European countries believe that Israel “existed to remain,” and that any successful existential targeting of the state would lead to the Jewish question being thrown back in to Europe’s lap.
Consequently, there has been European rejection of any party who might engage in “violent” resistance against Israel, whether it was Hamas or any other resistance movement. The relationship between Hamas and the European Union (EU) has witnessed several significant landmarks and it has been notable that Europe has neglected areas of international law that legalize resistance against the occupation, including armed resistance. European government’s priority can be seen as political “opportunism” rather than its stated principles and morals.
Hamas’s acceptance of the Quartet’s conditions (including recognition of Israel) is a highly unlikely scenario. Moreover, resumption of relations between EU countries and Hamas does not appear imminent. It appears more likely that the status quo will continue and the Movement will attempt to utilize soft power to improve its position.
Hamas’s success in this respect will depend on the tools it opts for to face opposing forces, including the Israel’s lobby and its counterparts in decision-making circles.
In the 15 years from Hamas’s establishment in 1987 until the blacklisting of its military and political wings in 2003, there were strenuous European efforts to contain Hamas and involve it in diplomatic efforts within the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, which was mainly funded by Europe. As Hamas’s resistance became more effective, the EU sought to get to know it better through a mix of direct official meetings and indirect meetings using former political or academic figures. This approach deepened the EU’s understanding of Hamas’s nature, which proved to be different from its secular counterparts, who had adopted the peace process at the Madrid Conference and who are still waiting for tangible results from their approach.
With the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) after Oslo, and Hamas’s vehement opposition to this agreement along with its continued resistance operations that were gaining momentum, Europe started to perceive Hamas as a threat to the peace process. The peace process project started at Oslo after years of continuous Western, especially European, work to affect the mentality and approach of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on one hand and of Israel on the other hand. During the first decade of this relationship, European countries did not consider Hamas as a “terrorist” organization, despite the fact it considered its operations as “terrorist” operations, notably those that followed al-Ibrahimi Mosque massacre in 1994, and those that followed the assassination of one of Hamas military leaders, Engineer Yahia ‘Ayyash in 1996.
During this period, and as the PA and Israel exerted security pressure on Hamas, the EU maintained the half-open door policy in its approach to the Movement hoping that Europe would enhance those repressive policies and bring Hamas into a more obedient approach. This strategy failed, and al-Aqsa Intifadah had put an end to such aspirations.
With the outbreak of al-Aqsa Intifadah, in fall 2000, and Hamas’s armed wing (Ezzeddeen al-Qassam Brigades) joining the confrontations with high levels of professionalism, the Europeans stopped approaching Hamas as a movement to be contained in classical ways. At the same time, it appeared to them that what they had built in the years since Oslo was starting to collapse.
Given the unbalanced view towards the two sides of the conflict in the Intifadah, the Europeans blamed the Palestinians for every operation they executed, up to the events of 11/9/2001, which led to a serious international turn as the US announced what it called “the war on terrorism.”
Security Council Resolutions 1368 and 1373 for 2001, which were adopted after those events, reiterated the importance that all countries “opposed to the axis of evil” must counter terrorism, drain its resources and fight its branches. This call was immediately seized upon by the EU, which had then finished establishing its security strategy including the adoption of a list of organizations, persons and institutions it considered “terrorist” around the world, and whose bank accounts should be frozen, their movement banned, and activities countered.
As Hamas adopted armed resistance and executed various military operations, Israel and its allies in the EU sought to blacklist the Movement and put it on EU’s terrorist list.
The half-open door policy urged the EU to listen to experts’ views, which called for leaving an opening for Hamas to abandon its resistance work.
In this context, Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, was keen, through his security and political advisor Alastair Crooke, to build bridges of communication with Hamas in the hope of reaching a complete ceasefire between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
The EU showed continuous support for reaching a truce which the then Prime Minister Mahmud ‘Abbas convinced Hamas to accept. The truce lasted for 50 days during which Hamas provided the European envoy with detailed reports on the Israeli violations of the ceasefire, but the EU did not take any steps to stop Israel’s aggression.
Hamas retaliated with a military operation executed by Raed Misk after which Israel assassinated Engineer Isma‘il Abu Shanab, bringing the ceasefire to an end. Enraged by the development, Europe, which had invested so much in the truce, blamed Hamas for its collapse.
US President George W. Bush convinced his British partners to urge the Europeans to ban Hamas’s political and military wings alike.
Indeed, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw convinced the Germans and the French to act against Hamas. Despite the strong opposition demonstrated by Alastair Crooke for this move, the EU unanimously voted for listing Hamas’s political wing, like its military wing, on the European terrorist list, thus ending the mission Crooke had taken up as a bridge between the Movement and the European Commission (EC).
This was another serious downturn in relations between Hamas and the Europeans, which would have a serious impact following the 2006 legislative elections.
The European decision did not include abstention from dialogue or negotiations with Hamas but was limited to economic sanctions against the Movement, mainly draining its financial resources; however, European policymaking was led by fear, hesitation and political calculations. Hence, no direct dialogue was initiated with Hamas despite many politicians belief of its importance.
