Why the UK's ban on Hamas is counterproductive

In-depth Ali Adam
6 min read
25 November, 2021
Analysis: The UK government's decision to outlaw Hamas could weaken moderates, empower hardliners, and effectively end track two diplomacy. It could also hinder humanitarian work in the besieged Gaza Strip.

In 2006, following its victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections, then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, exceptionally allowed two senior Hamas members – Dr Ahmed Yousef, a moderate political adviser to Ismail Haniya, and MP Sayed Abu Musamih – to visit the UK.

They discreetly held meetings with members of the UK Parliament and figures close to the government. They were also toured around Northern Ireland, and introduced to Sinn Féin and IRA leaders, including Martin Mcguinness, Gerry Adams, and Gerry Kelly, where they learned about the Irish struggle and the Good Friday agreement.

This rare occasion was enlightening to the movement’s thinking and behaviour, albeit momentarily. It boosted the standing of moderates inside Hamas and gave them substantial fuel to persuade their more hardline peers of the importance of dialogue and engagement.

"The recent motion to proscribe Hamas is unlikely to significantly hurt the core operations of a movement that has already been under EU and US sanctions for two decades"

This paved the way for Dr Yousef to develop a peace initiative in 2006 with Swiss officials that was deemed too lenient by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose party called it “more dangerous than the Balfour declaration”.

Rather than being stuck with final status issues, the initiative was premised on creating mutual trust and confidence. It proposed halting all violent hostilities and non-violent resistance for five years, during which time Israel would withdraw gradually from some occupied Palestinian territories and grant the Palestinians greater freedoms. European and British officials took no position on the proposal, so it went nowhere.

Israel further exerted heavy pressure on the Blair government to never extend any invitations to Hamas again, and the entire European Union, including Britain, declared a no-contact policy with Hamas.

In 2017, Blair admitted that “we were wrong to boycott Hamas after its election win,” and the international community should have tried to “pull Hamas into a dialogue… which in fact we ended up doing anyway, informally”.

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The UK government has just made this mistake again on a grander scale. On Wednesday, it passed a resolution through parliament to proscribe Hamas in its entirety as a terrorist organisation and make it punishable by law to engage with it.

Blair’s statement was far from being a sign of admiration towards Hamas. It was, rather, a pragmatic realisation that blacklisting and boycotting Hamas wouldn’t hurt the movement as much as it would hurt Palestinians under its control and would ultimately undermine both intra-Palestinian and Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation and peace.

Similarly, the recent motion to proscribe Hamas is unlikely to significantly hurt the core operations of a movement that has already been under EU and US sanctions for two decades. It wouldn’t make Hamas any weaker or undermine its rule over Gaza.

MP Andrew Percy, the vice-chair of Conservative Friends of Israel, even admitted that with this bill or without it, Gaza’s situation would be pretty much the same under Hamas’ rule.

The bill, however, would put an end to British track two diplomacy with Hamas, which has previously proven crucial during many crises. Former British officials, members of parliament (including Conservatives), and think tanks have long been the UK government’s informal arm to engage with Hamas and influence its behaviour.

A Palestinian girl stands amid the rubble of her destroyed home on 24 May 2021 in Beit Hanoun, Gaza. [Getty]
The bill could undermine aid and relief operations, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in the besieged enclave. [Getty]

For instance, in 2007, the UK held clandestine contacts with Hamas to free a BBC journalist, Alan Johnston, who was kidnapped by an extremist group in Gaza. Hamas exerted heavy pressure on the group until Johnston was released.

Oliver McTernan, the head of a British think tank, was an instrumental intermediary in the release of the Israeli prisoner Gilad Shalit from Hamas' captivity, and has played a strong role in intra-Palestinian reconciliation thanks to his solid contacts with all parties. Tony Blair also played an influential role in cementing the Israel-Hamas ceasefire after the 2014 ‘operation protective edge’.

Now any of those individuals could face 14 years in prison for engaging with Hamas, regardless if that engagement aims to advance peacemaking efforts or to improve the living conditions of Palestinians under Hamas’ control.

This new designation will hit moderate leaders in Hamas hardest while empowering hardliners. The former have long argued that softening the movement’s positions – including voicing support for non-violence, the two-state solution, and democratic elections – would open up greater space for political engagement with Europe.

"The UK's blanket terror designation of Hamas doesn't distinguish between the movement and its de facto government and security forces in Gaza. This could disincentivise British humanitarian aid workers and charities from operating in Gaza for fear of legal ramifications"

The moderates’ back-channel communications in the UK and Europe have been key assets to maintaining relevance and good standing amongst the movement’s leadership. Shutting down that avenue would only lend credence to hardliners inside Hamas who believe that might makes right and the world only understands strength.

The UK’s blanket terror-designation of Hamas also doesn’t distinguish between the movement and its de facto government and security forces in Gaza. This could seriously disincentivise British humanitarian aid workers and charities from operating in Gaza, where they would inevitably encounter Hamas, due to fear of the legal ramifications in the UK.

This week, the British government refused to give general reassurances to aid organisations, and instead said it would consider the issue on a case-by-case basis. This undermining of aid and relief operations will likely exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in the besieged enclave and increase the isolation and suffering of the Gazan public.

Earlier this year, the United Nations warned the outgoing Trump Administration against terror-listing Yemen’s Houthis, as such a designation would plunge the war-torn country into a deeper humanitarian crisis and would seriously derail efforts to bring peace. The Biden administration revoked the Houthis’ terror-designation as soon as it took office.

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Similarly, the discourse around terror-listing Hamas should be population-centric rather than enemy-centric. It should, crucially, take into consideration the adverse impact of the designation on the Palestinian population under its control and on Palestinian political divisions and the peace process.

Rendering Hamas an outcast could make it a spoiler in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, because solving any conflict requires a policy of impartial inclusiveness of all parties involved.

Finally, while the UK’s recent blanket terror designation of Hamas is unlikely to weaken the movement or prompt it to change its behaviour, evidence shows that calibrated engagements with non-state armed groups like Hamas are more likely to influence and soften the movement’s positions and political conduct.

The prestigious RAND Corporation conducted an extensive study entitled “How Terrorist Groups End” in 2008 that looked at 268 armed groups. The study found that only 7% of them were defeated militarily and 40% (mainly small groups of less than 1,000 members) were dismantled through local police and intelligence agencies arresting or killing key members.

"Evidence shows that calibrated engagements with non-state armed groups like Hamas are more likely to influence and soften the movement's positions and political conduct"

The majority, 43%, have ended through a transition to a political process, dialogue, conversion to unarmed politics, and peaceful accommodation with their government.

A heavily edited minute from the UK’s own Department for International Development affirms this conclusion. It suggested that “ultimately Hamas’s participation in the realities of political responsibility might bring about Hamas’s transformation to a political rather than terrorist organisation”.

Muhammad Shehada is a Palestinian writer and analyst from Gaza and EU Affairs Manager at Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor.

Follow him on Twitter: @muhammadshehad2

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab