The "war in Gaza" segment of the SBS evening news invariably includes the comment that Hamas is designated by Australia as a terrorist organisation. But the listing of militant nationalist organisations like Hamas (or Hezbollah) as terrorist entities can be contentious and may be of debatable value.
Most such organisations have political and military wings, and it's the military wing that often engages independently in acts of terrorism. Should the entire organisation be branded a terrorist group - or should there be some differentiation between the non-violent and violent parts of a politically-motivated organisation?
This is particularly important when dealing with organisations like Hamas, given the urgent need for political progress on the Israel/Palestine issue.
Hamas as a political party was elected to govern Gaza in 2006. Since then, Hamas has been the governing body in Gaza, responsible for the administration and provision of government services, including health, education, and security. It holds seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council and has significant popular support among Palestinians.
Designating the political wing of Hamas as a terrorist organisation may be seen as US-driven to de-legitimise a political entity that represents much of the Palestinian population. It also conveniently lets Israel off the hook diplomatically, as Israel can't be expected to hold talks with terrorists.
The US was the first country to designate the whole of Hamas as a foreign terrorist organisation, back in 1997. Canada followed in 2002. The UK listed Hamas's military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, as a terrorist organisation in 2001, but did not designate the whole of Hamas until 2019. Australia designated the military wing as a terrorist organisation in 2003, and the whole of Hamas in 2022. New Zealand still considers only the military wing to be a terrorist organisation.
Past Western practice has been to accept some differentiation between the political and military wings of militant organisations (as with the Irish nationalist group Sinn Fein and Provisional IRA) in order to leave the door open for backdoor discussions (often conducted through the intelligence and security services) and allow for more substantive political dialogue if necessary.
Historically, the military wings of insurgent and nationalist organisations have engaged in terrorism to generate progress on the political front.
Israel itself was born out of such a process. In the mid-1940s, Irgun and Lehi extremist elements of the Jewish Resistance Movement engaged in terrorism to drive the British out of Palestine. The ongoing violence was successful in leading to the termination of the British Mandate for Palestine, and Israel was able to declare itself independent on May 14, 1948.
The use of terrorism to achieve political outcomes has long been part of the Palestinian struggle as well. Palestinian aircraft hijackings that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s were part of a broader pattern of Palestinian violence aimed at achieving progress towards an independent Palestine.
Over time, international pressure and condemnation, as well as changes in the political landscape, led to shifts in the various Palestinian groups' strategies. By the 1990s, there was a recognition among some Palestinian leaders and the government of Israeli that a negotiated settlement was preferable to violence.
The 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords represented a significant step in that direction, leading to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian self-governance in parts of the West Bank and Gaza.
The Oslo Accords proposed to address key issues, such as the status of Palestinian territories, security cooperation, and a framework for future negotiations on borders, return of refugees, and Jerusalem. There was supposed to be an outcome within five years - but there has been little political progress since 1995 because the status-quo significantly favoured Israeli and US interests.
To try to get the negotiation process moving again, Palestinian extremists have regularly engaged in acts of terrorism against Israel, particularly the use of unguided rockets from Gaza. In their view if they do not continue to harass Israel, Palestinian aspirations for nationhood will be ignored and Israel will continue to absorb the West Bank through expanded Jewish settlements.
The large-scale 7 October Palestinian terrorist attacks seem to be due to a prevailing view in Hamas that piecemeal terrorist attacks on Israel had achieved nothing, and there was a need for a major offensive to re-energise international pressure on Israel. It probably also reflected Palestinian concerns about Israel being about to normalise its political relationship with key Arab states, like Saudi Arabia, leading to an inevitable marginalisation of Palestinian interests.
How much or whether Hamas's political leaders were involved in the decision-making process for the 7 October attacks is not known.
In its proscription of Hamas, Australia acknowledges: "The brigades exist within the overall organisational structure of Hamas, subordinate to its political leadership, but structured as a distinct paramilitary wing. While decisions of the political leadership probably take precedence, the brigades operate with a degree of independence and may not seek approval from the political leadership for operational activities."
Labelling the whole of Hamas as a terrorist group has complicated the delivery of humanitarian aid to the people in Gaza, allowed Israel to make Gaza a sealed enclave, and hindered international efforts to normalise living conditions in Gaza. It's therefore extremely important to consider the implications of such designations for future diplomatic efforts, humanitarian assistance, and regional political dynamics.
Traditionally Australia has supported Israel and ignored the plight of the Palestinians. Now might be a good time for Australia to adopt a more proactive and balanced approach to achieving a long-term political solution - and not necessarily one that favours US interests. As added political incentive, street demonstrations in Australia suggest that because of the enormous loss of civilian lives in Gaza, there may now be more public support for the Palestinians than there is for Israel.
- Clive Williams is a visiting fellow at the ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre