28th Jan 2023

Europe should be talking to Hamas, says former EU adviser

  • A pro-Hamas rally in the West Bank (Photo: Hoheit)

The EU's refusal to talk to Hamas is based on simplistic assumptions and is damaging the peace process, according to an expert on political Islam and a former adviser to the EU.

"It's a huge mistake. I think one of the strategic mistakes for the European position in this area and a mistake which directly undermines European security both in this region and in Europe itself," Alastair Crooke, the head of the Beirut-based NGO, Conflicts Forum, told EUobserver.

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EU diplomats in the Palestinian territories still have "administrative level" contacts with the militant group on issues such as managing election monitoring missions or in special cases, such as trying to secure the release of kidnapped BBC correspondent Alan Johnston in 2007.

But EU states in 2006 made a political decision to halt high-level discussions until Hamas renounces violence and accepts the right of Israel to exist. The group is also listed on the EU's register of terrorist entities, putting a legal block on financial assistance.

Mr Crooke said that Hamas is a "moderate" organisation seen by many Muslims as a legitimate national liberation movement, but "demonised" together with genuine religious extremists by Europe.

"If you talk with any Hamas leader, they say 'Look, I don't get messages from God. I don't get instructions about who should be the Hamas candidate. We believe the Koran sets out principles by which a human being should live and we try to find a practical way in which to conduct our policies based on these principles.' That's not dogmatism. That's not irrationalism. It's not in any sense extremism."

The former British secret service agent first forged links with Islamist fighters while working in Soviet-era Afghanistan in the 1980s. The UK later "lent" Mr Crooke to Brussels to act as a Middle East security adviser to the office of EU top diplomat Javier Solana, before he branched out on his own in 2004.

The spy-turned-scholar said the EU today still works on the Cold War-era assumption that by imposing sanctions on Hamas it will weaken Syria and Iran's influence in the region.

But instead, the sanctions are making it harder for Hamas and other "moderates" to hold the centre ground in Islamist ideology in the Middle East and beyond, contributing to the proliferation of fanatical splinter groups.

"What they have as a result of following these models is an Islamism which is dispersed to the periphery, which has been hollowed out in the centre, at times becoming more dangerous and more violent," Mr Crooke said.

"This whole discourse of carrots and sticks is as if policy is simply a process of making a few laboratory rats run around a track and get electric shocks if they go in the wrong direction or a nut if they go in the right direction. It's got little to do with real politics."

No rapprochement in sight

The idea of engagement with Hamas on existing terms gets short shrift from Israeli diplomats.

"How can you talk to someone if they want to talk about your extinction?" Israel's ambassador to the EU, Ran Curiel, said. Mr Curiel recalled that an EU foreign minister once neatly summed up the situation with the words: "Hamas may not be Al-Qaeda, but in the same way you don't talk to Al-Qaeda, you don't talk to Hamas."

The EU last week welcomed US President Barack Obama's landmark speech in Cairo, offering a rapprochement between the West and Islamic states stretching in an arc from Morocco to Pakistan.

But the EU's special representative for the Middle East peace process, Marc Otte, reiterated Europe's tough stance on Hamas.

"Hamas is a terrorist organisation. It is not a partner for peace with Israel because it does not recognise the right of existence of Israel," he told this website. "Hamas has also become a mercenary for Iran and is no longer functioning in the Palestinian national interest."

Mr Otte noted that Hamas was put on the terrorist register because it advocated the killing of Israeli civilians. He added the group continues to make anti-Semitic statements and carries out extra-judicial executions of its political opponents in Gaza.

"They are hiding very well their 'moderation'," Mr Otte said.

'A decision they have to make'

The EU diplomat explained that the ball is in Hamas' court if it wants to get off the EU's terrorist register and come back to the negotiating table. "They know very well how to get off the list – to renounce violence and to cease violent acts ... it's a decision they have to make."

Asked if Israel's actions in Gaza in December and January, when troops killed over 900 Palestinian civilians, could be described as a form of terrorism, Mr Otte ceded judgement to an ongoing UN investigation into alleged war crimes on both sides.

"If we say Israel's strike of a UN building in Gaza is a terrorist act, what do we say about a Nato strike of a civilian building in Afghanistan?" he asked. "We have to be very careful if we try to set ourselves up as a judge."

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