23rd Oct 2016

Hostage case hangs over EU-Hamas relations

  • Shalit has been held for five years with no access to his family or aid workers. Hamas says Israel has 11,000 prisoners. Israel says 6,000 (Photo: zeevveez)

Freeing captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit would increase EU support for Palestine's bid for UN recognition in September, diplomatic sources say. But Hamas has ruled out any unilateral move.

The EU in 2003 listed Hamas as a terrorist entity and refuses to have formal relations unless it first recognises Israel, renounces violence and respects international pacts - the so-called 'Quartet Principles.'

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Its pariah status is making it hard for EU structures to back the new Hamas-linked unity government in Gaza and the West Bank or the Palestinians' bid to be recognised as an independent state by the UN General Assembly in September.

A senior EU diplomat told this website that Hamas has come a long way since its last use of suicide bombers six years ago. But its continuing imprisonment of Shalit stands in the way of co-operation.

"So long as they hold Shalit it is very easy for people to say Hamas are still terrorists. Imagine the effect it could have if he were set free before September," the contact said.

The diplomat noted that it is still "too early" to start talks on taking Hamas off the terrorist register. But support for the move is growing.

"You might not like it, but you have to admit that Hamas these days basically fulfills the Quartet conditions. It says Israel has a right to exist, that it will respect the legacy of PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organisation] agreements, and they have declared a 'hudna' - which is much more than just a temporary ceasefire."

Hamas captured Shalit in 2006 and says it will free him in return for 400 prisoners held by Israel. Israel says the detainees are dangerous terrorists and is willing to free some of them only on condition they are deported to far-away countries.

Speaking to EUobserver on Monday (30 May), Hamas official Ghazi Hamad said Israel does not want to make a deal because the status quo helps it to demonise the group: "[Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu by his intransigent policy is not ready to make concessions in the Shalit case. This man is very stupid. He is doing nothing for peace."

He added that the people power of the Arab Spring will force Israel to back down on a range of issues without Hamas needing to give ground.

Referring to 15 May, when thousands of Palestinian refugees from Lebanon and Syria held protests on the Israeli border, Hamad said: "What is happening now in the Arab countries will squeeze Israel in future. Arab people will not keep silent ... people will focus more and more on the right of return unless Israel makes big jumps in the peace process."

For his part, Avi Melamed, a former Israeli official turned security expert, believes the Arab Spring could change things but in a different way.

Melamed said that post-revolutionary Egypt - which is a mediator in the Shalit talks - is likely to put pressure on Hamas to free the 24-year-old soldier in order to gain credibility for itself with the EU and US.

"I am cautiously optimistic. Today Hamas has to refigure its situation in the newly-shaped region. It is enjoying a warming-up of relations with Egypt and the support of the Muslim Brotherhood. But these actors may need Hamas to become more flexible so that they can gain face with the West," he explained.

The Muslim Brotherhood is an Islamic political party in Egypt tipped to make gains following the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

Rafah reopens

Egypt on Saturday re-opened the Rafah crossing to Gaza, symbolically ending the Israeli-Mubarak siege imposed in 2007.

A spokeswoman for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton welcomed the move but said Egyptian customs must ensure Rafah is not used to smuggle weapons. A team of around 20 EU monitors is stationed in Ashkelon, Israel ready to go back to Rafah if Egypt, Israel and the Palestinians agree.

"People are very happy about Rafah. They can leave Gaza more freely and there is a much better atmosphere. If they [the EU] want to come and inspect the crossing, then we have no problem to talk about this," Hamad said.

Melamed noted that Hamas brings in weapons through underground tunnels, not border crossings. But he said Rafah could help Islamic extremists based in the Sinai peninsula to infiltrate Gaza.

He also warned against placing too much store by the 'hudna.'

"This is an old Arabic term going back to the early days of Islam. It allows Muslims to have a temporary ceasefire in order to resume the fight when conditions are better. It is not about peace," he said.

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