploratory path.
6. Amid a fierce war on Islamic movements in the region, particularly moderate ones, it does not seem logical that one of the most important of these movements would be helped to achieve political gains that strengthen their local, regional, and international position.
7. Launching a political process with the Hamas-led Palestinian resistance means ending the process led by Fatah, which could lead to dismantling the PA. This is something that the regional and international realities cannot stomach at this stage.
Point four makes the second scenario more likely, while points 5,6, and 7 weaken or invalidate the third scenario.
1. Learning the lessons of Fatah and the PLO’s experience in engagement with Europe, and the high political and national cost they had to pay. Therefore, Hamas must not rush things in engaging with Europe.
2. Not over-relying on the relationship with Europe to accomplish gains for Palestinian rights, given Europe’s historical bias for Israel.
3. Bringing in Palestinian national forces, particularly resistance forces, to the dialogues taking place with the Europeans, especially if the talks evolve into negotiations.
4. Adopting transparency and clarity before the Palestinian public, which has long been stung by secret negotiations and lost confidence in their results.
5. Any possible agreement regarding a truce must take place as part of a national consensus, especially with regard to other resistance factions in GS. It must not be linked to paying any political prices, and all attempts to separate GS from WB must be rejected, while the resistance program and its popular support must be maintained and protected.
6. This path, even if it becomes serious and effective, must not be an alternative to Palestinian national reconciliation, and to rebuilding Palestinian institutions, including the PLO, on the basis of partnership and integration.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Dr. Ahmad Atawneh for authoring the original text of this strategic assessment, which was based on a panel discussion of experts held by the center in Beirut.