Palestine: What’s behind Hamas’ new charter?

A Hamas-led rally on April 1 against the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.
May 6, 2017

Leaders of Palestinian political party Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, released a document outlining their guiding principles at a press conference in the Qatari capital Doha on May 1.

Much coverage focused on the document’s acceptance of Israel’s 1967 boundary as the basis for establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The document also includes pronouncements on how Hamas views the roots of the conflict, the role of Palestinian resistance and its position towards Jewish people.

It aims to reposition Hamas as part of a Palestinian national consensus and as a negotiator that can eventually be part of an internationally brokered political resolution.

The document attempts to do this without compromising basic principles — which leads to some apparent contradictions.

With an eye to international opinion, Hamas released its “Document of General Principles and Policies” in official Arabic and English versions.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said the new document had been two years in the making. In reality, it is the culmination of internal debates that go back more than a decade.

Jews not the enemy

Hamas leaders have long recognised that the group’s founding charter, written by one man in 1988, served as an impediment to political outreach within and beyond Palestine.

Few would dispute that the worst aspect of the original charter was its unabashedly anti-Jewish language. Borrowing from classic European anti-Semitism, it even cites as a reference the anti-Semitic hoax The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Even if this long ago ceased to reflect Hamas leaders’ thinking, these odious statements served as reliable weapons in Israel’s anti-Palestinian propaganda.

The new document states: “Hamas affirms that its conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion. Hamas does not wage a struggle against the Jews because they are Jewish, but wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine...

“It is the Zionists who constantly identify Judaism and the Jews with their own colonial project and illegal entity.”

This brings Hamas into line with the historic position of the Palestinian national movement. As Palestine Liberation Organisation chair Yasser Arafat stated in his 1974 speech to the United Nations: “We do distinguish between Judaism and Zionism. While we maintain our opposition to the colonialist Zionist movement, we respect the Jewish faith.”

Meshaal had already made a similar statement in 2012. “We do not fight the Jews because they are Jews,” he said. “We fight the Zionist occupiers and aggressors. And we will fight anyone who tries to occupy our lands or attacks us.”

Anti-colonial struggle

The original charter characterised the problem in Palestine as rooted in Muslim-Jewish religious strife and described the land of Palestine as an Islamic “waqf” or endowment.

But in his 2007 book Hamas: A History from Within, scholar Azzam Tamimi wrote that Hamas leaders already felt that they needed to move away from these concepts and seek more universal language.

Tamimi noted, “The problem of Palestine is today seen by many Islamists, including leaders and members of Hamas, simply as the outcome of a colonial project” which could better be explained “in political, social or economic terms, than in terms of religion”.

The new document reflects this thinking, stating: “The Palestinian cause in its essence is a cause of an occupied land and a displaced people.”

It also removes mention of Palestine as an Islamic waqf, affirming that Palestine is “the birthplace of Jesus Christ” and the resting place of prophets.

In the new document, Hamas states that the “establishment of ‘Israel’ is entirely illegal and contravenes the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people.” It affirms that there will be no recognition of the “usurping Zionist entity” or any concession on the right of return for refugees.

Yet, in seeming contradiction, it states: “Without compromising its rejection of the Zionist entity and without relinquishing any Palestinian rights, Hamas considers the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 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.”

In other words, Hamas is formally signing up to the two-state solution at the very moment it is becoming clear that such an outcome is not on the cards.

Irish model?

Putting that aside, a good analogy for Hamas’s balancing act would be Irish republican party Sinn Fein’s acceptance of the 1998 Belfast Agreement. This entailed entering a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, while simultaneously continuing to reject the partition of Ireland.

Sinn Fein is campaigning to abolish Northern Ireland and bring about a single state on the island of Ireland — an outcome the Belfast Agreement allows if a majority backs it in a referendum.

Something similar has been articulated by Hamas leaders for years. In a 2006 New York Times article, Hamas adviser Ahmed Yousef proposed a long-term truce — citing the Irish peace process as a model for ending conflict without Palestinians abandoning their positions.

In 2009, Meshaal told the NYT that his party had “accepted a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders including East Jerusalem, dismantling settlements, and the right of return based on a long-term truce”.

The new document attempts a similar balancing act with respect to internal Palestinian politics. It states that the 1993 Oslo Accords signed between the PLO and Israel “violate the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people”. It also condemns as “collaboration” the ongoing “security coordination” between Israeli forces and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

But Hamas also accepts the PA as a reality, arguing that it should “serve the Palestinian people and safeguard their security, their rights and their national project”. Hamas calls for rebuilding the PLO — of which it is not currently a member — on “democratic foundations.”

Since it won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, Hamas has been subjected to discriminatory conditions by the so-called Quartet — the ad hoc grouping of the European Union, United Nations, United States and Russia — who claim authority over the question of Palestine.

In order to be recognised as an interlocutor, Hamas is required to renounce violence, recognise Israel and accept all previous agreements.

Israel, meanwhile, is not required to recognise a Palestinian state or any Palestinian rights. Israel continues to use violence with impunity — with weapons supplied by the Quartet states — and routinely tramples signed agreements and international law with its huge colonisation of occupied Palestinian land.

Resistance

In its new document, Hamas asserts that resistance, including armed resistance, “is a legitimate right guaranteed by divine laws and by international norms and laws”. Indeed, the right to armed resistance against occupation is internationally recognised.

Hamas adds: “Managing resistance, in terms of escalation or de-escalation, or in terms of diversifying the means and methods, is an integral part of the process of managing the conflict and should not be at the expense of the principle of resistance.”

In other words, Hamas sees armed resistance as something to be used or not used as circumstances dictate. If a political horizon opens up, it can turn away from armed resistance without conceding the right — just as other liberation movements have done.

Israel, unsurprisingly, dismissed Hamas’ new document before it had even been published as a rebranding exercise designed to “fool the world.”

The reality, however, is that despite their differences, both major wings of the Palestinian national movement — Hamas and Fatah — have expressed varying degrees of readiness for an accommodation with Israel.

It is Israel that stands adamantly against any political process or agreement that would place a limit on its voracious theft of Palestinian land.

More than providing anything new, the Hamas document confirms and enshrines long-term shifts in the movement’s thinking.

[Abridged from The Electronic Intifada.]

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