US adds Hamas political leader to terrorist list

By designating the head of Hamas’ political arm, Ismail Haniyeh, on the American list of global terrorists, the US State Department added another obstacle to Palestinian reconciliation.

al-monitor Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh looks up before giving a speech in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, July 5, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Mohammed Salem.

Feb 2, 2018

The United States on Jan. 31 added the head of Hamas' political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, to its list of Specially Designated Terrorists. "Haniyeh has close links with Hamas’ military wing and has been a proponent of armed struggle, including against civilians,” announced the US State Department. “He has reportedly been involved in terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens. Hamas has been responsible for an estimated 17 American lives killed in terrorist attacks.”

The State Department has another list that includes 61 organizations designated as “terrorist groups.” Hamas was added to the list in October 1997, following the suicide attacks in Israel after the targeted killing of “The Engineer” Yahya Ayyash in January 1996. In the same year, additional Palestinian organizations were added to the list, such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. 

The list of terrorist leaders also includes Mohammed Deif, the head of Hamas’ military arm; Yahya Sinwar, one of the founders of the military wing and now the leader of the movement in the Gaza Strip; Rawhi Mushtaha, who is responsible for prisoners; and Fathi Hammad, formerly the interior minister in the Hamas government who is suspected of planning terrorist attacks and who even Egypt believes is connected to jihadist cells in the Sinai Peninsula. 

Those who didn’t make it on the list include former head of Hamas' political bureau Khaled Meshaal and deputy head of Hamas' political bureau and founder of the political arm Mousa Abu Marzouk. After Abu Marzouk was expelled from Amman, Jordan, in 1995, he landed at Kennedy Airport and was arrested and imprisoned following an Israeli extradition request. But two years later he was released when then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave up on his extradition. Abu Marzouk ultimately wasn’t declared a terrorist.

The addition of Haniyeh to its list signifies that the State Department has stopped accepting the artificial separation Hamas has sought to create in all its years as a movement — between a political arm and a military arm. When the movement’s “political” leaders were asked by journalists about Hamas terrorist attacks or whether they would respond to targeted killings Israel perpetrated against movement leaders, they would usually answer that it was a decision made exclusively by the military wing and that they have no connection or influence on the decisions of the “military leaders.” 

That was the line adopted by Hamas seniors such as Mahmoud al-Zahar, Ismail Haniyeh as prime minister, and even Abd al-Aziz Rantisi, who was killed by Israel in April 2004 after then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, concluded that the only way to force Hamas to stop the suicide attacks was to threaten movement leaders.

But since the assassinations operation, dubbed Anemone Picking, in March and April 2004, when Hamas’ spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and his heir Rantisi were killed, Israel has generally refrained from attacking Hamas’ political leaders. Said Seyam, former minister of interior in charge of the security services in the Hamas government, was assassinated during Operation Cast Lead in January 2009. Still, Israel refrained from similar operations during the 2014 Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.

As aforementioned, the terrorist list published by the US State Department indicates that the United States also doesn’t see a difference between the military and diplomatic/political wings of Hamas. Thus, alongside terrorist leaders from the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and global jihad organizations, now Haniyeh is listed — the man previously considered to be the most pragmatic among all of Hamas leadership.

A senior Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip who is close to Haniyeh told Al-Monitor that Hamas doesn’t take the list seriously. In his opinion, the list indicates the extent to which Trump’s United States wants to deny the right of the Palestinian people to choose its leaders and to force it to accept Israeli occupation forever. “We won’t be surprised if [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas would soon be added to the list as well,” he said on condition of anonymity. That’s certainly an exaggeration, but the timing of Haniyeh’s addition is indeed surprising. 

The US administration usually does not detail publicly its reasons for designating persons as terrorists. But when it comes to Haniyeh, we can assume that — besides the decision in principle to avoid distinguishing between the military and political branches of Hamas — there is also another reason. Over the past few months, Haniyeh has increased his combative tone. He had called at least twice upon Palestinians to launch an intifada: once last July, following the Israeli decision to place metal detectors outside of Al-Aqsa Mosque; the second last December, following President Donald Trump’s Jerusalem proclamation. Still, it is also important to take the words of the State Department as is: Haniyeh, it was argued, is closely linked to Hamas’ military wing and its armed actions that have also targeted civilians.

When the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas leaders declared their intention to reconcile, the United States saw it as a positive process that could help negotiations with Israel. Although Trump’s envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt set preconditions for the United States and the international community to accept Hamas as a partner in a unity government with Fatah, he praised the reconciliation. 

Only four months have passed since then. The reconciliation agreement is stuck, Trump declared that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and the rift between the PA and the US administration has never been wider. And still the aspiration of Hamas and Fatah to reach reconciliation has not been taken off the table. But the addition of Haniyeh to the terrorist list is another obstacle on the road to reconciliation. 

When Abbas seeks a way out of the labyrinth he finds himself in, the last thing he’d want to do is be seen in the company of someone on the American terrorist list. While the terrorist list does not obligate other countries, it has real weight for the understanding of terrorist threats on the part of all the Western intelligence agencies. In addition, the United States’ allies, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, won’t dare let Haniyeh into their territory and certainly won't shake his hand. 

Would the addition of the head of Hamas’ political wing to the terrorist list weaken the hand of Egypt, which is pushing the reconciliation project with all its might? Even if it doesn’t, the US State Department added another serious obstacle to the pile of obstacles that have so far prevented the two sides from ending the conflict between them. 

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