Bulgaria’s decision to order visiting Hamas members of parliament (MPs) to leave the country didn't draw much media attention, despite the incident’s far-reaching implications for Hamas’ relations with the West, especially as the Palestinian movement has become more open to the Western world in recent years.
Hamas didn't call attention to this decision, although some legal and diplomatic sources say that Bulgaria's decision constituted a major breach of political protocol. Security men stormed the residences of the MPs, who enjoy political immunity, and escorted them to the airport to be deported immediately.
This short-lived incident has many interpretations. For instance, one might think that the decision to go to Bulgaria was not unanimously agreed upon within Hamas; therefore, the expulsion decision outraged only those who were affected by it, rather than the entire movement. This could explain Hamas’ tepid reaction towards the decision.
One might also justify the Palestinian reaction in light of the fact that the visit adds little weight to the Palestinian cause, even if its outcome were to be positive, since Bulgaria has no special importance within the European Union.
Hamas should have paid more heed to the timing of its visit to Bulgaria, especially due to the country’s security crisis with Hezbollah — one of Hamas’ alleged allies — following the bombing in the city of Burgas a month ago, targeting a bus carrying Israeli tourists. In light of this political and security tension, Hamas could have postponed its visit, at least until it gauged Israeli pressure on the Bulgarian authorities.
The incident raises a question about whether Western governments, both in the EU and the US, have been “compelled” to hold dialogue with Hamas after years of blacklisting its political bureau, despite substantial Israeli pressure to prevent such dialogue. Israel has pushed for measures against Hamas, but this Islamist movement enjoys great popularity and political presence that cannot be overlooked or ignored.
Perhaps the rounds of dialogue between the leaders of Hamas and certain Western leaders in European or Middle Eastern capitals, which have been mostly confidential, gave Hamas incentives to visit Sofia — without recognizing that such a visit would spark heated controversy in the international community.
These clandestine meetings were not held out of appreciation for Hamas and its associates, but in view of the widespread Shiite tide — whether in terms of politics, military, or humanitarian relief — despite the blockade imposed on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The intensified visits of Western officials in recent years from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to Hamas institutions on Palestinian territories should come as no surprise.
Regardless of the lengthy discussions held between Hamas and international officials, whether in private or in public, many incentives have pushed international officials to meet with the Palestinian movement. Most importantly, the West has been reconsidering its policy towards “moderate” Islamic parties and movements, as it has become well aware of their influence on the public within their own communities. The West is also keen to learn more about Hamas’ positions on several political and social issues, especially after the Brotherhood ideology espoused by the Islamist movement — characterized by moderation and openness — has proved a far cry from the more dogmatic Islamist ideology that characterizes al-Qaeda and other such movements.
Recognition of Israel
Many international decision-makers have sought to “isolate” Iran amid its growing extensions and expansions in some regional areas, such as Beirut, Damascus and Gaza.
Nevertheless, through their discussions with Hamas, the US, the EU and the Quartet, they stress the need for a new Palestinian recognition of Israel, this time under the cloak of Islamism. Such recognition would be beneficial: Hamas sees the conflict between Palestine and Israel as a struggle for existence, not for borders.
Many observers described Hamas’ recent talks with the West as a return to the mid-1980s, when the US launched its “cautious” dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was dubbed a “terrorist” organization by Washington at the time. Nevertheless, despite the West’s statements on the need for Hamas to change its strategy, abolish its charter and address the ongoing settlement process, Hamas has remained obstinate. Talks with Hamas have been held without any regard to these demands; they are raised during these meetings simply to save face.
According to parties close to Hamas, the demands of all parties to recognize Israel have become a requisite to a public dialogue with the West. Otherwise Hamas risks being politically and intellectually eliminated, even though Israel has failed to eliminate its military.
At the same time, Hamas has become increasingly familiar with dialogue with international powers. Hamas has drawn increased media attention as its power has increased, as well as because of the al-Aqsa intifada and Hamas' strong presence in the Palestinian arena, including its landslide victory in the 2006 legislative elections.
Hamas has also experienced major landmarks in its international dialogues, as it agreed to communicate with various parties regardless of their political or cultural backgrounds, which serves the interests of the Palestinian people and cause. This hasn't required concessions that conflict with its ideological principles and strategic proposal. The Palestinian group has also declared that it does not wish to have any conflict with any international party, and it doesn't claim responsibility for any strikes or attacks on any country.
The relations between Hamas and most European countries have been characterized as “slowly progressing,” as opposed to its relationship with the US, which was marked by a quick and official drop. Indeed, Hamas’ rhetoric was based on ideological policies, then turned into realistic politics, placing Palestinian interests at the forefront of the cause and setting a clear platform for the movement.
The incident in Bulgaria will undoubtedly have negative repercussions on Hamas’ relations with any other European country, for fear of repeating the same scenario. European countries will likewise be reluctant in sending similar invitations to the Palestinian movement.
Adnan Abu Amer is Dean of the Faculty of Arts, and head of the Press and Information Section as well as a lecturer in the history of the Palestinian issue, national security, political science and Islamic civilization at Al Ummah University Open Education.