The devastating assault by Hamas on Israel from the Gaza Strip and ongoing fighting has revived the debate in Switzerland about whether the Palestinian militant group should be declared a terrorist organisation.
By Simon Bradley
Fighting is continuing at several locations near Gaza two days after gunmen from the Islamist group Hamas killed 700 Israelis and took dozens of hostages, including children and elderly people, in the deadliest raid into Israeli territory since Egypt and Syria’s attacks in the Yom Kippur war 50 years ago. In retaliation, Israeli fighter jets, helicopters and artillery struck over 500 Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza, Reuters reported on Monday. Around 500 Palestinians have reportedly been killed. Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, meanwhile, ordered a “complete siege” on Gaza, saying authorities would cut electricity and block the entry of food and fuel.
On Sunday, all 15 members of the United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting, where the United States demanded they all strongly condemn “these heinous terrorist attacks committed by Hamas”. But no immediate action was taken.
At the meeting Switzerland, which holds a non-permanent seat, “condemned the shocking attacks, including acts of terror and rocket fire by Hamas against Israel”, according to a statement on Sunday. It called for the release of the hostages held in Gaza and a de-escalation of the violence, while deploring all civilian casualties and calling for respect for international humanitarian law.
Why doesn’t Switzerland classify Hamas a terrorist organisation?
Unlike the European Union, the US or Britain, neutral Switzerland has not declared Hamas a terrorist organisation. Switzerland does not have its own national terrorist list. It argues that it only applies sanctions from the UN Security Council, which has not designated Hamas a terrorist group.
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 group.
The Swiss authorities officially maintain contact with Hamas and this “inclusive contact and good offices policy in this context is appreciated by key international players such as the US and EU, especially during crises. Israel is also regularly informed by Switzerland of its contacts with Hamas”, it says. Under its good offices strategy neutral Switzerland currently represents the diplomatic interests of Iran in Egypt and Canada, the US in Iran, Iran in Saudi Arabia (and vice versa), and Russia in Georgia (and vice versa).
New calls for Hamas ban by Swiss-Jewish organisations
Jewish organisations in Switzerland have repeatedly demanded Hamas be declared a terrorist organisation. Renewed calls have been made after Saturday’s incursion. “Today and the days to come must be an opportunity for those responsible for Swiss policy in the Middle East to reconsider their current positions. This includes no longer refusing to declare Hamas a terrorist organisation as the EU, the United States and other states have been doing for a long time. And we must seriously ask ourselves what contacts official Switzerland wants to continue to maintain with Hamas,” wrote the Switzerland-Israel Society on its website.
The Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities and the Platform of Liberal Jews in Switzerland issued a joint statement: “Without a clear ban, Hamas will continue to receive legitimacy as a normal political actor. All the more so because Hamas can move freely in Switzerland, collect donations and handle its finances.”
The Foundation against Racism and Antisemitism also urged the Swiss government to classify Hamas as a terrorist organisation following the attacks.
What about Swiss parliamentarians and Hamas?
Previous attempts by Swiss parliamentarians to classify Hamas as a terrorist group have failed. The last was a parliamentary initiative by Lukas Reimann of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, which was rejected by the government and a majority in June 2022. Reimann says his party is planning a new proposal.
On Monday, the People’s Party tweeted that a ban on Hamas and all aid to Palestinian organisations with links to Hamas were necessary. The centre-right Radical-Liberal Party also issued a statement demanding the government classify Hamas as a terrorist organisation.
“Up to now, it was acceptable to talk to all parties in the region. These attacks no longer permit this. Dialogue with people who plan and support such acts is not possible,” it declared. The party called for a review of Swiss development aid to Palestine with a view to possibly suspending support to Hamas-related organisations.
Switzerland contributes around CHF20 million a year to the regular budget of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and to around a dozen NGOs on the spot.
The Swiss-Israel parliamentary group also urged the Federal Council and parliament to reconsider their position and their relations with Hamas and Iran.
What’s the position of Swiss-Palestinian organisations?
Members of the “Friendship Group Switzerland – Palestine”, a ten-member parliamentary group, seem to be publicly distancing themselves from Hamas after the assault.
“Hamas is a criminal organisation and a corrupt bunch,” Fabian Molina of the left-wing Social Democratic Party told 20Minuten newspaper on Monday. Liberal Green parliamentarian Beat Flach described Saturday’s attack an “absolute disaster”.
But Molina still accused both sides of violations: “Abducting Israeli civilians and firing rockets at cities is vile. But cutting off electricity to Palestinian hospitals out of revenge is just as wrong.”
Geri Müller, president of the relatively small Swiss-Palestine Society, warned against banning Hamas, which he said would prevent Switzerland from pursuing its “good negotiating work”. “Violence is never acceptable, also for Israel,” the former Green Party parliamentarian told the Tages-Anzeiger, adding that in the past six months, Jewish settlers had attacked 70 Palestinian villages.
Around two million people are locked up in the Gaza Strip, so it’s not surprising that extreme reactions occur, added Müller. “Israel is an apartheid state. Period. If Switzerland wants to declare Hamas a terrorist organisation, it must also call Israeli state terrorism by its name.”