The EU should engage in a dialogue with Hamas

12 March 2012

At a time of unprecedented change in the Arab world, it is crucial for Europe to reassess its strategy in the region and engage with a variety of actors that have previously been shunned. The EU has the opportunity to become a leader in this arena, given the different priorities that others have chosen to follow. The various upheavals that have occurred in the Arab Spring have completely shuffled the cards with regards to the actors involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The road to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is linked to creating a strong and unified voice among the Palestinians and this can only be achieved through the legitimization of Hamas as a political actor.

The EU should immediately engage in direct covert preliminary discussions with members of the political bureau and the consultative council without counterproductive preconditions. The aim should be to try to discreetly develop deeper relationships with leaders in Gaza and the West Bank rather than those in exile, as they might be psychologically more prepared to an end of the conflict. This would show Hamas that the EU recognizes them and is willing to become a trusted partner.

The meetings should not be hosted in Egypt, Qatar, or any Arab country that has deep vested interests in the conflict. A suitable location could be the French military base in Djibouti. Choosing a neutral ground which is not too far from the region would enable the EU to avoid outside interference and provide adequate security.

Fatah should be informed that the EU fully supports the adhesion of Hamas to the PLO and new elections, and is willing to help by hosting a reconciliation summit at a symbolic location such as Marseille, where the large French population of Arab descent would be a great tool in showing support and enthusiasm during a public press conference. The EU throwing its full diplomatic weight behind the reconciliation process would be reassuring to both parties and help the burgeoning talks over Hamas joining the PLO.

There is no doubt that Hamas’ violent character is a deterrent in engaging in dialogue, but it is not that abnormal either. Western powers as well as Israel ended up talking to the PLO when it was also engaging in terrorist activities. Significantly, there are always even worse actors that could emerge, such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad or Salafi extremists operating in Gaza and challenging Hamas’ authority. This is why it is necessary to communicate with the party which has enough power and legitimacy to understand the political consequences of its actions, and therefore has an interest in being somewhat pragmatic.

It is important to look beyond the seemingly radical framework of Hamas: it is a rational organisation that is willing to compromise. Its leaders have often said that they are willing to engage in an indefinite truce with Israel and accept the idea of a sovereign Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders. It is therefore crucial to be able to separate classic rhetoric and actual policies, and for our citizens not to be scared by propaganda.

Naeem Meer

UCL - The School of Public Policy