After assuming the PA presidency in early 2005, Mahmud ‘Abbas was keen to earn presidential and legislative legitimacy through general elections that were held in the context of complicated international conditions following Arafat’s death, the decline of the Intifada, and the attempt to gather up Palestinian security forces to re-assume the tasks that were disrupted during the Intifadah.
In these conditions, Hamas accepted the challenge of combining authority and resistance as it took the opportunity to participate in legislative elections based on maintaining the Movement’s stances and principles as part of the resistance, which was expressed by Hamas officials on numerous occasions.
The Europeans and the Americans believed that elections would be the easiest and most effective way to successfully contain Hamas and involve it in the political game through the opposition seats they expected the Movement to occupy after the elections.
But American and European expectations turned out to be miscalculations, after Hamas’s stunning victory in which it won a large majority of parliamentary seats.
As a consequence, Hamas was able to form the government and practically lead the PA.
The surprised Americans and Europeans who had listed Hamas as a “terrorist” organization were now faced with a new reality on the ground.
According to the Europeans’ logic, it was not possible to open up to Hamas with its positions and programs of resistance.
There followed the Quartet conditions that urged Hamas to betray its principles and the reasons for its existence.
Unsurprisingly, when Hamas and its government rejected those conditions, diplomatic and financial sieges along with strict sanctions were imposed on the Palestinian people whose only “crime” was freely electing its representatives to the legislative council, and thus its legitimate government.
In light of these conditions, the Europeans sought to circumvent the government and channel their political and financial support through the presidency, a strategy in harmony with Quartet conditions, but not in line with the international relations.
Remarkably, Javier Solana exercised stark provocation against Hamas calling on President ‘Abbas to take bold steps, with European support, to end the state of affairs that had resulted from the elections, an implicit call for a coup d’état. Then came the Hamas takeover of Gaza Strip (GS), which it considered necessary to preempt a coup that was being prepared by Muhamad Dahlan in GS. As Salam Fayyad’s emergency government was officially announced, the Europeans returned to build relations with the new government, resuming their pre-election approach. At the same time, they continued to snub Hamas and boycott its government.
GS suffered the strangulating impact of the siege and its deprivations, while Hamas faced every Israeli aggression with strong resistance. Hamas faced three Israeli wars within six years, during which the EU insisted on its traditional policies, reflecting its complete bias to Israel, justifying its attacks as self-defense.
It is true that the EU criticized Israeli targeting of civilians and disproportionality, but its criticism was meek given the circumstances. At the same time, EU rhetoric towards Hamas and other resistance forces was clear, solemn and based on their perception of “terror” and unjustified violence, calling for the disarmament of the Movement and its peers and even to dismantle its resistance wing as an essential step towards maintaining good neighborly relations, achieving peace and security and stopping wars.
That was also clear in the position of the EU regarding the capture of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit. The EU issued tens of media statements declaring sympathy for his family. Such sympathy or statements were not provided to the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons or their families. This double standard in dealing with Hamas’s resistance and Israeli crimes in GS was justified by the EU as a reflection of some sides in the Strip acting provocatively against Israel and seeking to threaten its security, thus it had the right to self-defense. The EU used this justification while it turned a blind eye to the fact that international law guarantees the right to resist the occupation by all possible means, including military means, making it a legitimate, unequivocal right.
The EU bases its position towards Palestinian movements on three main pillars:
1. Europeans’ full conviction that Israel was established to stay, and that any attempt to repel its existence is an aggression that should be countered rather than tolerated.
2. Armed resistance to occupation is “terrorism.” Thus, Israel’s right to defend itself facing this “terror” is an absolute right, while the right to resist the occupation can be only expressed nonviolently.
3. The peace process is the only way to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the political relationship with any Palestinian party is conditioned on recognizing the outcomes of this process.
Here, it is possible to understand the stances of the EU on Hamas, whether during wars or at other times. Thus, while the Europeans perceive Hamas as a “terrorist” movement, despite its weight and wide popularity in the Palestinian arena, they hold on to the bet that the Movement can be contained at the Palestinian and regional levels.
Years after Hamas filed a lawsuit against the EU in the General Court of the European Union to remove its name from the terrorist list, the Movement achieved its goal in a way that shocked the Europeans at the end of 2014. Despite the joy and optimism in Hamas circles, things started to deteriorate again after a month and a half when the EU (led by some Israel-friendly European states and strong American and Israeli lobbying) insisted on filing an appeal before the European Court of Justice (ECJ) against the court ruling. That happened in parallel with a reconsideration of the Rules of Procedure of the General Court, in order to align them with the inclinations of the EU Council regarding the terrorist and sanctions lists and regarding those under review for possible removal.
In February 2015, the EU agreed (in a way not dissimilar to how some third world governments tamper with the work of courts to meet political needs and wishes) to change the rule of law so that any information or material whose “communication would harm the security of the Union or that of one or more of its Member States or the conduct of their international relations,” shall get confidential treatment and “shall not be communicated to the other main party.” In other words, the EU decided to ignore one of the most important pillars of justice in the European courts, namely transparency. Thus, the law of secret evidence was adopted, similar to what is pursued by Israeli military courts in regards of administrative detention. Accordingly, Hamas’s chances of winning the appeal, which is expected within a year and half from the date of the application, are reduced.
