Three Hamas politicians made a rare visit to Europe this week.
A delegation of members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) travelled to Switzerland to attend a meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). It was the first time since the 2006 PLC elections that Hamas members undertook an official visit to a European country.
The delegation — led by PLC member and Hamas spokesperson Mushir al-Masri — left the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing, and continued their journey via Egypt. Al-Masri also heads an international committee for the defense of the PLC members who are held in Israeli jails.
The IPU Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians met in Geneva on 14 January to discuss parliamentarians under threat. The IPU collected information about lawmakers who face death threats, are subjected to harassment, or are unable to carry out their parliamentary mandate without hindrance and invited the delegation from Gaza to clarify the situation of the Palestinian lawmakers.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman reacted furiously to the IPU invitation to the PLC members from Gaza, according to the news agency AFP (“Israel furious as Hamas attends global parliamentary forum,” 16 January 2011).
The Swiss-Israeli Association added that the invitation represented “an insult to democratic values and human rights that represent the spirit of Geneva.” Since 1957 the association has “promoted friendship” with the State of Israel and supports cultural, academic and social exchange with Israel.
But Anders Johnsson, the IPU President, warded off the attacks. He told the website Swissinfo that “the IPU doesn’t deal with Hamas, but the IPU committee deals with the rights of members of parliament, whoever they are” (“Hamas visit to Switzerland sparks outcry,” 19 January 2012).
Swiss defend invitation
A Swiss foreign ministry spokeswoman Carole Waelti told the same website that “Switzerland, as host of the organization, is obliged to facilitate the entry of people officially invited by the organization.” Waelti added that Switzerland has regular contacts with Hamas.
Switzerland does not belong to the European Union, which refuses to deal with Hamas and has placed the political party on its list of terrorist organizations.
Meanwhile, the Swiss envoy to the Middle East, Jean-Daniel Ruch, met Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Cairo on 18 January to discuss the possibility of dialogue between Europe and Hamas (“Hamas chief Meshaal meets Swiss envoy in Cairo,” AFP, 19 January 2012).
Mushir Al-Masri told AFP that the talks “come within the framework of the Hamas political bureau’s contacts with some European parties and its policy of openness towards the Europeans.”
After the capture of an Israeli soldier in Gaza in 2006, Israel arrested eight ministers and 26 PLC members of the Hamas-affiliated Change and Reform Bloc.
Israel did not oppose the participation of any Palestinian blocs in the 2006 PLC elections. Yet one year after the elections, Israel declared the Change and Reform bloc illegal. Since then PLC members with the party have been accused of “membership,” “activity” and “holding a position” in an “unauthorized association” (Addameer page on Palestinian Legislative Council Members).
At its meeting, the IPU committee on human rights examined 70 cases in 37 countries, including those of the 23 Palestinian parliamentarians who are held without charge in administrative detention in Israeli jails. Twenty of the detained parliamentarians are members of the Change and Reform Bloc.
While each administrative detention order lasts for as much as six months, the Israeli authorities frequently renew the orders, therefore resulting in the PLC members being unable to carry out their legislative and oversight functions. The IPU Committee has called upon the Israeli authorities to abandon the practice of detaining elected representatives.
Following its participation in the IPU meeting, the Hamas delegation paid a visit to the Swiss national parliament in Bern.
“We also met with the Red Cross in Geneva, the vice-mayor of Geneva and with Islamic organizations in different cantons,” al-Masri told The Electronic Intifada. “The event in Geneva was the best attended.”
Al-Masri was referring to an event organized by the human rights group Droit pour Tous (Rights for All) to commemorate the anniversary of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s attack on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009. The event, hosted by the University of Geneva, was attended by approximately 500 persons.
“Don’t always follow the US”
In a fully-packed lecture hall, al-Masri recalled the devastation that was wreaked during the Gaza attacks.
“All persons who were complicit in the war crimes committed in Gaza should be taken to court,” he said. “Although the pro-Israel lobby has tried to jeopardize our visit to Geneva, we are here to tell you about our suffering under the siege of Gaza. We are here to defend the rights of the Palestinian people living in Gaza and in the West Bank, to defend the rights of all the political prisoners and to defend the rights of the Palestinians who live outside Palestine.”
Al-Masri called on European states to be just and impartial and not always to follow the United States.
“The European Union made a mistake by adding Hamas to its terrorist list. Hamas was elected by the people. The European countries should apply international law. Our ultimate goal is to obtain our freedom by all means. No matter the strength of our occupier, justice will win. “
A Socialist Party member of the Swiss national parliament, Carlo Sommaruga, told the audience that “it does not make sense to bury one’s head in the sand. Hamas won the majority at the 2006 elections and then the movement and the Palestinian people were marginalized by the United States and Europe — a policy that has brought us nowhere.”
Sommaruga expressed his support for the Palestinian-led campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
“I was an activist against the racist apartheid regime in South Africa,” he said. “We boycotted products, wanted to end financial relations and called for a cultural boycott. We have to do the same today. Every person has a responsibility. Everyone can participate in the BDS movement.”
The Change and Reform Bloc delegation was able to visit Switzerland because the Swiss authorities did not give in to pressure from Israel and pro-Israel forces in Switzerland. The IPU Committee called on Israel to end its practices that obstruct PLC members from carrying out their parliamentary mandate.
Time will tell if other governments in Europe support the call of the IPU by pressuring Israel to end the oppression of Palestinian parliamentarians.
Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate based in Switzerland.