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Israel Supporters Hope E.u. Decision on Hamas Signals New Balance in Europe

European Jewish groups and the Bush administration are welcoming the decision by the European Union to ban Hamas’ political wing.

But some Israel supporters are waiting to see whether the decision will result in any substantial action in Europe against Hamas. They were not encouraged by comments by the French foreign minister that the ban could be reversed.

After a decision taken over the weekend by a meeting of E.U. ministers in Italy, both the military and political wings of the Islamist organization are now considered terrorist groups, and the European Union will freeze Hamas assets on the continent.

Previously, the European Union had opposed an extension of its December 2001 ban on Hamas’ military wing, Izz a-Din al-Kassam, to the group’s political wing, going along with French assertions that such a demand would prove counterproductive.

However, with Hamas ending its participation in the Palestinian cease-fire, a consensus emerged among European leaders to support a total ban on the group, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said at last weekend’s gathering of E.U. foreign ministers.

“We asked Hamas at Salonica to observe a cease-fire but they must take the consequences following the terrorist attack in Jerusalem,” de Villepin said, referring to Hamas’ Aug. 19 bombing of a bus in Jerusalem, killing 22. “A consensus has now emerged to decide to include Hamas on the list of terrorist organizations.”

But de Villepin was careful to add that Israel must show its commitment to the “road map” peace plan by halting construction of its security fence and freezing all settlement activity.

De Villepin also said that the decision on Hamas should not be irreversible and that it could be changed if Hamas went back on its decision to abandon the cease-fire.

The decision taken over the weekend does not itself change the policy; it directs the executive branch of the bloc, the European Commission, to do so. Now the decision will go to the commission, where the specifics governing the freezing of Hamas assets are to be drawn up.

While certain commission members in the past have been wary of taking a more active stance against Hamas, there now is general agreement that a stronger policy is required.

The move was welcomed by European Jewish leaders.

The secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress, Serge Cwajgenbaum, told JTA that the decision is a sign that the E.U. now is adopting “a more balanced position” toward Middle East issues.

“We are extremely satisfied with the E.U. decision even though we expected it,” Cwajgenbaum said. “But it is never too late.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center was less sanguine about the ban. Previously, the group had strongly condemned the E.U. — and France in particular — for distinguishing between the political and military wings of Hamas.

“The decision on the ban shows political will, but its implementation will show political efficacity,” said the center’s international liaison director in Paris, Shimon Samuels. “We will be watching closely whether this is just a statement or whether the decision has real teeth. We know which mosques and charities support Hamas. Those assets must be frozen and police action taken.”

Until last week, France had led a group of E.U. countries, including Belgium and Greece, in blocking efforts to extend the ban to the political wing of Hamas.

On the other side, Britain, Italy and the Netherlands, among others, had denied France’s claims that there was any intrinsic difference between the social service functions of Hamas and its military operations.

The U.S. State Department had campaigned to persuade the European Union to extend the ban.

Shortly after the decision was made public on Saturday, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, “This is an important step in halting the financing of terrorist activities. We look for the E.U. to carry through with the political decision it reached today and to take action against Hamas on an urgent basis.”

“This will send an important message that the violence and terror Hamas carries out does not represent the future for the Palestinian people and will not lead to a Palestinian state,” he said.

After the E.U. decision was made, Hamas spokesman Ismail Hanieh said European leaders instead should put the Jewish state on its list of terrorist groups.

“We say to the Europeans: You should be fair and place the Zionist enemy at the top of the world list of terrorist organizations,” Hanieh told the Qatari news channel Al-Jazeera.

The E.U. decision coincided both with Israel’s failed strike against Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin and the resignation of P.A. Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.

Some E.U. foreign ministers blamed Israel and the Bush administrations for Abbas’ resignation, saying it was the result of a misguided policy of sidelining P.A. President Yasser Arafat.

“We always said it was dangerous, this American-Israeli policy of trying to exclude Arafat,” said Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh. “There was a risk that it would lead to the fall of Abu Mazen and that’s exactly what we are seeing now.”

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