In-depth: Making sense of Hamas’s visit to Bulgaria

The hello-goodbye Hamas affair coincides with swirl of debate over Bulgaria report attributing Burgas bus explosion to Hezbollah.

February 17, 2013 03:32
Bulgarian Police

Bulgarian police_311. (photo credit: Reuters)


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BERLIN – The arrival of three Hamas representatives in Bulgaria last week – believed to have obtained their visas in Cairo – and their forced exit on Friday after less than 48 hours on EU territory appears to have caught Bulgarian authorities and politicians off guard.

After the European Union largely aligned itself with Israel’s right to respond to rocket attacks from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip during November’s Pillar of Defense operation, the status of Hamas as an anti-peace political pariah among a majority of Western liberal democracies is still intact, although the terrorist organization continues to crave political legitimacy. Bulgaria has quickly internalized the Hamas security threat.

“During their stay in Bulgaria we obtained information that their presence was creating a serious threat to national security,” Bulgaria’s National Services domestic intelligence agency said in a statement on Friday.

The hello-goodbye Hamas affair coincides with a swirl of debate over Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov’s report attributing the Burgas bus explosion to Hezbollah operatives, which resulted in the deaths of five Israelis and their Bulgarian bus driver in July.

Tsvetanov announced the two suspected Burgas perpetrators “were members of the militant wing of Hezbollah,” and added that investigators have found information “showing the financing and connection between Hezbollah and the two suspects.”

The EU’s foreign ministers are slated to discuss the Bulgarian report on Monday, along with the possibility of designating Hezbollah a terror organization.

After the 27-member body labeled Hamas a terror entity in 2003, it was tasked with guarding against Hamas visits to Europe and political relations with the radical Sunni group in Gaza. The EU’s political and diplomatic isolation of Hamas has largely been a 10- year success story. In 2010 the German government denied a visa to Hamas legislator Dr. Aziz Dweik, slated to speak at the eighth annual Palestinians in Europe Conference in Berlin. Dweik, also known as Abu Hashem, became speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council in January 2006. He was incarcerated in Israel in June 2006 because of his membership in a terrorist organization, and was released in 2009.

All of this helps to explain the perplexed and bizarre reactions to the Hamas visit in Sofia and the failure to swiftly block access of Hamas into Bulgaria.

Some left-wing and anti- Israel European politicians have placated Hamas’s burning need for recognition. Geri Müller of the Swiss Green Party, for example, welcomed Hamas spokesman Mushir al- Masri, together with Hamas representatives Khamis Jawdat al-Najjar and Dr. Sayyid Abu Musamih to the Bundeshaus (the National Palace, which houses the Swiss parliament), to participate in a Human Rights Committee of the interparliamentary union, in early 2012. Switzerland is, however, a non-EU country and lacks modernized counter-terrorism policies, and Müller has faced criticism in the Swiss press for anti-Semitism.

Masri was in Bulgaria this time with Ismail al-Ashkar, head of the Hamas parliamentary list, and Hamas legislator Salah Bardaweel.

The Israeli-based blog “This Ongoing War,” authored by Frimet and Arnold Roth, wrote on Friday that “Mushir al- Masri long ago made clear his personal commitment to acts of terrorism like the Sbarro massacre [in 2001 at a pizza parlor in downtown Jerusalem] that was carried out by his cousin and with the explicit blessing and organizational input of Hamas.”

The blog cites a 2006 quote from Masri, calling for the “the weapons of the resistance that you see here will remain, Allah willing, so that we can liberate Palestine – all of Palestine – from the sea to the river, whether they like it or not.”

The Jerusalem Post obtained information about Hamas’s program in Bulgaria, which included a meeting with the opposition Socialist Party.

When asked about the program, Deniza Slateva, a spokeswoman for the party, told the Post by email on Friday that the organizers of the Hamas event in Sofia requested a meeting with Kristian Vigenin, who represents the party in the European Parliament.

According to Slateva, Mr. Vigenin said he would be ready to meet the delegation, but “when it was clarified what the background of those MPs was, and that they represent Hamas, the organizers of the event were informed that neither Mr. Vigenin nor any other representative of BSP [the Bulgarian Socialist Party] is ready to meet them.”

She said that ”BSP has no intention to challenge or to disregard the current status of Hamas as a terrorist organization. Our partner in Palestine is Fatah, full member of the Socialist International and observer member of the Party of European Socialists.”

Given the tendency among some left-wing parties in Europe to court radical Islamists, the BSP’s clear statement against Hamas is encouraging from a counterterrorism perspective.

Contrary to Hamas official Ahmad Yousef’s inflated and theatrical comments on Friday to the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency that the EU (excluding Germany and the Czech Republic) had “no reservations against removing Hamas from the terrorism list,” the Europeans show no signs of this.

Hamas blamed Israel for exerting pressure on the Bulgarians to expel their representatives.

Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a leading expert on the Hamas/Fatah rivalry, tweeted on Friday: “Did the PLO mission in Bulgaria play a role in the eviction of the Hamas delegation? Why else would it be involved?” On Saturday, when the Post reported that Bardaweel and other Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip said the Palestinian Authority Foreign Ministry contributed to the decision to expel the Hamas representatives, Schanzer's view was confirmed.

The Post wrote, “They [Hamas] said that PA Foreign Minister Riad Malki phoned his Bulgarian counterpart and told him that the Hamas legislators did not represent the PA and had no mandate to meet with Bulgarian officials and lawmakers.”

The PLO’s top representative in Bulgaria, Ahmed Madbouh, was largely silent about the visit, merely informing Ma’an that the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry told him that there was “regret” about the presence of the Hamas delegation and that Bulgaria asked the Hamas men to leave.

Benjamin Weinthal is a European affairs correspondent for The Jerusalem Post and a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He just returned from a week-long visit to Sofia.

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