So, as the decision to list Hamas as a terrorist organization was a political one from the very beginning, the movement has faced hostile measures by taking the legal track besides the political one. However, when it seemed set to win the legal battle, politics tampered with the law and proved again that politics could be above the law, even in Europe.
European politicians are hesitant regarding negotiations or direct dialogue with Hamas due to categorizing it as a terrorist movement, which makes removing it from the terrorist list important for Hamas and for the Europeans alike. The Europeans are aware of Hamas’s weight and what it represents in the Palestinian street, and that it is not a “terrorist” movement in the classic sense of the word. Thus, they, along with the Americans, have been keen to maintain indirect channels of communication with the Movement through former politicians officially delegated by their countries. This has been stated in the many rounds of dialogue that they have held with the Movement’s leadership. Apparently, foreign ministries of countries who delegate the envoys are fully aware of all ongoing rounds of dialogue, and have possibly been setting their agendas.
All European rounds of dialogue conducted with the PLO (before Oslo), or those conducted with Hamas, were attempts to influence the Palestinian stance towards Israel. However, the mere holding of such rounds of dialogue, often periodically, confirms that Hamas is considered a side that cannot be neglected or ignored. It also proves that the relationship with the Movement cannot be reduced to a blind call to accept Quartet conditions.
This led former Quartet Envoy Tony Blair to hold rounds of talks with the Hamas leadership abroad in the early months of 2015 and to express his belief that the Quartet conditions are “behind us” as leaked. It is true that these rounds of dialogue were focused on the last war on GS, lifting the blockade and reconstruction, yet Blair was in continuous contact with European capitals and he had a green light to even call Hamas’s political chief Khalid Mish‘al to visit London and hold a dialogue session there. Had Hamas accepted the offer, it would have deconstructed the European narrative regarding Hamas and refuted the terrorism tag so often attached to the Movement.
The following are three possible scenarios regarding future relations between the EU and Hamas:
1. European countries realize that with the rise of resistance forces and the faltering peace process, there is a need for a realistic approach towards Hamas, and that the Quartet conditions, now obsolete, hinder the European role. Consequently, the EU decide to pursue a pragmatic relationship with Hamas, parallel to the ECJ’s rejection of the EU appeal. With Hamas’s removal from the terrorist list, the legal obstacles hindering the launch of direct dialogue with the Movement, or even establishing relations with it, would also be removed.
2. Hamas softens its stances regarding the conditions of the EU and the international Quartet. Accordingly, the door would open for sustainable relations with the Europeans and the US in a way that would impact the whole Palestinian internal scene.
3. The status quo is maintained by the EU, benefitting from ECJ overturning Hamas’s removal from the terrorist list. Thus, the relation between the two sides would face a stalemate due to the complications of the political environment and Hamas would have to continue to work legally and politically towards changing the perspective towards it.
It is very unlikely that Hamas will soften its stances or concede its position regarding recognizing Israel and the other Quartet conditions. The current situation does not make the resumption of the relationship with Hamas likely. However, the chances remain high for the third scenario to be manifested in relations between Hamas and the EU for the following reasons:
1. The ECJ was politicized when the law of confidential treatment of information or material was allowed in cases similar to that of Hamas. This makes it less probable that Hamas will overcome this obstacle legally, which lessens the chances of an opening up between the two sides.
2. Hamas has rejected Quartet conditions of recognizing Israel, accepting Israel-PLO agreements and renouncing resistance. It is more likely to refuse these issues after all the suffering it has endured, which has resulted from its resilience under pressure.
3. The impact of Israeli propaganda against the Movement is still intact within the influential circles affecting European public opinion and decision makers in different regions, and it is unlikely that the potency of this propaganda will decline in the foreseeable future.
4. The European Council decision-making mechanism is based on consensus or qualified majority voting (QMV), which makes having dialogue or reconciliation with Hamas more difficult. This is not expected to change any time soon, unless issues of contention critically change.
1. European countries reconsider their failed policy in dealing with Palestinian resistance forces and reassess the Quartet conditions, which have been a major obstacle preventing international forces from dealing with effective Palestinian actors who cannot be ignored.
2. Hamas has to proceed with direct and indirect dialogue with European states and institutions to express its positions regarding the Palestinian situation and developments.
3. The Palestinian community must build bridges with pro-Palestinian movements, communities and institutions, explaining the Palestinian resistance forces’ narrative in a deeper and more influential, comprehensive and organized manner to lobby for change in European policy.
4. Hamas has to undertake the necessary preparations to deal with the appeal before the ECJ against the court ruling removing it from the terrorist list. It must benefit from the expertise of international lawyers to support the current legal team.
5. Establishing an effective international media bureau that would address the West, and which speaks European languages, most importantly English, in order to maintain continuous contact between Hamas and the resistance on one hand, and European countries on the other.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Dr. Adeeb Ziadeh for authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.