Under heavy pressure from France, the European Union has said it will not freeze all assets belonging to the Palestinian organization Hamas, stating that a clear distinction should be made between the political and social wings of the Islamist movement.
The European Commission, the E.U.’s legislative body, announced late last month that it would not be acting against the political wing of Hamas, although it would retain an E.U. ban enforced last year on Hamas’ military branch, which it regards as a terrorist organization.
The commission view was confirmed on July 3 at a meeting of European ministers in Brussels, where a unanimous decision was made to delay a verdict on the political wing of Hamas.
Moreover, no date has been set to review the position.
The decision not to ban Hamas’ political wing marks international uncertainty over whether it has a constructive role to play in Middle East peace talks — or whether it is simply a terrorist entity.
The decision also marks a clear change in direction from the E.U. summit in Salonika, Greece, at the end of last month when it appeared that those backing a total ban were in a clear majority.
According to a statement from commission spokesman Reijo Kempinnen, Hamas’ political wing is legitimate because it provided social welfare services such as running clinics and hospitals.
“You can’t say that the whole of Hamas is a terrorist organization, and certainly that is not our position,” Kempinnen told reporters in Brussels.
However, a more likely reason for the E.U. decision appeared to be that the union did not want to undermine the position of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in his attempts to broker an agreement with Hamas.
“The situation is still evolving in the region, and because of that it is important to keep studying it,” the news agency AFP reported an unnamed British diplomat as saying.
One of the major E.U. members arguing for the bloc to refrain from enforcing a total ban on Hamas was France, which continues to believe that the organization has a role in the Middle East peace process.
The French position also appeared somewhat vindicated by the announcement early last week of a cease-fire by Hamas and another Palestinian Islamist group, Islamic Jihad, as well as by the armed wing of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah organization.
Spokespeople with the French Foreign Ministry rejected demands from the U.S. administration to place both the armed and “welfare functions” of Hamas in the same sack, a position they said was “not shared by France,” which regarded Hamas as “representing a wide body of opinion in the Palestinian territories.”
“The E.U. has listed the armed wing, but social organizations of Hamas have also got to be listed,” the U.S. national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said at a conference last month in London.
“The notion that on the one hand, Hamas is peaceful, and on the other hand, is trying to blow up the peace process is just illogical and, we’re saying, will not work,” Rice said.
Such a view, however, was rejected by a spokesman from the French Foreign Ministry.
“There has been a very clear distinction between the two wings, and the minister himself has called for that distinction to be made between the armed wings and the social organizations in the Palestinian territories,” the spokesman said at a Foreign Ministry news conference.
According to Francois Zimeray, a French member of the European Parliament, the position adopted by the European Commission is “totally artificial.”
“Only a diplomat cut off from the human reality of the situation in the Middle East could make such distinctions,” Zimeray told the JTA. “There is only one branch of Hamas.”
Zimeray, who has led a campaign in the European Parliament to demand an investigation into the misuse of E.U. funds by the Palestinian Authority, said French policy was “like running with the hare and the hounds and the highest form of hypocrisy.”
Until the decision, France was the only nation among the 15 members of the European Union to publicly say it opposed a ban on the non-military branch of Hamas, a policy it said would force the organization underground and prevent any possibility that it would agree to a cease-fire.
However, most of the E.U. members, led by Britain, continued to back Washington’s line that no distinction be made between the different organizations operating under the Hamas umbrella.
The E.U. position took on a different perspective, probably because as a member of the “Quartet” of Middle East peace-brokers, it was already aware of the likelihood that Hamas might accept a cease-fire.
At a meeting late last month with E.U. leaders in Washington, President Bush said the group should take “decisive measures against terrorist groups like Hamas, to cut off their funds and their sources of support.”
Such comments, however, drew a firm rebuke from the office of the E.U.’s commissioner for foreign affairs, Chris Patten, whose spokesman said the group “does not need to take lessons from anybody about how to combat terrorism.”
Ironically, the current French position regarding Hamas comes at a time when France has been seeking to present a more balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Recently, a number of government ministers were present at an event in Paris titled “12 Hours for France-Israel Friendship.”
The event brought together politicians from across the political spectrum who affirmed their support for the State of Israel and expressed a wish that French foreign policy would return to its more favorable stance toward the Jewish state which had been lost in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War.
Moreover, French Jewish leaders were keen to assert the historic bonds between Israel and France at a time when relations had deteriorated, with France adopting a strong anti-war position to the U.S.-led military operation in Iraq.
Despite a general tone of mutual back-slapping at the event, Meyer Habib, the head of the event’s organizing committee and a member of the executive committee of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews, drew widespread applause when he criticized current French policy toward Israel.
Habib said he was unable to understand a policy which did not recognize Hamas and the Lebanese Shi’a group “Hezbollah as terrorist organizations, and which did not recognize Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of Israel.”
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin had also drawn the ire of the Jewish community when he met with Arafat during his recent visit to the Middle East.
In addition, the foreign minister attempted to inject his own ideas into the “road map” peace plan sponsored by the Quartet of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.
In calling for an international peacekeeping force to be sent to the Middle East, de Villepin was forced to climb down in the face of a lack of support from France’s European partners, later describing the plan as “neither a proposal nor a project but just an idea to launch debate.”