Stephen Daisley

Priti Patel’s Hamas ban doesn’t go far enough

Priti Patel’s Hamas ban doesn’t go far enough
Text settings

It’s been a rough old week for Hamas. The UK announced plans to proscribe the organisation, Justin Bieber ignored its call to cancel his 2022 concert in Tel Aviv, and even the recently friendly Labour party has vowed that it ‘does not and will not support BDS’. One minute, you’re going about your business, trying to drive the Jews into the sea, and the next you’re being treated like you’re the bad guy.

Priti Patel’s decision to add Hamas to the Home Office list of terrorist organisations corrects a 20-year-old error which saw the Izz al-Din al-Qassem Brigades — Hamas’s paramilitary wing — outlawed in 2001 but the rest of the organisation unaffected.

Sajid Javid closed a similar loophole with Hezbollah and Patel’s amendment underscores the absurdity involved in pretending an organisation with a terrorist wing isn’t a terrorist organisation. If parliament backs the plans, from 26 November it will be a criminal offence under the Terrorism Act to be a member or supporter of Hamas, to arrange or address meetings in support of the group or to wear a uniform or other clothing suggesting membership of or support for it. Penalties range from a fine to a custodial sentence of up to 14 years.

Patel’s decision, to be formally outlined in a speech to the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC, has been welcomed by Israel and Jewish groups in the UK. Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett thanked Boris Johnson ‘for your leadership’ while foreign minister Yair Lapid called it ‘an important and significant decision’ that would help ‘prevent the continued build-up of the Hamas terror organisation’ in Britain and elsewhere. The Board of Deputies of British Jews said it was ‘immensely grateful’ to the government for ‘end[ing] the dangerous loophole’ which allowed Hamas to ‘spread its extremist poison here and raise funds and support in the UK’.

So it might seem churlish to cavil but there are a few dissenting points worth making. For one, Patel’s claim that she is doing this because Hamas is ‘fundamentally and rabidly anti-Semitic’ and she wants to protect British Jews from anti-Semitism rings a little disingenuous. Hamas is indeed anti-Semitic and no doubt Patel is sincerely appalled by rising Jew-hatred, but full proscription is less about challenging anti-Semitism and more about trying to catch up with the swelling of Islamist and other extremist sentiments within segments of the UK population. The flare-up between Israel and Gaza earlier this year occasioned disturbing scenes of Hamas-sympathising and anti-Israel incitement on Britain’s streets and this is likely the government's delayed response, making it easier for police to crack down on similar conduct in the future.

Comprehensive proscription of Hamas is emblematic of Britain’s approach to Israel and the conflict. It took 20 years for ministers to realise how illogical it was to ban only the ones holding the guns. How long will it take before ministers grasp how illogical it is to pretend that Hamas’s Islamist extremism can be condemned without confronting the fact that, the last time they were given the chance to vote on the matter, the Palestinians chose Hamas?

This denial of the nature of Palestinian extremism — the comforting fiction that it is something either imposed on the populations of Judea, Samaria and Gaza — heavily informs British attitudes to the conflict and is one of the reasons that policy has been such an abject failure. UK governments of all political hues prefer to engage with the Palestinians in their heads rather than the ones on the ground.

Banning Hamas in its entirety will only render more ridiculous those ministerial statements about ‘urging the parties to work with mediators towards an immediate ceasefire’ the next time Israel responds to rocket attacks on its territory. How would Britain have reacted if, during the 2017 London Bridge attack, Israel had released a statement urging the parties to reach an immediate ceasefire? Something else rendered ridiculous is the rote insistence that, while Hamas is a gang of thugs, the Palestinian Authority is a legitimate authority. This is an outfit that has been accused of inciting against Israelis and which pays stipends to the families of those who are imprisoned, killed or injured carrying out attacks on Israel. 

Yet Labour and Tory governments alike scold Israel to make peace with the Palestinian Authority, even as every Israeli offer of peace and statehood is rebuffed and proposed peace talks are rejected out of hand. 

Full proscription of Hamas is a useful legal tool for managing domestic radicalism. If it makes it harder to intimidate British Jews, all the better. But Israeli officials shouldn’t be too quick to thank Boris Johnson’s government for recognising the nature of Israel’s adversaries. There’s little evidence that it does.