Is Europe really making things better for Palestinians?

A European court's ruling that Hamas was incorrectly listed as a terrorist organization may look like a win for the group. But, like the various European votes to recognize a Palestinian state, it may change little.

Mohammed Salem/Reuters
Deputy Hamas chief Moussa Abu Marzouk gestures during an interview with Reuters in Gaza City today. The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas should be removed from the European Union's terrorist list, an EU court ruled on Wednesday. But the decision changes little on the ground, experts say.

A European Union court reversed the designation of Hamas as a terrorist organization this morning. Hours later, the EU parliament voted to support “in principle the recognition of Palestinian statehood.”

These moves come on the heels of several European governments making pro-Palestinian moves, from Sweden’s outright recognition of Palestine to a handful of other European legislatures that have recommended their governments do the same.

So it seems like everything is going right for Palestinians and wrong for Israel, yes?

Not necessarily. To be sure, the various European votes and decisions are ratcheting up the political pressure on Israel. But in practical terms, the decisions, especially those today, do little to change anything on the ground.

The court decision

The EU’s General Court in Luxembourg ruled today that the decision to classify Hamas as a terrorist organization – done so in 2001 – was executed incorrectly. In short, the ruling is that the decision was made in the wrong way. The court said that the EU used “factual imputations derived from the press and Internet,” which are not sufficient under EU law to justify listing Hamas. Rather, the EU should have used expert opinion to determine if Hamas was a terrorist organization, it said.

Crucially, the court didn’t unfreeze Hamas’s funds – instead maintaining the status quo for Hamas three months so that the EU can appeal the decision – which they are almost certain to do, says Kristina Kausch, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at FRIDE in Madrid.

“In practical terms [the decision] probably means nothing," says Ms. Kausch. Hamas "is probably going to go back on the list officially or [kept] in some kind of legal limbo to keep assets frozen, which is the main thing.”

And the European Union was quick to emphasize that this was a legal decision based on procedure, not politics. “It is a legal ruling of a court, not a political decision taken by the EU governments,” the EU external action service said in a statement, strongly suggesting that the EU will act to maintain Hamas's listing.

The EU vote

Right after the ruling's announcement, the EU Parliament voted 498 to 88 (with 111 abstentions) to support the principle of Palestinian statehood alongside new peace negotiations.

The vote comes with a clear momentum from Europe, which is frustrated with the failure to reach a two-state solution in the Middle East. The legislatures in France, Spain, Britain, and Ireland have made similar moves, and Sweden moved ahead in October to actually recognize Palestinian statehood.

But while the EU Parliament represents the entire bloc of 28 nations, its vote is much less significant than what has has happened in member states.

“This is really not a decision of the EU, it is the decision of the European Parliament, which doesn’t speak for anyone but itself,” says Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe in Brussels. “It has no practical impact…. The votes that have happened in member states are endlessly more powerful than this specific decision.”

Nonetheless, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acted angrily in response to today's decision, especially the Hamas question.  

“We are not satisfied by the explanation offered by the Europeans that the removal of Hamas from the list of terrorist organizations is due to a procedural issue,” Mr. Netanyahu said in an email to Bloomberg. “The burden of proof is on the European Union and we expect them to immediately return Hamas to the list that everyone knows it belongs on.”

Such sentiments have come from Israel with each European vote since this fall – a sign that Netanyahu worries that however small the practical impact of the tide of decisions, the diplomatic impact will weigh heavily.  

“All of these thing are adding up to a wave that is slowly tipping the balance of power more in favor of Palestinians in international opinion,” says Kausch. “Europe used to be totally pro-Israeli, but it is much more nuanced now.”

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