Jewish organisations in Switzerland are calling for the radical Islamist militant group Hamas to be declared a terrorist organisation. The latest escalation of the conflict in the Middle East has added fuel to this ongoing debate, but it has been falling on deaf ears in Swiss diplomacy.
The latest conflict between Israel and Palestine has revived a long-term debate in Switzerland: officially classifying Hamas as a terrorist organisation.
In a joint statement on May 20, the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities (SIG) and the Platform of Liberal Jews in Switzerland (PLJS) described Hamas as “clearly extremist, terrorist and anti-Semitic”. They said it was unacceptable that “members of Hamas moved around freely, raised funds and conducted business in Switzerland”. The Israeli embassy in Bern issued similar calls.
Switzerland has classified only al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) as terrorist organisations. As such, the Swiss government cannot communicate with them directly.
Following 11 days of violence in May between Israel and Hamas, at least 230 Palestinians and 11 Israelis were killed and thousands were wounded. Infrastructure and thousands of homes in the Gaza Strip have been devastated. A ceasefire finally came into force in the Gaza Strip on May 21 after Egypt and the United Nations brokered an agreement between Israel and Hamas.
Federal government silent
This is not the first time Jewish communities have made such an appeal. In 2017 Christian Imark of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party and member of the House of Representatives asked the government to ban Hamas or classify it a terror organisation.
“Declaring Hamas a terror group would be the right thing to do. It has repeatedly acted as an aggressor and has used its own people as human shields,” Imark told SWI swissinfo.ch.
The government has so far not responded to the statement. For its peace promotion work in the Middle East, Switzerland communicates with all parties involved to promote dialogue between Israel and Palestinians as well as between the Islamist Hamas and the secular Fatah groups. Naming Hamas a terrorist organisation would not allow any direct communication with the political party. This position has not changed since the latest outbreak of violence.
In response to our inquiry, the foreign ministry said: “The foreign ministry has taken note of the Jewish Communities’ demand. Switzerland’s position […] has not changed, however, it clearly condemns the fact that Hamas denies Israel’s right to exist and defines armed struggle as a legitimate means of resistance.”
It further said that Switzerland had been in contact with all parties to the conflict and had called upon Hamas in the Gaza Strip to cease the violence and ensure compliance with international humanitarian law and human rights.
The European Union considers Hamas a terrorist organisation which makes direct communication impossible. This is one of the reasons it did not play a major part in brokering the current ceasefire.
Other countries consider Hamas's military wing, the Al-Quds Brigades, a terror group, but do not brand the whole organisation as one.
The latest escalation in fighting has revived debates on this question elsewhere. German politician Armin Laschet, one of the candidates to succeed Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, called for a ban on Hamas’s flag while others demanded the entire organisation become illegal. As is the case in Switzerland, Hamas is not banned in Germany.
It is questionable, however, whether banning Hamas would achieve much. Analysts say Hamas is now considered the strongest political party outside the Gaza Strip, where it has been in power since 2007. It is gaining support in the West Bank and among Arab Israelis.
Middle East expert Erich Gysling summed up the dilemma in an interview with the German-language newspaper Luzerner Zeitung. “Hamas is the winner on the Palestinian side. We have to maintain dialogue with them. Calling them terrorists would not work to anyone’s advantage,” he declared.
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