Home inFocus Why the European Union Finally Sidelined Hamas

Why the European Union Finally Sidelined Hamas

Rory Miller Fall 2007

The European Union (E.U.) has struggled with its Hamas policy in recent years. In 2003, after years of tense diplomacy, the E.U. grudgingly agreed to follow the United States, and place Hamas on its terror blacklist. Ireland, Spain, France, and senior European Commission officials were among those more skeptical of the move. In 2004, E.U. foreign policy chief Javier Solana revealed that he had met secretly with Hamas, but later retracted this claim. Following the terror group’s May 2005 municipal electoral success, the E.U. reconsidered its ban on Hamas. After the group’s violent Gaza coup in July, however, the E.U. condemned Hamas and backed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to dissolve the Hamas-Fatah unity government.

Though the E.U. policy is often hazy and fractured, Europe has finally taken the right steps to sideline Hamas, despite howls of protest from Europe’s legions of Islamist apologists. While it may not have reached this decision easily, the E.U. is backing U.S. and Israeli policy. It is throwing its full support behind the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, and isolating Hamas in Gaza.

Europe’s Muscovites

Key elements within the E.U. question whether Europe should continue its current policy of refusing to deal with Hamas until it recognizes Israel, abandons terror, and abides by previously signed international agreements. The alternative is to follow the path of Russia and engage the unrepentant Hamas organization, thereby increasing influence in the region and distancing itself from Washington.

Certainly, member states’ recent mixed messages suggest that some elements within the E.U. are not averse to the Russian strategy. In March 2006, the French Quay d’Orsay endorsed a meeting between Hamas and Russian officials in Moscow. The following May, Sweden granted a visa to a Hamas government minister. Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema asserts that Hamas, unlike al-Qaeda, has a “political side,” and has compared the group to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Basque Fatherland and Liberty Organization (ETA). Meanwhile, Erkki Tuomioja, Finland’s foreign minister until April 2007, suggested that the E.U. should work with Hamas, claiming, “it is not the same party it was before the elections.”

Such statements by senior politicians in E.U. member states have accompanied widespread lobbying by former E.U. officials to engage Hamas. Alistair Crooke, an ex-MI6 officer who acted as the E.U.’s liaison with Islamist groups in the West Bank and Gaza from 1997 through 2003, has publicly called for discussions with Hamas and other Islamist groups. Crooke is now joined by Lord Christopher Patten, former E.U. Commissioner for External Relations, who, in March 2007, criticized Europe’s policy of boycotting the Hamas government. Patten’s view is endorsed by much of the European media, in the E.U. parliament, and in Westminster, where 39 British members of parliament signed a motion calling for engagement with Hamas early this summer. Their demand gained support after Hamas claimed credit for the July release of BBC Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston, who was kidnapped and held by Gaza’s Daghmush clan for more than three months.

How Hamas Saved the E.U.’s Hamas Policy

In the months leading up to the Gaza crisis, the E.U. appeared ready to break with its policies, and to begin providing funds to the Hamas-ruled government. Between June 2006 and June 2007, the E.U. provided aid to the Palestinians through the Temporary International Mechanism (TIM), which bypassed Hamas by purchasing fuel for the Gaza Electricity Company, generators at hospitals, and water installations for the general public. It also provided funds for some 1 million Palestinians (including public sector workers and the poorest members of society). When the TIM became increasingly difficult to administer in the months leading up to the June Gaza crisis, the E.U.’s External Relations Commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, announced that she would review the E.U. ban on direct aid to the Hamas-led Palestinian government.

Ironically, the Hamas takeover saved the E.U. from itself. Europe’s negative reaction to the violent coup guided the E.U. back to a policy of not directly funding Hamas. Now that Abbas has appointed a new, Hamas-free government following the Gaza meltdown, a review is unnecessary. The E.U. can resume direct aid (channeled through the PA’s Finance Ministry and supervised by an accounting firm). As the British Foreign Ministry explained, this is intended to “boost the economy, and demonstrates our clear support for the new [Abbas] government.”

