Is it time for the European Union to reconsider its approach towards Hamas?

Gaza, Occupied Territories (openDemocracy) – As Hamas tries to maintain the ceasefire reached with Israel after last summer’s devastating hostilities, it is increasingly threatened by the rise of more extreme and violent entities operating in the Strip. Radicalisation and frustration are growing as the closure continues and the situation of the population further deteriorates, despite the period of quiet.

It is time for the EU, one of the biggest aid donors to Gaza, to re-think its isolation of Hamas. The isolation policy has not delivered the desired results and may only be strengthening dangerous dynamics.

Failure of the isolation policy

EU aid to Gaza has been a fraught issue ever since Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip in 2007 following its 2006 election victory and subsequently refused to accept the Quartet conditions.

Since then, the EU has struggled to navigate between isolating a de facto governing authority that is on its terrorism blacklist and mitigating the results of the illegal Israeli closure of Gaza. This has, unfortunately, to the detriment of the EU’s aim of assisting the Palestinian population.

The international policy of isolation has failed to force Hamas to accept the three Quartet principles: renouncing violence, recognising Israel and committing to all past Israeli-PLO agreements. Unwillingly, isolation has undermined the possibility of a unified Palestinian State by furthering the separation of Gaza and the West Bank.

The EU’s “no contact” policy with Hamas officials has also created impediments to the delivery of aid. Unfortunately, the isolation may also have strengthened spoilers and furthered radicalisation. This  was demonstrated by the recent rocket fire attacks by jihadist groups who claimed to be linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The rise of radical groups

Since last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, it has not been in Hamas’ interest to re-enter into hostilities with Israel. Militarily, the group was significantly weakened by the 51 days of intense fighting. Also, as the de facto governing authority in Gaza, Hamas must take into consideration that the civilian population suffered the heaviest toll last summer.

These strategic calculations not to resume violence against Israel, at least for now, have provoked criticism by other radical groups operating in the Strip, but also among more radical members of its own ranks. The latter has been illustrated, in part, by recent high-profile defections from Hamas’ Al-Qassam Brigades to the jihadist groups.

Hamas has indeed committed attacks against Israeli civilians; however, other armed groups operating in the Gaza Strip such as the Omar Hadid Brigade and Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiyya, both of whom have pledged support to ISIS and challenge Hamas’ authority in the Strip, pose even greater threats to civilian life.

These radical groups have shown no regard for the ceasefire, or any willingness to compromise on their goals or modify their behavior in response to international pressure.

A new approach to defuse the “time bomb”

With UNRWA’s Commissioner-General, Pierre Krähenbühl, referring to Gaza as a “time bomb” due to massive unemployment, years of enduring the Israeli closure and extremely limited freedom of movement, it is clear that business as usual is not an option.

The EU should acknowledge that its policies have not mitigated the consequences of Israel’s violations of international law and failed to address the destabilising potential of other armed groups operating in the Gaza Strip. As theInternational Crisis Group has already stated, the alternative to Hamas might not be Fatah, but instead more extreme groups.

In light of this, the EU should reconsider its policy of isolating Hamas. As outlined in the EU’s most recent Council Conclusions on the Middle East Peace Process, “all parties” are to “agree on a durable ceasefire that prevents a return to conflict, strengthens Gaza, […] and reinforces the link between Gaza and the West Bank”.

This cannot happen within a conceptual apparatus that ignores the presence of the de facto authority in Gaza which, even according to former Israeli intelligence head Efraim Halevy, is “here to stay”.

Moreover, this cannot be achieved within a framework that does not fundamentally challenge Israel’s illegal closure of the Strip at the same time.

At the very least, the EU should consider how to engage with Hamas to the extent that it ensures an effective flow of aid. At the same time, such an engagement could also serve as an initial entry point to promote Hamas’s respect for international humanitarian and human rights law.

Notably, prominent Israeli officials are also beginning to realise that including Hamas is essential for any substantive progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Efraim Halevy has called for “direct dialogue” between Israel and Hamas, citing the positive cost-benefit analysis of such attempts at cooperation. President Reuven Rivlin has also recently called for negotiation with Hamas.

IDF operating near the Gaza border. Photo: IDF

IDF operating near the Gaza border. Photo: IDF

As the dire situation in Gaza becomes ever more favourable to spoilers, the time has come for the EU to reconsider its current policy and move towards a more engaging model that might contribute to its stated goals in the region.

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This report was prepared by TYLER BOYCE for openDemocracy.