Three Questions to Ask About Hamas' 'New Charter'

Published May 2nd, 2017 - 02:18 GMT
In a file photo, a demonstrator carries a Hamas flag on the roof of occupied Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque, June 3 2015. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)
In a file photo, a demonstrator carries a Hamas flag on the roof of occupied Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque, June 3 2015. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

At an event in Qatar yesterday, the Palestinian militant group Hamas introduced a new political document setting out the basics of their approach to the question of Palestine. The document was widely reported as being a “new charter” for the group, one that for the first time accepted the creation of a Palestinian state based on the borders of 1967, rather than all of historic Palestine.

A closer look at the document, however, shows that this reporting leaves many things to be desired. So, here’s three smart questions to ask if you really want to understand what this document means.

1. Is the document really a new charter?

The answer here seems to be an ambivalence that lends itself rather more to ‘no’ rather than ‘yes’. Khaled Meshaal, the group’s political leader, did not explicitly say that the document replaces the 1988 charter, which has been criticized for its antisemitism. Numerous other leaders have denied that it is a new charter. Thus, even if the document is for all intents and purposes a new charter, as British expert on Hamas Azzam Tamimi writes for Al Jazeera, it does not entirely lay the old one to rest.

While this allows Hamas to keep onside some of its hardliners who will not be happy at the idea of accepting a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines, it also means that the group cannot fully change its image in the eyes of Israelis and western governments who accuse it of hatred and intransigence.

The movement emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood in occupied Gaza in the late 1980s pledging to ‘liberate’ all of historic Palestine and establish an Islamic state in the country. It has since carried out many attacks against Israeli civilians, as well as fighting the Israeli military. It won the 2006 Palestinian elections, but the results were not recognized by Israel or the international community. Fighting between Fatah and Hamas led to the split between the West Bank and Gaza in 2007, and Hamas has controlled Gaza since that time.

2. Does the document really accept the idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza?

This claim has formed the headline of most of the reporting of the document’s release, but it is in fact far from clear. The document both seems to condition that acceptance and contradict itself at numerous points.

The acceptance of a state in the West Bank and Gaza is made on the condition that refugees are allowed to return to the homes from which they were expelled. The majority of Palestinian refugees were displaced in 1948, and their homes are in what is now Israel.

The Israeli government is extremely unlikely ever to accept the return of refugees as part of a peace deal, and so this seems like an offer Hamas can make without having to worry that they will ever be taken up on it.

In addition, the document maintains at numerous points that Hamas considers its duty to be to ‘liberate’ Palestine, and defines Palestine as everything which currently encompasses present-day Israel, West Bank and Gaza. This commitment clearly seems to contradict its ‘acceptance’ of a state just in the West Bank and Gaza.

3. Why is the movement publishing this document now?

The short answer is that Hamas is in a bind. The movement has long been shunned by the international community because of its history of attacking Israeli civilians. Israel only engages with the movement through violence, and has enforced a blockade of the Gaza Strip since the Hamas takeover in 2007. Egypt shut Gaza’s last lifelines to the outside word - the Rafah border crossing and the tunnels to Egypt - after Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became president in 2014 because of the movement’s links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

With Gaza on the edge of a total humanitarian catastrophe after ten years of the siege and three wars, Hamas badly needs something to bolster its legitimacy.

It seems therefore that the document is an attempt to open the door to the movement’s entry into the diplomatic mainstream by appearing to move closer to embracing the two state solution. It hopes to become more palatable to Israel and Israelis by excising the antisemitism from its original charter. It also aims to improve its relations with Egypt and the Gulf states who are enemies of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Whether any of that can actually be achieved appears unlikely. A spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, David Keyes, dismissed the document, telling the BBC that Hamas was "attempting to fool the world but it will not succeed". Abdelrahman Ayyash, a researcher on Islamist movements in Istanbul told the New York Times that, “It’s a huge step for Hamas, but I think they should temper their expectations about the reaction from the Egyptians.”

So, to sum up: is the document significant? Definitely, if only because it shows the pressure Hamas is under. Whether it leads to any real changes in their outlook and actions is another thing altogether.

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