Thursday, December 18, 2014

The E.U. Shifts the Debate: Re-labeling Hamas and Palestine

Framing the contours of a debate goes a long way toward winning it. Part of such framing involves efforts to make derogatory labels stick to the opposing side. Through a number of decades in the twentieth century, communist was the weapon of choice. Actors who refused to name names found themselves blacklisted as pro-communist, or having communist sympathies. A decade after the fall of the U.S.S.R., labeling an organization or person as a terrorist came into its own as the all-too-easy means of depriving an opposing side of credibility. By 2015, some people believed that anytime a person of a particular Middle-Eastern religion kills someone, that person is a terrorist. The word’s very definition was somehow pliable enough to accommodate prejudice and simple dislike. This is not to say that real terrorists are squalid creatures; rather, my point is that people had realized that they could score political points by applying the label to their opponents and making it stick. Israel, for instance, had successfully gotten the E.U. to label the Palestinian political party Hamas as a terrorist organization. Yet as 2014 was coming to an end, the label was becoming unstuck, with broader implications for the wider debate on Israel and Palestine.

On December 18, 2014, the General Court of the European Union ruled that Hamas’s status as a terrorist organization had been determined by news and Internet reports rather than by “acts examined and confirmed in decisions of competent authorities.”[1] Although the decision is procedural rather than substantive in nature, the finding points to how very pliable labels can be. The frivolous nature of going by news and internet reports is borne out by how different outlets can be in characterizing the two sides of a given dispute. For example, are Hamas members freedom-fighters or terrorists? The choice here goes a long way in determining how the debate is framed, and therefore how it plays out, so the decision is political rather than even technical.

Highlighting the political nature of labels in the Palestinian question, the court’s decision coincided with a resolution passed by the E.U.’s parliament supporting “in principle the recognition of Palestinian statehood” along with new negotiations.[2] Recognizing a state even as it is occupied by another functions mainly in a debate-framing capacity, as no actual statehood can exist as long as the West Bank and Gaza Strip are occupied by another state. “Recognizing” statehood, along with the Hamas political party no longer labeled as a terrorist organization, can shift debate in the direction of the Palestinians. Hence, it is not for nothing that Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel reacted publicly to the vote, saying, “These declarations merely point to a spirit of appeasement in Europe of the very forces that threaten Europe itself.”[3] Simply in using the word, declarations, however, he was inadvertently helping the “statehood” label to stick in the debate. To get the other side of a dispute to adopt a label even as that side is arguing against your side goes a long way toward getting the label to stick for neutral observers. In effect, they tacitly take sides in the language they apply.

In short, framing a debate is a political venture unto itself, with huge implications as to which side has to run up hill and which has the advantage of gravity. Restoring Hamas to political party and Palestine to a state may prefigure an eventual shift in the debate in the Palestinians’ favor.

1. Alan Cowell, “European Court Reverses Designation of Hamas as a Terrorist Organization,” The New York Times, December 18, 2014.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.