Middle East Eye / November 30, 2021
As long as its political opponents are labelled ‘terrorists’, Israel is absolved from the need to negotiate and gets a free pass from its allies to continue using naked military force.
The military wing of the group was proscribed in the UK back in March 2001. Twenty years on, the home secretary proposes to extend this ban to the political wing by arguing that the distinction between the two wings is no longer tenable. The truth of the matter is that the distinction was tenable in 2001 and it is still tenable today. What is more, it is a crucial distinction.
Patel’s announcement came soon after Benny Gantz, Israel’s defence minister, designated six Palestinian civil society NGO groups as terrorist organizations. This designation came close on the heels of the decision by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to launch a full-scale investigation of alleged war crimes committed in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Gantz was the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff during its assault on Gaza in July 2014, in which at least 2,256 Palestinians were killed, of whom 1,462 were civilians, including 551 children. This makes Gantz a prime suspect in the ICC’s war crimes probe. Hamas agreed to cooperate with the ICC investigation; Israel refused.
Some of the Palestinian organizations placed on Israel’s terrorist list are cooperating with the ICC investigation. Although the evidence produced by Israel was judged inadequate by the European Union and the US government, the terrorism label achieved its goal of stigmatizing the NGOs, curbing their ability to raise funds and disrupting their operations. The Israeli move was widely condemned as an attack on human rights. The British home secretary was not among the protesters.
Patel shares with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson a Manichean view of the Middle East struggle in which Israel represents the forces of light and Palestinian Hamas the forces of darkness. The reality is slightly more complicated.
Israeli ties with Conservatives
Reactions to Patel’s announcement were predictably polarized. A Hamas official said that it showed “absolute bias towards the Israeli occupation and is a submission to Israeli blackmail and dictations”. He accused the UK of supporting “the aggressors at the expense of the victims”. The Board of Deputies of British Jews warmly welcomed the move. In the Israeli media, the British decision was hailed as a triumph for Israeli diplomacy.
At a deeper level, the shift in British policy was a product of the close ties between Israel and the Conservative Party. Israel and its powerful lobby had been pressing the British government on this issue for some time. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett urged Boris Johnson to outlaw the whole of Hamas when he met with him last month at the UN climate conference in Glasgow.
Patel needed no prompting to do Israel’s bidding. In 2017, as secretary of state for international development, she went on a freelance trip to Israel without informing then Prime Minister Theresa May or Boris Johnson, then foreign secretary. While pretending to be on a private holiday, Patel held a series of secret meetings with high-ranking Israeli officials, including the then prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Lord Polak, honorary president of the Conservative Friends of Israel, personally arranged 12 of these meetings.
Upon her return, Patel asked her officials to explore the possibility of diverting some of the foreign aid budget to enable the Israeli army to carry out humanitarian work in the occupied Golan Heights. She was forced to resign and she accepted her actions “fell below the high standards that are expected of a secretary of state”.
Close contact with Israeli officials and lobbyists for Israel in the UK, as well as her own right-wing worldview, left Patel eager to swallow Israel’s narrative about Hamas. This narrative is utterly distorted and blatantly self-serving. Here, however, are some of the relevant facts.
Hamas emerged in 1988, at the beginning of the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising) against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Originally, it had the dual purpose of carrying out armed struggle against Israel and delivering social welfare programs.
Its charter defined historic Palestine, including present-day Israel, as an exclusively Islamic land and ruled out any permanent peace with the Jewish state. In the 1990s, Hamas began to wage armed struggle against the occupation. Initially, this took the form of firing rockets from the Gaza Strip on Israeli towns and civilian centres. Hamas became associated with the suicide bombings it carried out inside Israel.
The term “suicide bombing” came to stand in the public eye as a particularly horrific form of warfare. Suicide bombings are in the end a means of delivering bombs to their target. Judged solely by lethal outcome, they are no more horrific than a one-tonne bomb dropped by an Israeli F-16 warplane on a residential apartment block in Gaza.
Regardless of the means of delivery, killing civilians is wrong. Period. In 2004, the political leadership of Hamas made a strategic decision to end suicide bombings.
Hamas and Fatah
Following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005, Hamas began to engage in the internal Palestinian political process, running against the mainstream Fatah party which dominated the Palestinian Authority. From its seat in Ramallah, the PA ruled both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Fatah was widely perceived as corrupt and a sub-contractor for Israeli security in the occupied territories. Hamas, by contrast, had a reputation for probity in public life as well a record of real resistance to the Israeli occupation.
In January 2006, after winning an absolute majority in a fair election, Hamas formed a new government. Israel refused to recognize it. So did the US and EU. In theory, they favoured democracy, but when the people voted for the wrong bunch of politicians, Israel and its western allies resorted to severe diplomatic and economic sanctions to undermine them.
In March 2007, Hamas formed a national unity government with its arch-rival Fatah. This government proposed direct talks with Israel on a long-term ceasefire. Israel refused to negotiate, plotting instead to drive Hamas out of power and replace it with a collaborationist Fatah regime. Details of the plot are contained in “The Palestine Papers”, the cache of 1,600 diplomatic documents leaked to al Jazeera and the Guardian.
Hamas pre-empted this coup with a violent seizure of power in Gaza in June 2007, driving out the pro-Fatah forces. Israel reacted by imposing a blockade of the Gaza Strip, which is still in force today after 14 years. The blockade caused the collapse of the economy, high unemployment, acute shortages of water, food and medicines, and horrendous suffering of the overcrowded strip’s two million inhabitants. A blockade is a form of collective punishment which is proscribed by international law, yet the international community has failed to call Israel to account.
