It is well known that Europe has been divided over what to do about Hamas over the past five years. At no point has there been a consensus on how to manage communications or build relationships with the Islamic Resistance Movement; it’s been a controversial issue, with some European capitals opening secret communication channels between leading Hamas figures and government officials. Such initiatives have all been instigated by European countries individually, not collectively.
The level of contact increased after the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, won by Hamas; this broke an earlier resolution for European Union countries to boycott the movement. That decision had been taken in mid-August 2003, when the Hamas political bureau was put on the designated list of “terrorist” groups. It was a decision made under intense US and Israeli pressure. The post-2006 expansion of contact with Hamas was not out of any liking of the movement, but recognition of its popular support and mandate having won more than two-thirds of the Palestinian Legislative Council seats in the election.
History shows us that Europeans are pragmatic in the extreme and have few, if any, permanent constants; they are always ready to grab changes and build on them. It is no surprise, therefore, that in recent years we have witnessed a growth in the number of meetings in public and private with officials of institutions close to Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories. Meetings with Hamas officials directly have been held in places like Doha, Beirut and Damascus.
A report issued almost two years ago by a British all-party parliamentary committee confirmed the need to end the boycott of Hamas because, quite simply, the policy had failed. That report was followed by a lengthy meeting in mid-March 2008 between the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the head of the Political Bureau of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, in Damascus. Later that month, a report by the International Crisis Group dated 19 March 2008 acknowledged that Israel’s policy of “isolating Hamas and imposing sanctions on Gaza, is bankrupt and gave the opposite of its desired results”; the Islamic movement, said the report, “is moving towards the establishment of a framework of an effective force”.
Following that, an initiative by The Elders, an international body made up of veteran leaders and diplomats from around the world, saw the group approach Israel with a proposal by its four senior members: former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan; former US President Jimmy Carter; South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu; and former President of Ireland Mary Robinson. The Elders urged “Israel to have a ceasefire with Hamas, through direct dialogue and the recognition of its role among Palestinians; and to stop the policy of isolation.”
Jimmy Carter’s tour of the region was controversial and provoked much debate in Israeli and Hamas circles. This suggested that the “unofficial” US recognition of Hamas by a figure like Carter hinted at the acknowledgement that the West’s estimation and boycott of Hamas was mistaken. During his tour, Jimmy Carter met Khaled Meshaal more than once and was accompanied by retired – albeit still active publically – political figures from Europe.
Regardless of the lengthy discussions that took place between Hamas and Jimmy Carter and his advisers, and between Hamas and other politicians, there are many incentives now to motivate the West to expand the circle of such dialogue. This is especially true now that Palestinian national reconciliation is close to being achieved.
Carter’s meetings heralded a shift in America’s attitude towards dealing with Hamas away from the isolationist policy. It is not inconceivable that we will see direct discussions between Washington and Hamas, avoiding the clandestine get-togethers in various capitals. Carter is outside the official US mainstream, but his influence is clear.
Moreover, available data indicates that there is a trend towards a comprehensive review of the West’s policies towards Islamic political parties and movements in general. Those involved will be groups with “moderate” policies in the Arab world who are influential in their own communities, including Hamas.
A recent survey conducted in Europe showed increasing European awareness of events in the Middle East/North Africa region. Forty-five percent of those polled believe that Hamas should be involved in negotiations with Israel, and have identified Israel as an occupying power. Such views concur with those of British Jews, a survey of whom found that 52 percent of respondents favour negotiations with Hamas in order to reach a peace agreement in the Holy Land.
The Palestinian reconciliation agreement signed in Cairo last May opened the doors for the unification of Palestinian political activity at all levels; only the decisive will from both Fatah and Hamas is awaited. It also opened the doors for the removal of international reservations towards dealing with Hamas, which even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has acknowledged is an essential part of the Palestinian national fabric.
The author is a Palestinian writer based in Damascus. He is a member of the Arab Writers Union. This article was first published in Arabic in Al Bayan newspaper, UAE, 7/11/11