Surrounded by European Union countries that consider the Palestinian Islamist organisation to be terrorist, Switzerland continues not to apply sanctions to Hamas, nor to ban its leaders from its territory. But since the attacks on 7 October, the Federal Council (government) has decided to use the word “terrorism” to describe the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood. It has also announced that it is going to carry out a “detailed analysis of financial flows” to the Middle East, a very Swiss way of saying that the government intends to control the sources of funding for Hamas.
It’s not every day that the Swiss government is booed at demonstrations. On 12 October, several hundred pro-Palestinian demonstrators at Place des Nations in Geneva demanded that Switzerland remain neutral, arguing that “as long as there is an occupation, resistance in Palestine is not terrorism”.
One of the leaders of this demonstration was none other than Hani Ramadan, director of the Islamic Centre of Geneva (CIG). Presented at the hearing as a “human rights defender”, he took the floor to denounce the “information emanating from the war propaganda of a colonising state”. According to him, there had never been any babies murdered or women raped. On the contrary, the “Palestinian soldiers”, “fighting Muslims”, would never touch a hair on the heads of women, children or the elderly, he claimed! It’s true that this grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, is no stranger to denial: we remember his rantings about 9/11 and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The day before, the Swiss government had announced in a press release that it condemned “the terrorist attacks by Hamas in Israel”, and that it was “of the opinion that Hamas should be classified as a terrorist organisation”. He instructed the Middle East Task Force (TFPO) “to examine the legal options for banning the organisation”. Why use such a “soft” tone to talk about such dramatic events? Because Swiss law is very strict in this area. It took Bern a long time to ban Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. “Hamas may be considered a terrorist organisation by the European Union and the United States, but not by the UN. Yet this is a condition for Berne”, explains the Lausanne daily 24 heures1.
No proof of financing?
Despite the Confederation’s proverbial slowness, the decision to ban should come quickly. This will be bad news for Hamas and its “sponsors”, Iran, Qatar and, more recently, Turkey, who until now have benefited from a welcoming land in the heart of Europe, with a renowned financial centre. Admittedly, there have never been any real revelations about NGOs in Switzerland that may have financed the Ezzedine al-Qassam brigades, the armed wing of Hamas. However, in 2003, the United States singled out the Palestinian Relief Association – Switzerland, without however bringing any decisive evidence against it2. This structure has since been dissolved.
We can also imagine that Hamas leaders, and all those who support them, are sufficiently well advised by their banking institutions not to open accounts in their names. Even so, wealth managers are now likely to be more curious about funding from the Middle East, bearing in mind that the US courts are not amused by the subject.
While the European Union is still questioning whether Hamas is using its financial support for the Palestinians, Switzerland sorted itself out five years ago. This is what Tamedia journalists found when they looked at the list of organisations active in the Middle East and subsidised by Switzerland.
Between 2017 and 2022, the number of NGOs supported by the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) was halved, from 69 to 30. The overall budget has also been reduced. In 2022, Switzerland’s total contributions to local NGOs amounted to CHF 5 million (€5.25 million), CHF 2 million less than in 2017.
Last year, the Confederation granted funds to 13 Palestinian NGOs (for a total of CHF 2.9 million) and 13 Israeli NGOs (for CHF 1.9 million). The remaining CHF 180,000 went to the Geneva Initiative, which aims to explore a two-state solution, but Berne will withdraw from it at the end of the year, and to three other NGOs in the “to be defined” category. But the Swiss government says it attaches “great importance to ensuring that its financial support is used wisely”.
Hamas leader in Switzerland
As a neutral country, Switzerland has always emphasised its good offices role, which requires it to be able to enter into dialogue with all parties (it acts as an intermediary between the United States and Iran). More than a decade ago, the Socialist Micheline Calmy-Rey, Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2003 to 2011, was heavily involved in the Middle East. In 2007, Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, was received with honours in Geneva. He was even able to talk to the Socialist International, an organisation that brings together the world’s socialist, social democratic and labour parties. Mahmoud Abbas took the opportunity to denounce the “bloody coup” that Hamas had just carried out in the Gaza Strip…
Two years later, Switzerland received Mahmoud al-Zahar, then head of the political wing of Hamas. “He is an important player, and cannot be ignored in the resolution of the conflict”, explained the Swiss Foreign Minister. The Palestinian leader, two of whose sons were killed in clashes with the Israeli army, was able to meet not only diplomats, but also parliamentarians and journalists. As a result, relations between Berne and Tel Aviv cooled considerably.
The day after the attacks on 7 October, the current head of the Department of Foreign Affairs, the right-wing Liberal-Radical Ignazio Cassis, rushed to announce that the Confederation could not “classify Hamas as a terrorist organisation”. He was almost immediately disowned by the other members of the government.
1- Florent Quiquerez, “La répudiation du Hamas par la Suisse est programmée”, 24 heures, 9 October 2023.
2- Sylvain Besson, “Qui se cache derrière l’ONG suisse accusée de flirter avec le terrorisme ?”, Le Temps, 28 August 2003.