On 19/11/2021, the British Home Secretary Priti Patel declared from Washington that she would designate the entire Hamas group as a terrorist organization. Previously, Britain had only designated the armed wing of Hamas, the Al-Qassam Brigades, as a terrorist organization, excluding the political wing of Hamas. The House of Commons ratified Patel’s decision on 24/11/2021, and it came into force on 26/11/2021.
The designation comes on the heels on the shifts brought about by Brexit (the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union). It paves the way for potential shifts in Britain’s position on the Palestine conflict, with multiple possible scenarios: These range from the decision being a mere bureaucratic formality to fill the vacuum left by Britain’s exit from the EU, which fully designates Hamas as a “terrorist” organization; to being a profound shift in the British foreign policy and the form of its involvement in the Palestine issue, hence having closer alignment with the US and Israeli positions. In between, a more likely scenario is that this decision comes in the Brexit context, yet marking a moderate but influential shift in British foreign policy.
Brexit is most likely a key factor influencing this decision. Brexit has created both local and international ripple effects that will continue in the coming years to fuel British realignment on the world stage, wherein the United Kingdom remains one of the permanent five member states of the UN Security Council and the world’s fifth largest economy. Brexit reflecting a new British approach to transatlantic relations, London has joined an accelerating sprint to attach itself further to US political and economic directives. Thus, Patel’s decision was announced in a speech in Washington at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank seen as one of the most influential in shaping US policy, while being supportive of Israeli positions and visions. It is also a platform that has tolerated Islamophobic discourses in the United States.
In this context, it is worth recalling that in general, Britain is currently preoccupied with tacking the bureaucratic fallout of its withdrawal from the legal and judicial systems of the EU. Both the armed and political wings of Hamas have been designated by the EU as terrorist entities, a designation that was legally binding for Britain until the end of 2020. In other words, Hamas’s political wing was technically excluded from the UK terror listing for only 11 months in 2021.
The Context of the British Decision
While think-tanks are important influencing factors that shape political decision-making in the West, the position on non-state actors in the region, especially Islamic groups, should be understood in two main contexts for the Western states involved, namely, the United States, Britain and the EU. According to British Professor Jeroen Gunning, an expert on Hamas and social movements in the region who has advised the British government, the first context is building sustainable “peace,” which groups like Hamas are seen as an obstacle to achieving. This view is adopted by decision makers in Israel and the United States. The second context is a sociological and social context approach to Hamas, being part of a social and popular context that cannot be ignored, in which it is necessary to include Hamas in the “peace process.” This approach is usually adopted by European and British decision makers.
Gunning believes that the European designation of Hamas as a terrorist entity follows US and Israeli political pressure, while Britain’s attitude was “constructive engagement with Hamas’s political wing coupled with condemnation of the military wing.”
The above academic understanding of Western decision-making contexts vis-à-vis groups like Hamas, the factors that influence them, and the mentioned geopolitical context, make the new British designation of Hamas more the result of an external influence rather than a local one, a conclusion supported further by the current UK political landscape.
The Current Governing Political Landscape in Britain
Brexit has led to the dominance of the right-wing in the ruling Conservative Party. Since mid-2019, after the leader of the Leave camp Boris Johnson toppled Theresa May, this wing has been leading the political scene. Furthermore, it consolidated its dominance with the decline of the traditional British discourse of the Labour Party that has suffered a humiliating defeat in the December 2019 General Election, the worst in its history since 1935. As a result, the Brexit supporting Conservative MPs dominated the House of Commons, with 80% of Conservative MPs belonging to the Conservative Friends of Israel group. A third of the ministers in the formed British government have either received funding from Israel or are linked to Israel in one way or another, according to an investigation by Declassified UK published in May 2021.
In this vein, we find that Priti Patel, the Home Secretary who adopted the designation, has a long record of strong and special ties to Israel and its lobbying groups. When Patel was Secretary of International Development in the government of Theresa May in 2017, she held secret talks with Israeli leaders in Tel Aviv, London and New York without notifying her government or the Foreign Office. A scandal ensued that led to her resignation. Moreover, Patel, before her departure from May’s government, was responsible for cutting a third of the aid allocated to the Palestinian Authority (PA) through the Department for International Development (DFID), and was considering funding the field hospitals of the Israeli army in the occupied Golan Heights, which Britain still considers occupied territories under international law.
British Political Debate About the Designation
Usually, such decisions often come against the background of an event, or if the designated organization act against the interests of the country or its allies, however, this time, the Home Secretary’s announcement of her decision against Hamas was linked to her talk about anti-Semitism in Britain and the local security of British citizens. She also said, “Hamas has significant terrorist capability, including access to extensive and sophisticated weaponry as well as terrorist training facilities, and it has long been involved in significant terrorist violence.” During the debate of the House of Commons on the proscription of Hamas, on 24/11/2021, and if “there is any assessment at all of any threat to the UK from Hamas,” the Minister of State for Security and Borders Damian Hinds considered that among the relevant discretionary factors for Hamas is “the specific threat posed to British nationals overseas.”
Although some MPs objected to the proscription of Hamas, saying it does not serve the political process and the UK’s efforts to reach a settlement in Palestine, including Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, who stressed that “under international law, you have a legal right to resist.” The proscription was adopted without a vote, based on the support of most parliamentary blocs including the Conservative bloc and the opposition bloc led by the Labour Party. This is probably due to the sensitivity of the issue, which makes it difficult politically to oppose, according to one Labour MP. On the one hand, the designation is linked to Israel, whose narrative is adopted by the ruling Conservative Party. At the same time, the Labour Party is trying to woo Israel as it attempts to rid itself of the legacy of Jeremy Corbyn, its former leader who was known for his pro-Palestinian positions. On the other hand, the link cited by the Home Office between the proscription and anti-Semitism adds more sensitivity to the position of those who oppose the decision.
In terms of the political debate outside official circles, in the media and think-tanks, several positions of dissent against the proscription have been put forward, and can be summarized as follows:
1. Hamas does not pose a security threat to British domestic security. Hamas is the only Palestinian organization that since its inception has committed itself to a strategic decision to limit its operations within historic Palestine against exclusively Israeli targets
2. Hamas does not pose a threat to British citizens abroad as the Minister of State for Security and Borders has claimed. Hamas’s track record has no precedent of anything in this regard. In fact, Hamas was responsible for saving the life of British BBC journalist Alan Johnston in 2007, liberating him from an extremist group that had kidnapped him in Gaza before Hamas took control of the Strip.
3. Hamas is not part of the anti-Semitism problem in Britain, according to reports published by the Community Security Trust (CST), a British Jewish organization that works with the British police. Its reports show British right-wing groups have a greater responsibility in anti-Semitic incidents.
Possible Implications of the Proscription
Considering the above, this designation carries in its folds several rare contradictions. While the designation does not reflect the usual approach to British political decision making, it enjoys strong legitimacy in the official political sphere after being ratified without a vote. This may lead to several practical ramifications summarized as follows:
1. It may render British involvement in the Palestine issue more difficult. Previously, Britain through backchannels helped broker truce between the parties as happened in 2002–2003, with the involvement of Alastair Crooke, British intelligence officer at the time; as well as the role the UK played in brokering a prisoner swap deal between Hamas and Israel in 2010, with the involvement of the director of the Forward Thinking Center Oliver McTernan.
2. The proscription will affect humanitarian work in Gaza, obstructing it in an area where Hamas is a key actor in daily political and economic life.
3. The designation will bring new restrictions on pro-Palestine and against the occupation activism in Britain, home to one of the world’s largest, most organized and most effective solidarity campaigns. The designation will make it easier to demonize solidarity through accusations of anti-Semitism, extremism and “terrorism.”
