Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters Palestinian supporters of Hamas celebrate their victory in the Palestinian election during a rally in Khan Younis, south of Gaza Strip, January 2006.

Hamas' Lost Decade

Behind the Group's Uphill Battle for International Legitimacy

Ten years ago this month, Hamas stormed to victory in the Palestinian legislative elections. A year later, the group seized control of Gaza from Fatah forces loyal to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas. A decade on, Hamas remains in full control, despite having technically relinquished its ruling status as part of a 2014 reconciliation deal with Fatah.

Hamas hasn’t had an easy time in power. Apart from its seemingly interminable struggle with Fatah for the heart and soul of the Palestinian cause, the group has had to contend with constituents increasingly disappointed with its poor record of governance and internal divisions between pragmatists and ideologues. An Israeli economic blockade and a relentless Israeli military campaign that has included two full-scale assaults on Gaza have also overshadowed Hamas’ rule.

It is a testament to the group’s staying power, not to mention the weaknesses of Fatah and the political limits of Israel’s anti-Hamas strategy, that the group is still a viable political player at all. Yet for all that, Hamas has failed to turn its lasting rule into the formal recognition and legitimacy on the world stage that it so badly wants. In March 2015, Bassem Naim, the former health minister in Gaza, told the Al-Monitor news site that “The movement is contacting several countries around the world and in Europe, to overcome Hamas’ isolation,” adding, “Certain countries are communicating with us, but they do not want nor do they encourage publicly announcing that for personal reasons.”

After ten years, that isn’t much to boast about, especially given that Hamas leaders have spent the past decade working to gain international legitimacy. In 2009, one Australian journalist, whose meeting in Syria with Hamas’ political boss, Khaled Meshaal, was sandwiched between meetings with groups of British, Greek, and Italian lawmakers, joked that Meshaal consider building a “parking lot for the vehicles bringing foreign delegations to visit.

Meshaal has continued to meet with public figures from across the world, including, most notably, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Ishmael Haniyeh, who runs Hamas in Gaza, has been no less active. He has travelled from North Africa to the Persian Gulf on official business and has welcomed a constant flow of fact-finding missions and official delegations to the besieged coastal enclave of Gaza. His office has also developed extensive links with mid-level diplomats representing the Diplomatic Quartet—the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia—a foursome involved in mediating the Israeli–Palestinian peace process.

In the past six months, top Hamas officials, including Meshaal and Haniyeh, have met former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and South African President Jacob Zuma. These “periodic meetings,” as a Hamas spokesman recently termed them, have been dismissed by some observers, such as the former PA official Ghaith al-Omari, as little more than Hamas members playing up their importance “beyond what their substantive significance would warrant.” In fact, Meshaal’s meeting with Zuma in Cape Town was the first time a non-Muslim head of state had hosted the Hamas political chief.

Hamas' chief Khaled Meshaal (R) speaks to South African President Jacob Zuma in Johannesburg, October 2015.

Hamas' chief Khaled Meshaal (R) speaks to South African President Jacob Zuma in Johannesburg, October 2015.

Hamas has had trouble gaining international legitimacy largely because it has refused to meet the three conditions the Quartet laid out in 2006: renouncing violence, recognizing Israel, and accepting the peace agreements that predated its rise to power. On the eve of the 2006 election, a senior Hamas spokesman told the BBC that even if Israel were to withdraw from all of the West Bank and Jerusalem, Hamas would only be prepared to offer it a ten-year truce.

In the immediate aftermath of their election victory, Hamas leaders were unyielding in their refusal to compromise on any of the Quartet’s demands, even at the risk of losing foreign aid to Gaza. “We’ll eat za’atar leaves, weeds and salt, but we won’t be traitors and we won’t be humiliated,” an indignant Haniyeh promised soon after becoming the first Hamas prime minister in March 2006. Meshaal was no less defiant. “We will reach our goals with or without you,” he said, referring to the Quartet’s leaders.

Their bravado didn’t last long. Once the post-election euphoria died down, Hamas leaders realized that they had little choice but to go on the diplomatic offensive to counter Israel’s and the PA’s attempts to undermine their election victory and sideline them on the international stage. Still, they didn’t concede to any of the Quartet’s demands. In fact, they continue to reject the conditions as unfair and illogical. In early January, Hamas rang in the New Year not by recognizing Israel or renouncing violence, but by promising that 2016 would “witness …an escalation of … all forms of resistance operations.”

Despite this deadlock, Hamas officials have demonstrated confidence over the last decade that it is only a matter of time until the group achieves a real diplomatic breakthrough. The reason for such confidence: Europe. 

