Analysis

Hamas Pulls Old Israeli Trick in New Charter

The Gaza organization won't recognize Israel, but considers it responsible for what’s happening in the territories

In this file photo, supporters of Hamas hold a picture of Khaled Mashal during a rally to celebrate the militant group's 25th anniversary, in Ramallah, December 2012.
Majdi Mohammed/AP

Khaled Meshal has come a long way since the Mossad’s failed attempt on his life in 1997.

For 20 years, he’s ruled Hamas with an iron hand as head of its political bureau. He founded the Gaza section of the Palestinian state (which Israel labels a Hamas state); sidelined rivals; severed ties with Syria and Iran due to the Syrian civil war; juggled Egypt and Saudi Arabia; negotiated (indirectly) with Israel about prisoner swaps and cease-fires; and set up an economic infrastructure that finances both Hamas and Gaza. He is expected to step down soon, though no date has been set.

He didn’t personally write the policy document he released in Qatar this Monday. But it’s likely to be his legacy, albeit perhaps not his final act. Can he also reconcile Hamas with Fatah, so that the Palestinian Authority will be run by a single government? The answer doesn’t depend only on him. He faces a stubborn rival in Fatah leader (and current PA president) Mahmoud Abbas, who will do everything in his power to block a Hamas takeover of the PLO.

Many analyses have already been written about the policy document. Most deemed it a historic turning point, since it emphasized Hamas’ national character rather than its religious one, as the 1988 charter did. Hamas’ ties with the Muslim Brotherhood were severed; the justification for liberating Palestine became national rather the land’s status as Islamic land; the target became Israel rather than the Jews; and a Palestinian state need no longer be ruled by religious law.

Pundits are rightly analyzing the document’s every word – including its linguistic differences with the 1988 charter – since Hamas intellectuals, politicians and advisers spent years arguing over every comma.

But what’s most interesting is that the clerics largely gave way to the policy makers.

“The religious wing suffered a double blow,” one senior Hamas official said. “The first was when the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power in Egypt [in 2013], and subsequently designated a terrorist organization. The second was about a year later, when the Islamic State became the symbol of radical Islam – casting a heavy shadow over the image of all Islamist movements, including Hamas.”

The policy document is, to a large extent, a product of political and diplomatic circumstances, especially the new reality that emerged in the Middle East following the Arab Spring uprisings.

Hamas political chief Khaled Meshal launching the new Hamas charter in the Qatari capital, Doha, May 1, 2017.
KARIM JAAFAR/AFP

“Some movement members cited the conduct of the Ennahda party in Tunisia, which was founded in 1981 under the influence of the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, as a model for emulation,” the senior Hamas official continued. “Ennahda gave up control of the government, despite having won 37 percent of the vote in the election held after the revolution, to prevent a deep crisis in the country.

“Others cited the Turkish model – in which the constitution defines the state as secular, but it’s run by a religious party – as an appropriate compromise to reunite Palestine. Qatar – which, together with Turkey, has taken Iran’s place as the Gaza government’s main financier – proposed turning Hamas into a party, and a similar proposal came from Saudi Arabia.”

Some of these fingerprints are discernible in the final document. But another model is equally visible: the one set by Hezbollah, which earned much of its legitimacy by presenting itself as a Lebanese nationalist organization whose main goal was fighting Israel, not turning Lebanon into a Shi’ite religious state.

The document demonstrated pragmatism by deeming a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders a Palestinian national consensus, but without recognizing Israel or abandoning the armed struggle to oust it from all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Pragmatism was also reflected in the timing of its release. Granted, the wording was still being argued over until the last moment – and as Amira Hass reported in Haaretz, certain relatively moderate phrases were replaced by hard-line ones. But Abbas’ trip to Washington to meet U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday dictated the timetable.

“We could have kept arguing till we died; paradoxically, Abu Mazen and Trump saved us from an internal war of attrition,” said a Hamas activist in the West Bank, referring to Abbas by his Arab nickname.

Was the wording influenced by a desire to present a new position toward Israel?

“They’re now accusing us of obsequiousness toward Israel; claiming we sought to appease the United States so it would remove the movement from the list of terrorist organizations; alleging that we omitted any mention of the Muslim Brotherhood to appease Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi,” the activist complained. “It’s absurd!

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaking during a joint press conference with U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House, May 3, 2017.
Olivier Douliery/Bloomberg

“On the one hand, they expect the movement to uphold its principles and its religious character, so they can continue to define it as a radical religious movement and terrorist organization. But when we switch to pragmatism and translate reality into a realistic document, they accuse us of pretense and imposture.

“Why were you [Israel] willing to embrace the original charter as an authentic definition of the movement, which made it easier for you to describe it as a terrorist organization, but when we seek to change our image – in a document, and not just with statements – you accuse us of fraud?” he asks.

Yet this “accusation” isn’t disconnected from the statements of senior Hamas officials, who, ever since the document was published, have taken pains to state that nothing essential has changed in Hamas’ positions.

Hamas spokesman Husam Badran said this week that the document shouldn’t surprise anyone, because Hamas has long acted in accordance with its provisions and even stated them several times in the past.

Palestinian public opinion is divided between those who see the document as a deviation from Hamas’ principles (45.7 percent in a poll conducted by An-Najah University this week) and those who think Hamas is upholding its principles (42.9 percent).

Respondents were also divided over whether the document would increase or decrease Hamas’ popularity.

Israel believes nothing has changed: Hamas was and remains a terrorist organization.

The one sentence in the document that could enable flights of fancy was its mention of the 1967 lines: “Hamas considers the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of June 4, 1967, with the return of the refugees and the displaced to their homes from which they were expelled, to be a formula of national consensus.”

But it would be simplistic to view this as acceptance of the two-state solution, or of Fatah’s decision to recognize Israel’s existence in the Oslo Accords. Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel even according to this document and will continue to fight it.

Nevertheless, the document contains an interesting parallel to Israel’s position toward Hamas. Although Israel doesn’t recognize Hamas, it views it as the government responsible for everything in Gaza – from preventing anti-Israel terror to managing civilian life. When Israel accuses Hamas of violating international law or committing war crimes, and suggests that Gaza could become Switzerland if only Hamas would abandon terror, it’s demanding that Hamas act like a legitimate government.

Moreover, the division between Gaza and the West Bank serves Israel’s interests, because it enables Israel to say that Abbas doesn’t represent all Palestinians and therefore isn’t a partner for peace talks. Yet at the same time, it can demand security cooperation from Abbas, which strengthens Hamas’ position among the Palestinian public, since it opposes security cooperation.

By the same token, when Hamas’ policy document distinguishes between a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines and recognition of Israel, it’s saying it doesn’t view Israel as a legitimate political entity, but nevertheless considers it responsible for what happens in the territories because it’s an occupying power.

Like Israel, Hamas sees no contradiction between nonrecognition of an entity it deems illegitimate and assigning responsibility to that same illegitimate entity. And just as the status quo is convenient for Israel, it’s also convenient for Hamas.

In the end, policy isn’t determined by lofty statements of principle, but by circumstances on the ground. And nothing better confirms this truism than the new Hamas document.