Like virtually everything else involving the Israel-Palestine conflict, Britain’s decision to ban Hamas in its entirety has ignited controversy. Priti Patel, Boris Johnson’s Home Secretary, announced the decision in a speech to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative thinktank, in Washington DC last Friday. The UK media, smelling a good story, reported it in advance, presumably on the basis of a government briefing or a deliberate, attention-grabbing leak.
Patel let it be known that in the wake of this move, support for the Palestinian Islamist movement would be considered a criminal offence and punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Given the Conservative government’s majority in parliament, it seems certain to become law by the end of November.
It was not actually that surprising. Previously the British position had been to formally distinguish between Hamas’s military wing – the Izz-al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, which was outlawed in 2001 – and the political movement which rules the Gaza Strip. Successive Israeli governments had long lobbied the UK, along with the US, to change its position and realign itself with Washington and Brussels, headquarters of the European Union.
Over the years that “artificial” distinction, as Patel expressed it, came to be seen as meaningless. In its dealings with the Palestinians, the UK government presented itself as unwilling to talk directly to the political leaders of Hamas (the Arabic name means the Islamic Resistance Movement) preferring to deal solely with the Fatah-majority Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) led by Mahmoud Abbas in line with its pursuit of the Oslo Accords peace process.
That approach made sense, in that the PLO had recognized the state of Israel back in September 1993 when the Accords were signed by Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. Israel, for its part, recognised the PLO as the “sole representative of the Palestinians.” Hamas, which was created in 1987, refused to do the same but signalled that it would still accept a de facto reality. The situation became more complicated when Israel, under Ariel Sharon, unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and Hamas took over from the PA two years later.
Over the years since there have been four all-out wars between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip as well as countless violent incidents – the last one being the 11-day flare-up in May 2021, which was provoked by tensions involving the planned eviction of Palestinians from the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah by Israeli settlers.
Patel characterised Hamas as “rabidly anti-Semitic”, fuelling the position that any criticism of or hostility to Israel constitutes anti-Jewish racism. The UK home secretary said recently that when pro-Palestinian demonstrators gathered peacefully outside a university gathering addressed by the Israel ambassador to London, that again was an expression of what she called “anti-Semitism.”
This is also an extremely divisive issue in British politics. Jeremy Corbyn, the previous leader of the Labour opposition, was regularly accused of being a leftist and an anti-Semite especially when he referred to his Hamas “friends”. Tony Blair, Labour’s decade-long prime minister, and the former Quartet Middle East envoy, generated headlines when he revealed that he had conducted talks with Khaled Meshaal, the Qatar-based Hamas political leader.
Blair also admitted that he and other world leaders had been wrong to give in to Israeli pressure to boycott Hamas after its election victory in 2006. “In retrospect, I think we should have, right at the very beginning, tried to pull [Hamas] into a dialogue and shifted their positions… But obviously it was very difficult, the Israelis were very opposed to it. But you know we could have probably worked out a way whereby we did – which in fact we ended up doing anyway, informally.”
Israel was delighted at Boris Johnson’s government change of heart. Israeli media revealed that Naftali Bennett, the prime minister, had raised the issue when the two leaders met at the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow.
Hamas was understandably furious at the British change of direction. As was Iran, a keen supporter of both Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizbullah. More surprisingly the British decision was condemned by the Palestine Mission in London (the UK representative of the PA) describing it as “a retrograde step that will make peace-making harder and diminish the UK’s role.”
It added that the British government has “complicated Palestinian unity efforts and undermined Palestinian democracy” and that it will “do nothing for efforts to secure a peaceful two-state outcome, an outcome that is being undermined every day by Israeli war crimes, including its illegal colonial settlement project in occupied territory.”
The international ban on official contacts with Hamas has already diminished western leverage in the region, increased the isolation and suffering of the Gaza public, and helped to drive the Islamist group into the arms of Tehran – all without in any way dislodging it from its dominance of the coastal enclave.
Looking at the big picture of resolving this most intractable of conflicts, the UK decision will have little positive effect unless the international community collectively decides to devote more effort to obtaining justice for both Palestinians and Israelis. Neither side is going to disappear any time soon.
BY: IAN BLACK