Backing the PA’s Authority

The E.U. has supported the PA since its creation in the early 1990s. The E.U. supported Abbas in late 2006 when he raised the possibility of calling early elections to marginalize Hamas, and threw its weight behind Abbas’ new call for elections to stabilize the West Bank and to consolidate Fatah’s position as the representative of the Palestinians.

Following a meeting with Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, in late July 2007, Solana explained the E.U.’s position: “…this [new PA] government is a legitimate government and is the only legitimate government that we should support, and whatever they decide to do, and to move forward, we do not have to interfere.” The E.U. issued a statement asserting that Abbas’ handling of the Gaza crisis was “in accordance with the Palestinian constitution,” and welcomed President Bush’s calls for convening an international peace conference, recognizing Abbas as the leader of the Palestinians.

Thus, despite growing calls for engagement with Hamas among Europe’s media, political, and policy elite, it is unlikely to materialize, particularly while E.U. leaders still believe Abbas has a chance to consolidate power or achieve an electoral victory.

Defying Hamas and the PLO Legacy

The E.U.’s position on the PA is critical because from the moment Hamas gained power in January 2006, the Islamist movement believed the E.U.’s united front would soon crack and its foreign ministries would begin dealing en masse with Hamas on normal terms.

The Hamas logic was based upon its assessment of the strategy used with great success by Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) beginning in the 1970s. Despite tough European talk about terrorism and Israel’s right to exist, the PLO managed to normalize its position in Europe via backdoor channels without abandoning its objective (the destruction of Israel) or modus operandi (terrorism).

For example, though the PLO was not an official party to the Euro-Arab Dialogue (EAD) established in 1974, its efforts to partake in these discussions prevailed. As one senior PLO representative at the EAD later recalled, PLO officials could travel to Europe for ostensibly non-political reasons as members of EAD cultural, social, and labor delegations. Through these delegations, the PLO gained political acceptance in key European capitals like Bonn, West Germany. Soon, leading politicians from Greece and Spain to Portugal and France were feting Arafat and his subordinates. The New York Times even speculated as to which E.U. member state would be the first to receive Arafat on an official visit.

Fast-forward to May 2006. Hamas minister Atef Edwane visited Germany in an unofficial capacity after gaining a visa from Sweden to enter Europe. Edwane met with three German parliamentarians for what was described as “a private, unofficial exchange of ideas.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared irked by the visit, describing it as “vexing.” No doubt, Hamas hoped that this “unofficial exchange of ideas” would set precedent for Hamas officials to meet European politicians across the continent on a more formal basis.

But while Europe’s flawed and counterproductive policy of rewarding PLO violence and intransigence gave Hamas hope that it could turn its electoral victory into acceptance in Europe and gradually gain more widespread international legitimacy, the Islamist group badly misread the willingness of the E.U. to repeat its mistakes of the past. The Islamist ideology of Hamas, a Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, doesn’t hold the same appeal as Arafat’s freedom fighter slogans and anti-colonial language that made generations of Europeans weak in the knees.

The Blair Factor

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s appointment as Middle East envoy to the International Quartet (made up of the U.S., E.U., Russia, and the U.N.) will likely be another short-term insurance policy against European engagement with Hamas. When Blair was British prime minister, his government took the lead inside the E.U., demanding a crackdown on Hamas in 2003 and 2004 on the grounds that it was “literally trying to blow [up] this peace process.” On his first visit to the region as envoy in late July, he refused to meet with Hamas officials. Thus, Blair is unlikely to cave in to pressure at home or inside the E.U. on this issue, especially if he feels that it will further erode U.S.-E.U. ties or alienate pro-Western Arab regimes. Not surprisingly, Hamas officials have been quick to deride Blair’s “credibility as a mediator.”

Resisting Pressures

Despite the recent turn against Hamas, there are still countless politicians, civil servants, political advisers, and security officials across the E.U. who, driven by anti-Israel sentiment, anti-American motives, or a naive belief in Hamas’ goodwill, are desperately seeking ways to forge ties to the Islamist rulers of Gaza. That Europe continues to resist these pressures is crucial. Without Europe, Hamas has very few places left to turn.

Dr. Rory Miller is a senior lecturer in Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London. He is the editor of Ireland and the Middle East: Trade, Society and Peace (June 2007).