European Court Changes Status of Hamas as Terrorist Organization

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By Alan Cowell

LONDON — Strains between Israel and parts of Europe intensified on Wednesday when the European Union’s second-highest court reversed the bloc’s designation of the militant Palestinian group Hamas as a terrorist organization.

The court’s decision coincided with increasing European impatience with the stalled effort toward peace in the Middle East, which has fed a swell of opinion in favor of recognizing a Palestinian state.

On Wednesday, in a compromise vote, the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, voted 498 to 88 with 111 abstentions to support “in principle the recognition of Palestinian statehood” in tandem with revived peace negotiations, according to the Parliament’s website.

Hamas, which controls Gaza, has been on the European list of terrorist organizations since 2001. It has always objected to the classification.

The General Court of the European Union ruled on Wednesday that Hamas’s status had been determined by news and Internet reports rather than by “acts examined and confirmed in decisions of competent authorities.”

At the same time, though, the judicial body said that European restrictions on Hamas, such as asset freezes, should remain in force for at least three months to give the parties time to appeal.

The ruling incensed many Israelis, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling for the court to restore the label of terrorist group to Hamas.

“We are not satisfied with the European Union’s explanation that the removal of Hamas from its list of terrorist organizations is a ‘technical matter,′” Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement. “The burden of proof is on the European Union, and we expect it to put Hamas back on the list forthwith given that it is understood by all that Hamas — a murderous terrorist organization, the covenant of which specifies the destruction of Israel as its goal — is an inseparable part of this list. We will continue to fight Hamas with strength and determination so that it never achieves this goal.”

The office of Mousa Abu Marzook, a senior Hamas leader, said in a statement that the decision was “a victory for all supporters of the right of our people in the resistance, and all supporters of the liberation against occupation.”

The European Union issued a statement calling the court’s decision “procedural” rather than substantive and said it was studying the ruling and would decide later whether to seek an appeal.

“It is a legal ruling of a court, not a political decision taken by the E.U. governments,” the statement noted.

The court ruling was made known hours before the European Parliament’s vote on Palestinian statehood, which was widely viewed as a watered-down version of earlier European gestures. Sweden decided in October to recognize a Palestinian state, and since then, several European legislatures, including that of France, have approved nonbinding votes in favor of recognition.

With regional diplomacy accelerating, the European ballot came as the Palestinian Authority pressed for a resolution at the United Nations Security Council to establish a schedule for a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem and for the recognition of a Palestinian state.
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The collision of increased pressure from Europe and traditional support in the United States for Israel prompted Secretary of State John Kerry to visit London, Paris and Rome this week to meet with European foreign ministers and, separately, with Mr. Netanyahu, who is facing a divisive election campaign.

On Tuesday, Mr. Kerry called the status quo “unsustainable for both parties and for the region,” and said that Washington wanted “to lower the temperature” between Israelis and Palestinians.

In Strasbourg, Social Democratic lawmakers had proposed that the symbolic vote on Wednesday call on the 28 member states of the European Union to recognize Palestinian statehood unconditionally.

But a rival coalition of lawmakers insisted that recognition be linked to peace talks.

The compromise approved on Wednesday and drawn up by five political groups said that the European Parliament supported “in principle recognition of Palestinian statehood and the two-state solution, and believes these should go hand in hand with the development of peace talks, which should be advanced.”

The Parliament also expressed “its strong support for the two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as the capital of both states, with the secure State of Israel and an independent, democratic, contiguous and viable Palestinian State living side by side in peace and security on the basis of the right of self-determination and full respect of international law.” It condemned terrorism and violence.