It may be better for the EU to provide more carrots and fewer sticks for Hamas.
Last week's spectacular victory for the fledgling political wing of Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) in the Palestinian parliamentary elections has left a confused European Union with a dilemma. The elections were the most stunning example in recent times of democratic power in action in the Arab world. Despite garnering 42.9% of the popular vote, the result was less a Hamas victory and more a defeat for Fatah, whose control of the Palestinian Authority (PA) has been rife with corruption and cronyism.
Hamas, however, is the Palestinian organisation least compatible with the EU's position on the Middle East conflict. This has left it with the awkward question of whether it can walk the walk and not just talk the talk when it comes to democracy in the region. The militant group, on the EU's list of ‘terrorist organisations', is responsible for most suicide bombings against Israeli military and civilian targets and its founding charter does not recognise Israel's right to exist.
The Hamas victory has elicited a range of reactions in Europe, ranging from quiet caution to strident condemnation. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her country was unwilling to continue funding the PA, unless Hamas renounced its policy of armed resistance and recognised Israel. Merkel's position mirrored closely that of the United States and, to a lesser extent, Israel itself. The Quartet (the USA, EU, UN and Russia) had the additional demand that the Hamas-dominated PA stick to the ‘road map' to peace.
The Council of Ministers struck a more ambiguous note. “The Council expects the newly elected [Palestinian Legislative Council] to support the formation of a government committed to a peaceful and negotiated solution of the conflict with Israel,” it said in a statement.
The PA faces an imminent financial crisis and needs some €83 million next week in order to pay its 137,000 employees. Hamas has urged international donors not to suspend their funding of the PA. If the EU follows through on unofficial threats to cut off the €500-million-a-year financial lifeline it gives the Palestinians, this would not only exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in the occupied territories, it is also likely to harden a softening Hamas position and lose the EU valuable leverage.
Hamas, which has held to a ceasefire for the past 11 months, has indicated its intention to work within the traditionally pluralistic Palestinian political landscape by setting up a coalition government under the tutelage of incumbent Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Since its victory, Hamas has expressed a willingness to commit itself to a long-term truce, if Israel agreed to cede Palestinian land it occupied in 1967. “We can accept to establish our independent state on the area occupied [in] 1967,” Mahmoud al-Zahar, a top Hamas official and one of its last surviving founders, told CNN.
Still, disquiet abounds. “Europe has legitimate concerns about Hamas, but for these to be credible it needs to have equally legitimate concerns about Israel's agenda,” said Mouin Rabbani, a Middle East analyst at the Brussels/Washington-based think-tank the International Crisis Group.
Striking parallels between Hamas and the policies of Israel's hardline Likud party have been drawn, notably regarding Israel's controversial policy of ‘targeted assassinations'. “Murdering a Palestinian politician by a long-range attack that is bound also to kill innocent civilians is morally and legally no better than a suicide bomb on a bus,” wrote Jonathan Steele, a columnist with The Guardian.
The Islamic Resistance Movement's ideological rejection of Israel has also been a cause for concern. “For decades, Israel refused even to recognise the existence of the Palestinian people,” Steele added. The governing Likud party's Central Committee still rejects the notion of a Palestinian state and adopted a resolution on the subject in 2002.
A poll released on Monday showed that three-quarters of Palestinians wanted Hamas to drop its call for the destruction of Israel. Faced with the demands of Palestinian pluralism and international realpolitik, Hamas is likely to continue to moderate its position as it works with coalition partners.
“The EU needs to understand [that] it makes little sense to make demands upon Hamas, unless [it is] also prepared to offer serious and meaningful concessions in return,” Rabbani noted.
Europe should engage the Palestinians and Israelis positively and even-handedly. With no imminent prospect of statehood for the Palestinians to look forward to and faced with territorial closures and economic misery, the EU ought to provide the Palestinians with more carrots and resist the temptation to bring out the sticks.
This article appeared in the 2-8 February 2006 edition of The European Voice.