A few weeks ago, Boris Johnson addressed 300 of his loyal supporters at an exclusive lunch in a five-star hotel in London’s upmarket Mayfair for a Tory party fundraiser. Many of the so-called great and good paid up to £500 a ticket for the privilege of listening to the British prime minister, who opened with a joke about his hard-line Home Secretary Priti Patel.
It was an old one, but those who’d heard it before laughed and sniggered obligingly as he drew parallels between Saudi Arabia’s brutal penal system and Britain “under our wonderful Home Secretary”. Given that the regime in the desert Kingdom has an appalling human rights record and tortures and beheads people routinely, most reasonable people would not find such a comparison even remotely amusing.
At the time there was speculation over Patel’s political future. She had previously indicated her support for the death penalty as a “deterrent” although she then tried to roll back on her enthusiasm for reintroducing the ultimate punishment. She was also under fire for her equally heartless and extreme measures — some of them possibly illegal — for reducing immigration.
Among her proposals to curb the latter were plans to install giant wave machines in the English Channel to discourage migrants from crossing in boats from France. It was an ill-thought-out suggestion that would probably result in the drowning of asylum seekers, refugees and their children using flimsy rafts and overcrowded boats to cross the dangerous waters of one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. However, any hopes that the pro-Israel lobby’s best friend in parliament had had her day were soon dashed by Johnson himself.
Now, more emboldened than ever, she has proved her loyalty to the lobby by announcing that the political wing of the Palestinian resistance group Hamas is to be proscribed as a “terrorist organisation”. Hamas has already been so designated by the US, Canada and the EU, meaning that its assets can be seized and its members jailed. Until now, Britain only banned the movement’s military wing, and relied on the EU’s designation of the political wing to cover itself. That’s no longer an option post-Brexit, of course.
Patel says that Hamas supporters could face up to 14 years in jail under her plans which she will unveil on Friday, during a trip to Washington. This means that anyone who expresses support for the Palestinian group or arranges meetings for the organisation, will be in breach of the law. The controversial home secretary says she will push through her legislation in the UK parliament this coming week.
“Hamas is fundamentally and rabidly anti-Semitic,” Patel told journalists in the US capital. “Anti-Semitism is an enduring evil which I will never tolerate. Jewish people routinely feel unsafe – at school, in the streets, when they worship, in their homes and online. This step will strengthen the case against anyone who waves a Hamas flag in the United Kingdom, an act that is bound to make Jewish people feel unsafe.”
The home secretary made no mention of the fact that armed resistance against a military occupation is legitimate under international law. Nor that the Islamic Resistance Movement has never carried out any armed resistance outside occupied Palestine. Moreover, she is conflating legitimate criticism and opposition to an apartheid regime based on the political ideology of Zionism, with the illegal and totally unacceptable racism that is anti-Semitism. Anti-Zionism is most definitely not anti-Semitism.
So what motivates Patel in this respect? Her cosy relationship with extreme right-wing Israeli politicians is no secret. In 2017 this cost her a ministerial role as international development secretary in the British government when it emerged that she had been less than frank with the then Prime Minister Theresa May about fourteen unofficial meetings with Israeli ministers, businesspeople and senior lobbyists. One meeting was with the then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At one stage, she even “discussed given British foreign aid money to the Israeli army”, a move confirmed by Downing Street.
In her resignation letter — she did, after all, break several ministerial rules — Patel admitted that her actions “fell below the high standards that are expected of a secretary of state.” After accepting her resignation, May pointed out that all dealings with Israel “must be done formally, and through official channels.” She added that, “Now that further details have come to light, it is right that you have decided to resign and adhere to the high standards of transparency and openness that you have advocated.”
All of that has been swept under the Downing Street carpet now, as Johnson boasts about his “hard-line” home secretary. Perhaps I should prepare to pack my toothbrush and hand myself in at the nearest police station as someone who has met the democratically-elected Hamas leadership in the besieged Gaza Strip.
However, in mitigation, I humbly suggest that it is a mistake to ban the political wing of Hamas, for the simple reason that without the movement there can never be a peaceful solution in Israel-Palestine. Founded in 1987, Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council, the Palestinian Authority’s parliament, in the last election to be held back in 2006. It is the largest of several Palestinian Islamic groups. Like it or not, Hamas is part of the solution and not the problem. Patel’s Zionist friends know this very well, which is no doubt why they are celebrating at the moment because the two-state solution is being undermined by the Israeli regime. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has voiced his total opposition to an independent Palestinian state, stating openly what most people have known for years about successive Israeli governments. Why else does Israel fund a massive lobbying campaign in Western capitals if not to prevent the Palestinians seeing any of their legitimate rights come to fruition?
That is why it is worth remembering the words of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a one-time Middle East envoy and most definitely a friend of Israel. In 2017, he declared that it was “wrong” to boycott Hamas, which has been isolated by the international community ever since it won the 2006 election. Blair admitted that he and other world leaders had been wrong to give in to Israeli pressure to boycott Hamas after its election victory. “In retrospect, I think we should have, right at the very beginning, tried to pull [Hamas] into a dialogue and shifted their positions. I think that’s where I would be in retrospect. But obviously it was very difficult, the Israelis were very opposed to it. But you know we could have probably worked out a way whereby we did – which in fact we ended up doing anyway, informally.”
Had Patel bothered to engage with Hamas in 2017 while holidaying in the Middle East and holding her “informal” sessions with Israeli officials, she would have discovered that the movement’s new charter, while stopping short of recognising Israel, did formally accept the creation of an interim Palestinian state in Gaza, the occupied West Bank, and East Jerusalem. In other words, it offered what was de facto recognition of the Zionist state. The document also makes clear that Hamas’s struggle is with “occupying Zionist aggressors”, not Jews per se.
Not all Zionists are Jews — Priti Patel is a prime example — and not all Jews are Zionists. Many Jews around the world do not give unconditional support to Israel. Indeed, some ultra-Orthodox Jews actively oppose the state, so Patel’s move will not be welcomed by everyone in the Jewish community. Her designation of Hamas is a gift for Zionism and its fanatical followers; it has little if anything to do with making British Jews feel safer. The Islamic movement is part of the solution — just ask Mr Blair.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.