In the wake of Bulgaria’s expulsion of a group from Hamas, it is time for some clarity about the context of the drama.
Disinformation surrounded the visit by the Hamas group from start to finish. Initially, it was claimed by the organisers of the visit that the group was in the Bulgarian capital Sofia at the invitation of the government, a claim that Bulgaria hastened to underline was untrue.
The Hamas group came to Bulgaria effectively under false pretences, failing to notify Sofia of the overt political purpose of their visit. The stated purpose, according to the group’s hosts, the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, was that it had organised the visit as a sign that Bulgaria “should have a balanced policy towards the Middle East”.
This claim was patently fatuous, as quick reference to – among several other things – the balanced position taken by Bulgaria in November 2012 in welcoming the Israel – Hamas ceasefire.
The fact is that Sofia was chosen as a theatre stage in the continuing contest between Hamas and Fatah, which dates back several years, has occasionally erupted into violence and has left a fission in Palestinian politics and governance, with both parties claiming to be the legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people.
Hamas, officially deemed a terrorist organisation by the European Union (a stance in which the EU is not alone), sought a platform in the capital of one of those EU states. The group got media attention, but not only did not succeed in getting meetings at any level with government representatives but also did not succeed in meeting representatives of any other political forces.
Inevitably, the action taken by the State Agency for National Security to expel the Hamas group from Bulgaria was, in the view of Hamas, taken under “Zionist pressure”. Depiction of any such action as simply Bulgaria acting as the marionette of Israel is routine by the likes of Hamas (and Hezbollah, to mention another continuing issue regarding blame for the Bourgas Airport terrorist attack), but the fact is that it is a matter of public record that the surprise visit by the Hamas group was rapidly the subject of discussions between Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov and other senior Foreign Ministry officials with Palestine’s foreign minister and the Palestinian ambassador in Sofia.
After speaking to Riyad al-Maliki, the foreign minister of the Palestinian authority, Mladenov said: “Our relationship with the Palestinian Authority is a direct one and it goes through the government in Ramallah and the embassy of the Palestinian state in Sofia”.
There is a clear factual basis to Mladenov saying this. All recent high-level visits by Bulgarian officials to Israel have also seen stops in Ramallah. Consider the bilateral agreements signed between Bulgaria and the Palestinian authority in October 2012 during a visit by President Rossen Plevneliev, who was accompanied by Mladenov.
Hamas, in its February 16 statement demanding an official apology from Bulgaria for the expulsion, was being disingenuous, to say the least, especially considering the economy with the truth practiced in the visa process to enter the country.
A fair question would be how any other EU country would react to finding itself amid media reports that members of a listed terrorist organisation had appeared in its capital and were saying that they were meeting government officials on the basis of an official invitation. While theoretically the listing as a terrorist organisation constricts financing issues and not a blanket travel ban, it is difficult if not impossible to imagine that any other responsible EU state would have reacted in any way different from Bulgaria, especially considering that the theatre of the visit was more than a political publicity stunt in an enduring contest with a rival, but also given the tensions around the issue represented by the visit, also a clear threat to national security.