Analysis

Why Hamas' New Charter Is Aimed at Palestinians, Not Israelis

The hard-line document is based on one key notion: The concessions made by the PLO and Abbas' dominant Fatah faction haven't made Israel change

Palestinians take part in a protest in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem April 17, 2017.
AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

Hamas’ new “Document of General Principles and Policies” wasn’t intended to please Israel or Israelis. Its denial that Jews have any religious, emotional or historical affinity with this land is unequivocal. It says the Zionist project doesn’t only target the Palestinians, but is also the enemy of the Arab and Muslim people and endangers the peace and security of the whole world. And therefore, according to the document, it endangers all humanity. Finally, the single sentence about a state in the 1967 borders is far less dramatic than depicted.

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What’s new lies in other elements of the document, which is aimed first and foremost at the Palestinian people, and it contains articles and sentences formulated during years of negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization over national reconciliation.

The document is also aimed at the outside world, but not at Western governments. Rather, it’s aimed at Arab and Muslim states and the popular movements in Western countries that support the Palestinian struggle against the occupation.

This very hard-line document was written in the knowledge that the following conclusion is widespread among Palestinians: The concessions on fundamental principles made by the PLO and its dominant Fatah faction haven’t made Israel change; on the contrary, they have let it intensify its process of taking over territory and its rule over the Palestinian people.

In everything not connected to Israel, the document proves that Hamas is an organization attentive to criticism. Or as political chief Khaled Meshal put it Monday, it knows how to evolve and renew, and recognizes the danger of ossification. The main internal Palestinian criticism (aside from criticizing the politicization of religion) has been that Hamas isn’t a Palestinian national movement but rather serves a foreign agenda.

This criticism rests on Hamas’ 1988 charter in which it defined itself first of all as a religious Islamic resistance movement (rather than as a Palestinian one) and as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The website The New Arab found that in the charter’s approximately 12,000 words, the word “Allah” appears 73 times, “Islamic” 64 times, “jihad” 36 times and “Palestine” only 27 times. The original charter thus created the impression that Palestine and its people were merely tools in the battle to spread the Islamic religion.

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The new document is adapted to Hamas’ own self-definition: a “Palestinian Islamic national liberation and resistance movement” (in that order), whose goal is to liberate all of Palestine and fight “the Zionist project” (rather than the Jews). The charter’s point of departure – that the root of the conflict is religious – has disappeared from the new document. But even in the new document, Islam remains a source of authority; Palestine is an Arab and Muslim land, and Islam is what gives this land its special role.

Christians, women and the PLO

There are three other salient points on which the document is attentive to internal criticism. First, it addresses Palestinian Christians by mentioning Palestine as the place where Jesus was born. Second, the 1988 charter’s statements about women’s role in the house and family and as “the maker of men” who fight for liberation have been replaced by a general statement about women’s vital role in society. Third, the new document accepts the PLO as “the national framework for the Palestinian people,” in contrast to the charter’s contemptuous attitude toward the PLO.

The new document contains none of the anti-Semitic articles and sentences that characterized the charter. Supporters of the movement, especially in the West, advised it long ago to change these provisions.

One Hamas member told Haaretz that almost immediately after the charter was published in 1988, people in the movement urged that these sections be changed. The charter wasn’t written in a cooperative process, he explained, and it isn’t “scientifically or legally” accurate.

He said the Hamas members deported to Marj El Zhour in Lebanon in 1992-93 were the first to seriously discuss the need for changes. But the changes were never made because doing so required a lengthy, complex process of thought and consultation during difficult periods of military escalation.

The charter itself hasn’t been canceled. It’s a historic document that relates to a particular moment in the organization’s history, and Hamas isn’t renouncing it; nor is the new document called a “charter.” Canceling the charter would repeat the humiliation undergone by the PLO when it had to announce the repeal of certain provisions of its 1968 charter because they contradicted the Oslo Accords. But the Hamas charter is no longer the organization’s official ideological platform.

Not like the Comintern

Has Hamas indeed severed all connection with the Muslim Brotherhood just because the movement isn’t mentioned in the new document? Contrary to Fatah’s claims, the Hamas member said, Hamas’ connection with the Muslim Brotherhood has always been merely emotional, not an institutional, organizational, chain-of-command connection in which every subsidiary organization must obey orders from above, a kind of Soviet Comintern. The fact is, in different countries, parties affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood have adopted different policies.

The Hamas member also noted that work on the document began in 2013, back when Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was still president of Egypt. In other words, it was not driven by a realpolitik need to appease Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood government was toppled.

But it’s clear that in the new document, Hamas seeks to divest itself of any connection to Islamic religious extremism. The document stresses that it “opposes intervention in the internal affairs of any country.” And Meshal said explicitly that the proper venue for armed struggle is only in Palestine opposing the occupation, not outside it.

One could view this as political realism, given the organization’s dependence on Egypt, which is Hamas-run Gaza’s only gateway to the world. But it also reflects a real concern for Islam’s image and an understanding that Hamas must distance itself and its supporters from being identified with the Islamic State.

The final version of the document contains one sentence opposing security cooperation with Israel (which it defines as “collaboration”) that wasn’t present in the draft leaked earlier. The document also doesn’t recognize the legality of the Oslo Accords, but does address its product, the Palestinian Authority, saying the PA’s goal is to serve the entire Palestinian people. Or as Meshal put it, adherence to principles doesn’t negate recognition of the facts created by reality.

The same is true of the sentence about establishing a state “along the lines of the 4th of June 1967.” For years top Hamas officials have said, explicitly or implicitly, that the movement is willing to accept such an arrangement as long as it doesn’t include recognition of Israel. But the document says merely that Hamas recognizes that such a state – including “the return of the refugees” – is “a formula of national consensus.”

It remains to be seen whether the document’s rigid principles were actually meant to make it easier for Hamas to show political flexibility in “managing the conflict,” to use the document’s words.

The document doesn’t relate to Hamas as a ruling party, but only as a resistance movement. This is a convenient arrangement characteristic of Hamas’ acrobatic talents. It lets the organization bask in the glory of a resistance movement, which in turn helps it retain the Gaza Strip as a bastion of national rule.