Opinion

The Enemy Just Blinked: Why Hamas's New Charter Is a Big Deal

The revisions to Hamas’ infamously anti-Semitic and pro-violence founding document is unprecedented evidence that even an extremist organization is capable of change.

On paper, Hamas will soon be a less anti-Semitic and rejectionist organization.
Reuters

Thirty years after it was founded, Hamas is replacing its anti-Semitic and violent charter with a comprehensively revised document modifying several of its extreme and rejectionist positions. While several of these strategic changes are not completely new - they have at times been talked about by Hamas leaders, but later retracted or contradicted - expressly including them in its charter constitutes something quite unprecedented.

No matter what immediate effect these changes will have on Hamas's behaviour, from a broader strategic perspective, this is a big deal. The main reason for this is because the internal process required within Hamas to get all its different parts to unite and ratify these changes is simply enormous. The resolve and energy necessary to carry through this type of internal process is in itself proof of the importance attached to this change within Hamas.

By moderating its founding charter, the Islamist group governing Gaza shows no-one’s immune to realpolitik.
AP Photo/Hatem Moussa

Moreover, the actual group of individuals who have initiated and pushed through this enterprise have put their future in the organisation at stake, as well as their lives if it were to fail. To stand up in one of Hamas's shura councils, surrounded by extremists, and argue that the time has come to depart from the organisation's original plan as set out by its founding fathers cannot have been easy. To most members, this idea at first glance would have appeared tantamount to surrender - and to the more conservative ones, to heresy.

Moving Hamas from its position of utter rejection of Israel to achieving a consensus about the necessity for change, this group of individuals have engaged in several years of contentious internal debate. The process has also included extensive secret communication between Hamas's different organisational units in all of its four physically separated parts: Gaza, the West Bank, the prisons and the diaspora. At numerous times, Hamas's leadership has circulated various drafts of the document for comments, amendments and reservations from all of the different parts and units.

In addition to the difficult nature of the process in itself, the actual content of these changes also underlines the magnitude of all this. The new charter will include redresses of several of the group's most controversial standpoints, including:

A Palestinian state - Hamas will now agree on a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders. While not explicitly saying what will be on the other side of these borders, this acknowledges the existence of a foreign entity on the other side. Hamas will also say that it backs any peace agreement that can be reached between Israel and the Palestinian leadership, if it can be approved in a popular referendum.   

Armed struggle - As opposed to its former calls for the indiscriminate use of violence, Hamas will now state that, while it still considers the use of force to be its legitimate right, its focus will instead be on non-violent and popular resistance activities.

Non-Muslims - Hamas's new charter will relate to other religions, Judaism and Christianity in particular, in more conciliatory language. As opposed to the explicitly anti-Semitic references in the former document, Hamas will now say that religious minorities constitute an integral component of Palestinian society. Regarding Jews, the document will specify that Hamas's struggle concerns only those individuals who operate in and have settled beyond pre-1967 lines.

Relations with other Islamic organisations - Hamas will state that it does not have any organisational ties to other Islamic organisations. Due to its former close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, this statement marks a new chapter in the history of Hamas. Having recently been accused of conspiring with the Brotherhood against the Egyptian regime, as well as cooperating with global Salafi-Jihadi groups in Sinai, this is an attempt on the part of Hamas to deal with this. By doing so, however, Hamas will be regarded as a traitor by other extreme Islamist groups and risk a new wave of defections from its military ranks.  

Hamas won’t be relinquishing its arms. It still calls for the destruction of Israel beyond the pre-1967 lines.
REUTERS/ Suhaib Salem

In spite of all this, it is important to keep in mind that so far we are only talking about changes that have been made on paper. In addition, the reason behind these changes is not due to any profound longing for peace and democracy on the part of Hamas. Rather, it is all about real politics and flexibly adapting to the situation at hand. What we are seeing is nothing but a highly skilled political actor struggling to keep pace with changing political realities.

At the end of the day, Hamas has not yet relinquished its arms and is still calling for the destruction of Israel beyond the pre-1967 lines. But, importantly - no matter what Hamas's potentially ignoble intentions behind changing its charter may be - these changes are now a fait accompli, inked into its key ideological document and left there for the next generation of Hamsawis to deal with.

This shows that Hamas is indeed capable of change - and has realised that there will never be a Palestinian state spanning all the way "between the river and the sea". While this might not lead to any palpable results for Israelis immediately, eventually it will. For now, let us nevertheless recognise what has just happened. For the first time ever, the enemy just blinked.

Björn Brenner is a lecturer at the Swedish Defence University in Stockholm and a visiting fellow at Institut français du Proche-Orient in Amman, Jordan. He has conducted extensive field research in Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza. His latest book, "Gaza Under Hamas: From Islamic Democracy to Islamist Governance," was recently published by I.B.Tauris. Follow him on Twitter: @bjornbrenner