In a move that has provoked reactions among both supporters and opponents, the British government announced that it will present a draft bill before parliament declaring the political wing of the Palestinian group Hamas to be a terrorist organisation.
The proposals would see the outlawing of the flying of the Hamas flag or arranging to meet its members or wearing clothes supporting the group. According to the proposed law, showing support for Hamas in Britain could be punishable with 14 years in prison.
The Israeli government has been pressuring the UK authorities for some time to designate the whole of Hamas as a terrorist organisation. But the timing of the announcement coincided with the visit of British Home Secretary Priti Patel to Washington a few days ago. It also coincides with Patel’s being under pressure due to the migrant crisis in the English Channel.
Patel said that an outright ban under the UK Terrorism Act was necessary because it was not possible to distinguish between the Hamas political and military wings. The Al-Qassam Brigades military wing of the Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip has been banned in Britain since March 2001.
“Hamas has significant terrorist capability, including access to extensive and sophisticated weaponry, as well as terrorist facilities, and it has long been involved in significant terrorist violence. Hamas commits, participates, prepares for and promotes and encourages terrorism,” Patel said.
She called Hamas “fundamentally and rabidly anti-Semitic,” adding that proscription was required to protect the UK Jewish community.
But not everyone agreed. Ian Black, a prominent British journalist and visiting senior fellow at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, said he did not believe the move was helpful.
“Israel has been lobbying about that for a long time. Israeli newspapers published reports that Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett pressured [UK Prime Minister Boris] Johnson during the COP26 meetings in Glasgow,” he said.
“Israel provided intelligence information to London to reinforce the view that the political and military wing of Hamas cannot be separated and that the political wing plays a dangerous role,” Black told Al-Ahram Weekly.
He added that the announcement was made in Washington to “please the US administration.”
Black, a British Jew, does not agree with Patel that the move will help the Jewish minority in the UK. “I do not agree that the move will reduce anti-Semitism in the UK; on the contrary, the move might strengthen racism. I do not think it is helpful in any way in advancing the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said.
Patel is under pressure because of increasing migration and refugee problems in the UK, and some have accused her of trying to achieve an easy win in an issue that does not attract much interest in the UK.
“It is a divisive and domestically motivated move. At the beginning of the month, the Israeli Ambassador in the UK Tzipi Hotovely, was at the London School of Economics and there was a peaceful demonstration in support of the Palestinians. Patel classified the demonstration as anti-Semitic. In my opinion, demonstrations against Israel are not anti-Semitic. In fact, there are many Jews in Britain who are opposed to the policies of the state of Israel without being anti-Semitic for the obvious reasons that they are Jews,” Black said.
He does not support Hamas attacks on Israel, but he does believe that the UK move makes it difficult for political dialogue and for a two-state solution to be achieved. He cited a statement by the Palestinian mission in London, which represents Fatah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, that criticised the British move.
The Palestinian mission considered that the decision impedes the two-state solution and the peace process.
The proposed bill will make it difficult for the British left and Jews who support the two-state solution to engage with representatives from the Gaza Strip if they have any relations with Hamas.
It could force Britain’s Labour Party to take a position on Hamas, given the strong pro-Palestinian support on the left of the main opposition party. Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said in 2016 he regretted once calling members of Hamas and Hizbullah “friends” during a meeting at the British parliament.
Veteran socialist Corbyn, who said he was attempting “inclusive” language to encourage talks about the peace process, resigned after Labour’s 2019 election loss.
Pro-peace activists in the UK say it is becoming increasingly difficult to set up pro-Palestinian activities in Britain. When a group of British activists went to the local council in Tower Hamlets in east London in 2019 to ask to host the final stage of a charity bike race to collect aid for sick Palestinian children in Gaza, it rejected their request, even though in recent years charitable activities have been allowed to do so.
They have led to the collection of nearly £150,000 for sports equipment for children in Gaza since 2015.
On the “Great Race for Palestine” website, its organisers say that “active opposition to the crimes of the Israeli state is an international responsibility, just as opposition to apartheid in South Africa was a moral and political necessity for many.”
In another section, it says “it is starkly clear that there is a parallel between apartheid in South Africa and the State of Israel... This is an Israeli issue, not an issue related to Jews. Many Jews oppose Israel’s policies and the persecution of Palestinians.”
Tower Hamlets’ chair of sports, recreation and culture said she felt the event should be rejected because “the council has recently adopted the IHRA [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] definition of anti-Semitism, and there are concerns about the content of the Great Race for Palestine website as regarding this.”
Political parties and other institutions in the UK have accepted a controversial definition of anti-Semitism, saying that this includes describing Israel as an apartheid regime, criticising its policies towards the Palestinians, or questioning the legitimacy of its establishment and existence by mentioning massacres and the mass expulsion of Palestinians.
Last year, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer apologised at the last minute for attending an Iftar party for Muslims in Britain because one of the organisers had called for a boycott of products and goods produced by Israel or grown in the Palestinian Territories in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The UK parliament will vote on the proposals in the coming days, and if successful they could become effective before the end of this month. The move would bring Britain into line with the United States, which designated Hamas a terror group in 1995, and the European Union.
Naftali Bennett applauded the move, calling Hamas “a radical Islamic group that targets innocent Israelis and seeks Israel’s destruction.” He wrote on Twitter that “I welcome the UK’s intention to declare Hamas a terrorist organisation in its entirety -- because that’s exactly what it is.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said the move was a result of “joint efforts” between the British and Israeli governments.
Hamas Spokesperson Hazem Qassem called the move “a crime against the Palestinian people and all their history of struggle, as well as a condemnation of the legitimate struggles of all free peoples against colonialism.”
Qassem said the decision, if approved by parliament, would be “a great political, moral, and legal sin committed by Britain” and one only favouring Israel.
The decision may lead to more restrictions on extremist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Britain. Although channels of communication between the Muslim Brotherhood and the British government do not exist under Patel, the move closes all possibilities of engagement.
“The decision, in its broad context, will negatively affect Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, as any political engagement between them and the UK government will be very difficult,” Black told the Weekly.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.