Since 2008 there have been four major Israeli assaults on Gaza, visiting death and destruction on the civilian population. There have also been several ceasefires brokered by Egypt between Israel and Hamas, each of which was honoured by Hamas and violated by Israel when it no longer suited its purposes.
Operation Cast Lead
In December 2008, Israeli army launched the first of these assaults, Operation Cast Lead. In the course of this operation, Israeli troops committed a series of war crimes that are documented in detail in the UN’s Goldstone Report. The Goldstone report also found Hamas guilty, but it reserved its harshest strictures for Israel.
Israel presented Operation Cast Lead as a defensive measure to protect its civilians against rockets fired from Gaza. But if this was the aim, all Israel needed to do was to follow Hamas’s example and observe the ceasefire. Hamas not only observed the ceasefire but acted to enforce it on the more radical groups operating in the Gaza Strip such as Islamic Jihad. In fact, much of the IDF’s lethal firepower was directed at civilian neighbourhoods.
The report concluded that “what occurred in just over three weeks at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 was a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population … and to force upon it an ever-increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability”.
The claim that the operation was designed to “terrorize a civilian population” needs underlining. Terrorism is the use of force against civilians for political purposes. By this definition, Operation Cast Lead was an act of state terrorism. So were the subsequent Israeli attacks on Gaza in 2012, 2014 and 2021.
In 2017, Hamas issued a policy document that softened its previous policy positions on Israel and used more measured language about the Jewish people. It stopped short of official recognition of Israel, but formally accepted a Palestinian state on the Gaza Strip and the West Bank with a capital city in East Jerusalem.
In other words, it accepted a Palestinian state alongside Israel rather than instead of Israel. The document also stressed that Hamas’s struggle is not with Jews but with the “occupying Zionist aggressors”.
So why did the British government choose this moment to outlaw the political wing of Hamas, having criminalized its military wing 20 years ago? Part of the answer is that this was done in response to pressure from the Israel lobby. The state of Israel has the right and indeed the duty to protect its civilians from Palestinian attacks. The simplest and surest way of protecting its citizens is via long-term ceasefire agreements with the political leadership of Hamas.
By labelling its political opponents as terrorists, Israel absolves itself from the need to talk to them and gets a free pass from its western allies to resort to the modus operandi to which it is addicted – naked military force. The people who pay the price are civilians on both sides, and especially the defenceless inhabitants of Gaza, the biggest open-air prison in the world.
Series of UK betrayals
True friends do not indulge their friends’ addiction but try to wean them from it. Boris Johnson could hardly be more indulgent. His partisanship extends to resisting all international attempts to call Israel to account for its acts of aggression and unlawful behaviour. He is opposed, for example, to the International Criminal Court investigation into alleged war crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories.
In a letter to the Conservative Friends of Israel, he said that while his government had respect for the independence of the court, it opposed this particular inquiry. “This investigation gives the impression of being a partial and prejudicial attack on a friend and ally of the UK’s,” he wrote. The perverse logic of the statement is that being a friend and ally of the UK places Israel above international law.
One final question: why was the latest anti-Palestinian policy shift announced by the home secretary rather than the foreign secretary? Patel claims that designating the whole of Hamas as a terrorist organization should be seen through a domestic prism: it will help to protect Jews in this country. This is preposterous: Hamas exercises its right under international law to resist the Israeli occupation, the most prolonged and brutal military occupation of modern times. Fearmongering and criminalizing the political wing of Hamas will not make British Jews any safer.
In May, in a massively disproportionate use of force, Israel carried out an aerial bombardment of Gaza that resulted in the death of 256 Palestinians, including 66 children. The Community Security Trust, a charity concerned with the safety and security of Jews in the UK, recorded a “horrific surge” in racist attacks during that month which “surpassed anything we have seen before”.
If the British government genuinely wanted to make Jews in this country feel safer, it should stop blaming the Palestinian victims for their own misfortune. It should urge its Israeli ally to respect international humanitarian law, to observe ceasefire agreements, to exercise restraint in the use of military force and to talk to the political leadership of Hamas.
Patel’s latest move only serves to expose the utter bankruptcy of the Conservative government’s policy towards Israel-Palestine. The government claims to support a two-state solution to the conflict. Yet despite repeated parliamentary votes in favour of recognizing Palestine, the government refuses to budge.
When he was foreign secretary, Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that the Conservative government would recognize Palestine when the time was right. But for the government he now heads, the time will never be right. Timing is just an excuse to procrastinate while continuing to appease Israel.
To be sure, British recognition of Palestine would not redress the huge asymmetry of power between the two parties, but it would give the Palestinians parity of esteem. This is the least that Britain can do for the Palestinians today, given its long series of betrayals stretching back to the Balfour Declaration over a century ago.
In his 2014 book The Churchill Factor, Johnson wrote that the Balfour Declaration was “bizarre”,
“a tragically incoherent document” and “an exquisite piece of FO fudgerama”.
Today, from his position of power, Johnson has a unique opportunity to rectify an egregious historical wrong. Criminalizing Hamas may please Israel and the right-wing of his party, but it will only further blacken Britain’s already dark record as the betrayer of the Palestinian people.
Avi Shlaim is an Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and the author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (2014) and Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations (2009)