Based on the foregoing, the likely scenarios produced as outcomes of the designation may be summarized as follows:
First scenario: The designation will not impact the behavior, traditional role and involvement of Britain vis-à-vis the Palestine issue. This is reinforced by the fact that Britain, until its actual exit from the EU on 31/12/2020, had already been bound by the EU designation of the entirety of Hamas as a terrorist entity. Therefore, the designation is nothing new, and is just a mere procedural decision that comes in the context of Britain’s legal adjustments to address the bureaucratic effects of Brexit.
Second scenario: The designation marks a major shift in British foreign policy vis-à-vis the Palestine issue: This scenario is reinforced by the geopolitical context of Brexit, where Britain is clearly shifting towards establishing itself as an Atlantic power rather than a European power, hence closer in alignment with US policies. One of the implications of this is having fewer independent positions, especially in issues so fundamental to the United States such as Israel.
Third scenario: The proscription will have medium-sized repercussions that go beyond bureaucratic contexts of Brexit and the notion that there is nothing new taking place in the UK’s foreign policy. But while the UK is converging with the US position, it is not to say that Britain will replicate the US position on Israel. Nevertheless, a marked shift is taking place in British policy vis-à-vis the conflict in Palestine.
Therefore, the third scenario is the most probable. The designation of Hamas is no less effective than when the UK was part of the EU. Indeed, the decision ratified by parliament is legally binding and enforceable as a matter of national sovereignty, in a way that goes beyond the commitment arising from the EU-imposed designation on its member states. To be sure, while we have considered the fact that the UK issued the proscription 11 months after its exit from the EU, this becomes less relevant if we recall that the national sovereignty of EU member states still gives them considerable margins in this regard. For this had allowed the UK for example to receive a Hamas political delegation in 2006 following its election victory, which included Ahmad Yusuf and Sayyid Abu Musamih. In addition, Tony Blair invited Khalid Mish‘al to visit London in 2015, with the knowledge of then-PM David Cameron, despite the EU designation of Hamas’s political wing as a terrorist entity.
In addition to all this, Britain’s positions recently saw some remarkable precedents, including the UK government’s refusal to condemn Israel’s blacklisting of six Palestinian NGOs as “terrorist groups,” contrary to the position of the EU and several international figures and organizations. Britain has also signed a “historic” trade and military agreement with Israel as part of a 10-year plan for deepening ties announced by the UK Foreign Secretary and the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs in a joint article in The Daily Telegraph on 29/11/2021, the same day that the UN marks as the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. The timing was not a coincidence, considering the sensitivity of British decision-makers to such details. Moreover, the UK abstained from the vote at the UN General Assembly on a resolution that affirmed the status of Jerusalem on 1/12/2021, a precedent in the British voting record at the UN. The position drew attention, prompting the UK Foreign Office to issue a statement affirming British support of Jerusalem as a shared capital, claiming that the abstention was because “the resolution adopted today refers to the holy sites in Jerusalem in purely Islamic terms [Haram al-Sharif], without recognising the Jewish terminology of “Temple Mount.”
• Challenging the designation legally in the UK High Court, which considers the constitutional merits and effect of laws if they affect a large segment of the population, on the basis that the designation constitutes collective punishment against the Palestinian people, where more than 2.5 million Palestinians support Hamas’s electoral program based on the results of the 2006 elections. Indeed, the designation criminalizes support for Hamas, including voting for Hamas, which could subject a voter up to 14 years in prison. In addition, the designation may sever family ties between hundreds or thousands of Palestinian-British citizens and their relatives in Palestine, especially Gaza Strip.
• Hamas must review its backchannels with Western governments and review its priorities in this context to serve Palestinian national legitimacies. The dynamics leading to the designation are more in the context of supporting Israel and its policies, rather than being related to the behavior and policies of Hamas.
• The decision does not affect Hamas alone. Therefore, a unified Palestinian position against the designation is crucial. This was reflected in Palestinian responses to the designation, such as the statements issued by the Foreign Ministry and the Palestine Mission in the UK, in addition to the Palestinian factions. This, however, should be supported with further activities in support of Palestinian rights at the civic, rights and solidarity levels.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr. Tarek Hamoud for preparing this strategic assessment..