EU-TOPIA

Before the 2006 election, the European Union hadstruggled with its Hamas policy, which had provoked years of debate and intense and often public disagreements. In 2003, the European Union, following the lead of the United States, placed the groupon its terrorist blacklist. A number of member states, including France, Ireland, and Spain, opposed this move as part of a protest against Israel’s tough response to the al-Aqsa intifada. In 2004, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, revealed that he had held a secret meeting with Hamas to discuss conditions for improved relations, but he later retracted this claim. Following Hamas’ electoral success in theMay 2005 Palestinian municipal elections, a prelude to the 2006 vote for the legislature, the European Union again reconsidered its ban on the group.

Europe’s mixed messages motivated Hamas to focus its energies, even before the 2006 victory, on a “Europe first” diplomatic approach that it hoped would lead to more widespread recognition across the international community.

To this day, Hamas has not had one high-level or official visit in major or even minor EU capitals.

Signs from Europe suggested that this was a smart move. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi reportedly called for the European Union to embrace rather than marginalize a newly “democratic and cooperative Hamas.” His Foreign Minister, Massimo D'Alema, compared the group to Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, which had joined a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland after a 1998 peace deal. Erkki Tuomioja, Finland’s foreign minister, suggested that the European Union should work with Hamas, claiming, “it is not the same party it was before the elections.”

Buoyed by such talk, Mahmoud Zahar, then Hamas’ foreign minister, announced in April 2006 that he was “ready to go to Europe to the countries that are ready to accept us.” In May, Sweden issued a visa to a Hamas minister to visit Europe. By the end of Hamas’ first year in power, the European Union had endorsed a peace plan that France, Italy, and Spain had put forward, which comprised five points, none of which explicitly demanded that Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist. And in March 2007, the former EU External Relations Commissioner, Chris Patten, also a member of the British House of Lords, spoke for many across Europe when he dismissed the EU’s policy of boycotting the Hamas government as pointless and said it was “high time to get real.”         

Hamas’ prioritization of Europe was based not simply on positive signals coming out of the European Union, but on an attempt to mirror a strategy Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) had adopted in the 1970s. Then, despite tough talk in Europe about ending terrorism and affirming Israel’s right to exist, the PLO managed to legitimize its position in Europe via backdoor channels. Although the PLO was not an official party to the Euro–Arab Dialogue (EAD) in 1974, for example, its efforts to partake in these discussions paid real dividends. As one senior PLO representative at the dialogue later recalled, PLO officials could travel to Europe for ostensibly non-political reasons as members of EAD cultural, social, and labor delegations. Through these delegations, the PLO gained political acceptance in key European capitals, including Bonn and Paris. Soon, leading politicians from France, Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Spain were feting Arafat and his subordinates. By the end of the 1970s, the New York Times had taken to speculating over which EU member state would be the first to receive Arafat on an official visit.

Fast-forward to mid-2006, when Hamas government minister Atef Edwane visited Germany on the Swedish visa. There he met with German parliamentarians in what was described as “a private, unofficial exchange of ideas.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the visit “vexing” and restated Germany’s commitment to the Quartet conditions. Hamas leaders were unfazed. They viewed the Edwane visit as evidence that their “Europe first” strategy would gradually pay off. More and more key decisions, such as Hamas’ move to join a unity government with Fatah in mid-2007, were influenced by the belief that such action would open the door to high level visits to the capitals of Europe.

They were wrong. To this day, Hamas has not had one high-level or official visit in major or even minor EU capitals. The Islamist group badly misread the willingness of the European Union to reward the group diplomatically before it had fulfilled the Quartet’s conditions. In fact, after Hamas’ violent coup in July 2007, which pushed Fatah completely out of Gaza, the European Union hardened its stance against the group. It condemned the coup, froze all direct funding to the group, and backed PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to dissolve the Hamas–Fatah unity government and appoint a Hamas-free administration.

The European position has only gotten tougher. In the immediate aftermath of the Gaza war in early 2009, Belgian politician Louis Michel, then the EU Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, placed “overwhelming responsibility” for the conflict on Hamas, which he dismissed as a “terrorist movement” that “has to be denounced as such.” Back in Europe, member states toughened their policies by banning charities linked to Hamas for indirectly working “against Israel’s right to exist,” as Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maizere explained in 2010.

Yet Hamas has been reluctant to give up on its “Europe first” strategy. Since 2011, the group’s leadership has sought to have its name removed from the European Union’s terrorist blacklist. Meshaal argued that the group’s “moderation and flexibility” since 2006 merited its removal from the list, but European policymakers refused. Having failed to make any progress on the diplomatic or political fronts, an exasperated Hamas finally resorted to the courts. In late 2014, the European Court of Justice did rule that Hamas should be taken off the EU terror blacklist, but Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s top foreign affairs official, immediately played down the ruling, promising “appropriate remedial action,” and all 28 EU foreign ministers voted to appeal the court’s decision.  

