Rebuffing Washington, the European Union decided last week that it will not reclassify the political wing of Hamas as a terrorist group, insisting that its activities qualify it as a legitimate organization.
Meeting last week in Brussels, the 15 European foreign ministers reached a unanimous decision not to change the political wing's designation, a move that had been sought by the United States, although they may revisit the issue at a summit scheduled for July 21 to July 22 if more countries are seen to support a change.
The decision comes after the European Commission, the E.U.'s executive body, declined last month to freeze the assets of the political wing. The E.U. does, however, maintain a ban on Hamas's military branch, which has claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks in Israel and elsewhere.
The main opponent to enforcing a total ban on Hamas is France, which points to the recent cease-fire agreement as evidence that the Islamic organization is a key player in the Middle East peace process. French officials contend a ban would force the organization underground and ignite further violence. American officials, for their part, argue that any distinction between the military and political wings of such a lethal group is artificial.
"There has been a very clear distinction between the two wings, and the [French foreign] minister himself has called for that distinction to be made between the armed wings and the social organizations in the Palestinian territories," a spokesman for the ministry said at a news conference last week.
The commission endorsed those views last month. Commission spokesman Reijo Kempinnen said in a statement that Hamas's political wing is legitimate because it runs social-welfare services such as clinics and hospitals.
At a meeting last month with E.U. leaders in Washington, President Bush urged the E.U. to take "decisive measures against terrorist groups like Hamas, to cut off their funds and their sources of support." His national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, is also on the record as saying the European position was "illogical."
A knowledgeable source said American officials recently visited several E.U. countries to advocate for a total ban of Hamas.
"This distinction is indeed totally artificial," said Francois Zimeray, a pro-Israel French member of the European Parliament. "This just shows an absence of political courage."
French officials, for their part, have shown a sympathetic face to Middle Eastern terrorist groups. In Lebanon for a recent summit of French-speaking countries, French President Jacques Chirac listened to a speech by Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah — another group designated as a terrorist organization by the United States but not by the E.U., which has deemed it a political party. Chirac's wife, meanwhile, visited a Hamas-run refugee camp.
Britain and Italy, however, have sided with Washington on the issue, Zimeray said, so the European debate is ongoing.
Zimeray, who is leading a campaign in the European Parliament to demand an investigation into the misuse of E.U. funds by the Palestinian Authority, said he felt there was nevertheless a "real awakening" in the E.U. regarding the need to control the use of taxpayers' money by the P.A.
He noted that an official investigation and a parliamentary working group were both investigating the issue and that the recent filing of a lawsuit against the E.U. Commission for its alleged role in funding terrorist attacks in Israel has had a sobering effect in Brussels.
"There is a real evolution on this issue, and this is why I believe the discussion about Hamas is not over yet," he added.