The Palestinian reconciliation agreement has brought the issue of European recognition of Hamas and its political role back to the fore. Given that Hamas is such a decisive force with influence and presence within Palestinian ranks, it is impossible to disregard it.
Europe's position on relations with Hamas has been divided over the past five years or so and there has never been complete agreement on how to have contact or relations with the movement. While it has remained a controversial issue, some back-door channels of communication have been established. Several sources indicate that meetings have been held between leading Hamas personalities and officials from some European states. All of these meetings have taken place on the initiative of the European parties.
The number of contacts increased shortly after the Palestinian legislative elections at the beginning of 2006 with the intention of overturning the listing of the Hamas Political Bureau as a "terrorist organisation" by the European Union in mid-October 2003. No formal decisions were taken by Europe thereafter due to US and Israeli pressure.
Of course, this limited and behind-the-scenes European contact with Hamas did not take place out of the EU's love of the movement. It was, in fact, a reaction to, and a tacit acknowledgement of, the electoral success of Hamas in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
Experience shows that the Europeans are pragmatic; they do not have fixed limits and are always prepared to pick up and build on variables. For this reason, it is no surprise that we have seen an increase of public and private visits and meetings between Western consuls and officials and institutions close to Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories, as well as meetings with a number of Hamas leaders in Doha, Beirut, Damascus and other capitals.
About two years ago, a British All-Party Parliamentary Committee issued a report on the necessity of ending what it called the failed boycott of Hamas. This report followed the lengthy meeting in March 2008 between the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, and the leader of Hamas's political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, in Damascus. After this, the International Crisis Group published a report which recognised that Israeli policy based on "isolation of the Hamas Movement and the imposition of sanctions on the Gaza Strip was bankrupt and had delivered the opposite of the desired results". It also explained that "the Islamic Movement is heading toward the establishment of a framework of effective force".
The Elders, an international body of veteran world leaders and diplomats, put a proposal to Israel through four of its most senior members: former Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Anan; America's ex-President Jimmy Carter; Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and former Irish President Mary Robinson. They urged "a ceasefire with Hamas through direct Israeli dialogue with it and recognition of its role at the centre of Palestinians and to give up the rationale of isolation."
At that time, Jimmy Carter's visit brought with it sharp and heated debate within Israeli and Hamas circles, strengthening the convictions of many who viewed unofficial US and official Western perceptions of Hamas as mistaken. This is a point in Hamas's favour at the expense of the world's superpower which teems with research centres and government advisers.
The contacts included more than one meeting between Mr Carter and Khaled Meshaal attended by former European political dignitaries as well as some currently in post in Western Europe. Even if you discount such meetings and discussions, there are many incentives for the West post-reconciliation agreement to expand the scope of contacts with Hamas and its associates in both Palestine and the Diaspora.
Carter's meetings led to a transformation inside the US on the need to deal with Hamas and refrain from attempts to isolate and exclude the movement. As a result, few observers are writing off the possibility that we will see direct dialogue between Hamas and Washington without the need for secret channels. Jimmy Carter's efforts represent a hug step in the right direction despite the fact that he stands outside the official US framework.
In addition, there is evidence which indicates a move towards a comprehensive review of Western policies regarding "moderate" Islamic parties and movements in the Arab region, including Hamas. This is based on recognition of their strength and influence on public opinion within their own societies.
Within this context, a recent poll from ICM, on behalf of research institutes in London, Exeter and Doha, revealed an increase in European awareness of events in the Arab region, especially Palestine, compared to a similar poll conducted by Glasgow University in 2004. There has been a shift in the European position toward the Arab-Israeli conflict such that 45% of those polled identified Israel as the occupying power and called for the involvement of Hamas in negotiations.
These views concur with a survey conducted among British Jews by the Jewish Institute for Policies in which it was found that 52% of those polled supported negotiations with Hamas in order to achieve a peace agreement.
Palestinian reconciliation has paved the way for the unification of Palestinian political activity on all levels. Similarly, it has opened the doors to engagement between Europe and all Palestinian factions, including Hamas, which represent an essential part of the national fabric in Palestine.
A Palestinian Author/Damascus/A member of the Arab Writers Union
Source: Oman's al-Watan Newspaper
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.