Hamas’ failure to gain political traction in Europe can be easily explained. First, although EU member states, as well as top officials in Brussels, acknowledge Hamas as a key Palestinian actor, they fear that its attitudes toward Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority are profoundly detrimental to their long-time goal of a two-state solution; they hope for a moderate Palestinian state ruled by Fatah, which could exist in harmony with a secure Israel. This vision of peace, although still far away, retains a special place in the European political consciousness. It explains why the European Union fought for the Fatah-dominated PLO to have a role in peace processes in the 1970s and 1980s; why European support for the Fatah-led PA remained strong during the Oslo era of the 1990s; why, following the collapse of the Oslo Accords in 2000, the European Union refused to succumb to Israeli and U.S. pressure to stop supporting Arafat and Fatah; and why Europe was unwilling to abandon Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s successor, following Hamas’ legitimate election victory after 2006.

Palestinians survey a house which police said was destroyed in an Israeli air strikes in Gaza City

Palestinians survey a house which police said was destroyed in an Israeli air strikes in Gaza City, July 2014. Israel launched an aerial offensive in the Gaza Strip as part of a campaign named "Operation Protective Edge," targeting Hamas Islamist militants firing rockets at the Jewish state.

Hamas’ “Europe first” strategy has also been the victim of bad timing. It coincided with a golden period in EU–Israeli economic cooperation, especially in the high-tech sector. This led to a growing consensus among EU leaders that any move to recognize Hamas while it still refused to recognize Israel would be economically disastrous. It also coincided with a shift in the European Union’s foreign policy priorities in the Middle East away from Palestine and toward the Iranian nuclear program. The European preoccupation with achieving a nuclear deal with Iran made it difficult for Hamas officials to make the case that European influence in the Middle East was contingent on the European Union adopting a new approach to Hamas.

THE REGIONAL FRONT

The failure of Hamas’ “Europe first” strategy has forced the group to moderate its expectations. But nearer to home, in the Middle East, Hamas has also struggled to consolidate its position. Both Turkey and Qatar have provided diplomatic support and, in Qatar’s case, significant financial backing to Hamas over the past decade, despite pressure from successive U.S. administrations and key regional players, notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But neither has been able to capitalize on its good international standing, including close relationships with the European Union and the United States, to bolster Hamas’ international credibility.

In 2012, Hamas celebrated the rise of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, hoping that Cairo would stand with Hamas against Israel and the PA. Rumors even spread that the new government might back a Hamas declaration of Gaza’s independence. There was real hope, as Hamas official Ahmad Yousef told the Palestinian news service Maan News, that a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt would “get the international community to recognize us and deal with us.

The failure of Hamas’ “Europe first” strategy has forced the group to moderate its expectations.

Such hope proved misplaced when the Egyptian military ousted the Morsi government in the summer of 2013. Since then, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s military-backed government has distanced itself from Hamas and closed the border crossing and tunnels linking Gaza to Egypt as part of its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters.

Around the same time, Hamas’ decision to close down its base in Damascus and move its political headquarters to Doha put an end to a long and fruitful Syrian–Hamas relationship. Hamas’ break with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has also placed pressure on Hamas’ relationship with Iran, Syria’s closest regional ally and a consistent source of support for Hamas.

It’s not all bad news. Meshaal recently expressed confidence that Hamas has made progress in clearing up “misunderstandings” with important regional players such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran. The current stand-off between Iran and Saudi Arabia has complicated this task. But it has also provided Hamas with some new opportunities to improve its standing in the Arab world, even if at the expense of its relations with Iran. Notably, Saudi Arabia’s building of an anti-Iranian Sunni alliance has led Riyadh to relax its longtime opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood—good news for Hamas, which is, after all, the Palestinian branch of the group.

Hamas can also boast of minor successes further afield. Switzerland has refused to be bound by the Brussels designation of Hamas as a terrorist organization, and although the Swiss government has not formally recognized Hamas, a Hamas spokesman has attended meetings at the country’s national parliament. Last August, following a meeting with Meshaal in Doha, Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, invited the Hamas political chief to Moscow for talks. A few months later, Lavrov’s deputy at the foreign ministry, Mikhail Bogdanov, rejected the official EU and U.S. stance against Hamas. “We don’t agree,” he said, before adding that to Russia, Hamas represents “an integral part of Palestinian society.” Following his visit to South Africa, there were reports that Meshaal had received a written promise from the ruling ANC party that it planned to upgrade relations with the group and would consider the possible establishment of a Hamas office in South Africa.

In the absence of European engagement—and with U.S. presidential candidates from both parties assuming a hardline position on Islamist groups including Hamas—these small achievements cannot be dismissed. Yet they certainly do not represent the sort of recognition and engagement that Hamas hoped for and expected, initially in Europe and then elsewhere, when it first came to power ten years ago.

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