May 27, 2017

It's high time for Europe to engage with Hamas

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Six years have passed since the EU decided to boycott the Hamas-led government which was democratically elected in the last Palestinian Legislative Council elections. No fruits have been borne of the EU's complicity in excluding Hamas, absolutely none.

Hamas' participation in the 2006 elections can be characterised as a first step towards a more pragmatic political approach. After the elections, Hamas extended an invitation to Fatah for a national unity government and its officials sounded more moderated in the international press.

For example Khaled Meshaal, head of the politburo of Hamas, clarified that the conflict with Israel is a political one and not based on a certain belief or culture. Many officials continuously argued that Hamas would be willing to recognise the 1967 borders which indirectly implied that they recognise Israel.

Hamas also demonstrated a willingness to renounce violence by largely respecting the truce with Israel and by significantly reducing the firing of rockets towards Israel. Finally, the decision to participate to the PLC elections as well as Hamas' willingness to join the PLO are clear signs that it would be willing to respect the previous agreements.

The 2007 Mecca Accord signalled a nascent flexibility within Hamas as Article 4 stipulated "the principle of political partnership on the basis of the effective laws in the PNA and on the basis of political pluralism according to an agreement ratified between both parties".

The problem with the international community's policies towards Hamas is that the latter was not given the opportunity to prove its political capacity and the Quartet conditions imposed on Hamas have done little to help break the deadlock.

While the three conditions are legitimate they do not include elements of 'measurement'. As a result, their fulfillment or not is open to different interpretations. Since Hamas has indirectly demonstrated its willingness to abide by these conditions the same has not happened with regard to Israel.

Israel has not renounced violence (the most significant example of this was the Gaza War in December 2008-January 2009 which took the lives of 1,400 Palestinians). Nor has Israel respected previous agreements (settlement expansion, house demolitions and general displacement of the Palestinians have been increased).

When Netanyahu finally enunciated the words 'two-state solution', it was framed within the context that the Palestinians would never accept such as solution. Then Netanyahu added two demands: the Palestinians should recognise Israel as a Jewish state, and that they will accept a long-term Israeli military presence along the Jordan River.

Six years later, most EU officials agree that the policy of 'no contact' with Hamas has failed, but has not yet taken an official position with regard to the reconciliation agreement. The official comment from EU High Representative Ashton was typically ambivalent.

After the signing of the reconciliation agreement in Cairo in May 2011 a group of former politicians urged the EU to support the unity government arguing that "if Palestinian reconciliation is undermined, it will throw the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into an even deeper impasse."

Following Qatar's mediation the two main Palestinian functions agreed recently on the formation of a unity government to be headed by Mahmoud Abbas. The EU has welcomed the agreement demonstrating its capability of learning from previous mistakes.

Taking into account the general turmoil across the region, working with a Palestinian unity government will be an opportunity for to demonstrate to the Arab world that it is a legitimate and honest supporter of democratic transitions taking place in the Middle East.

The upheavals sweeping the region will have significant reverberations for everyone and has created an important precedent. Political Islam is clearly on the rise and this is a reality that the international community should accept and engage with these movements.

The Arab protests have urged these parties to adopt more pragmatic and less hard-line positions. Hamas is reconciled with its rival Fatah and has improved ties with regional powers such as Turkey and Qatar thus moving away from its traditional supporters, Syria and Iran. More recently, in what came to be considered as a major policy shift, Hamas PM Ismail Haniyeh became the first official from the movement to publicly support "the brave Syrian people that are moving toward democracy and reform".

Hamas also successfully brokered a deal with Israel on the release of Gilad Shalit in return for over a thousand Palestinians, and has continuously expressed its willingness to open a dialogue with the West. Despite releasing the Israeli soldier, Gaza is still under international siege.

Hamas needs to be brought into the official process. Europe must pressure Israel to accept a national unity government with Abbas as head Palestinian negotiator. Only when all actors are included in peace parlays can a conflict be resolved. Test Hamas – see if they are sincere, but don't let Israel scuttle Palestinian efforts to reconcile and to be more democratic.

Dimitris Bouris is research assistant at the Council for European Palestinian Relations (CEPR) in London. This article was published in NEW EUROPE ONLINE on February 27, 2012.