Hebron, Occupied West Bank – In the past couple of weeks, the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, succeeded in making the issue of its “new political document” a major news headline. It was not just about propaganda; Hamas was also preparing its anxious supporters for the release of the document, while gauging reactions on the leaked clauses of the new document.
The controversy surrounding the movement’s former Charter, first published in 1988, is not new. It dates back to the second Palestinian uprising (known as the Second Intifada) in 2000, especially after the late Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin stated in 2003 that Hamas would accept the two-state solution as a temporary solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
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Hamas then signed the Palestinian Cairo Declaration in 2005, indicating its readiness to join the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) without the prerequisite of the PLO adopting Islam as a framework for liberation. Hamas also then participated in the elections in 2006 and became the ruling power.
All of these developments showed a clear contradiction between the terms of the Hamas Charter and the movement’s political discourse and behaviour.
Several Hamas leaders have repeatedly criticised the Charter, as did the opponents of the movement. Despite such criticism, the Charter remained untouched for nearly three decades. Though the movement clearly realised the need to take such criticisms into consideration, however, it did not dare to replace the Charter.
Instead, it released a new one on Monday and was keen on several occasions to emphasise that the new document was not to replace or nullify the old one. This indicates that Hamas might be concerned about the unity of its ranks and its support base, which prevented any change in the Charter previously.
Along the years, Hamas struggled so as not to appear – to the Palestinian people – to be a follower of the PLO, especially since the PLO is constantly subject to local, regional and international pressures that could portray Hamas as a defeated movement, which would mean losing a portion of its supporters.
According to analysts, joining the PLO could create divisions within the Hamas movement. For this reason, releasing a “new political document” was a safer option for maintaining the group’s organisational structure.
It is possible to explain Hamas’ strategy in the next phase, and the factors that pushed it to announce the new political document now, by analysing some of the clauses of the new document.
The new document is more in accordance with the movement’s rhetoric and behaviour in the past few years. It can be argued that the provisions of the new document are neither a replacement of, nor in contradiction with, the 1988 charter clauses. Rather, the document provides interpretations of the former charter.
Since the end of the Second Intifada, the movement has – on several occasions – expressed its desire to participate in the administration of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the PLO, and to partner up with all of the Palestinian factions.
After releasing the document, Hamas now seems more capable of building this partnership, and confirmed to its opponents that its rhetoric and behaviour are proof of its readiness to be a homogeneous part of the Palestinian political system.
And while Hamas initially presented itself first as an Islamic movement, and recognised armed resistance as the only legitimate form of resistance, here it is today, declaring itself a Palestinian movement without connections to any non-Palestinian groups, and calling on the PLO to be “rebuilt on democratic foundations”, while also accepting all kinds of resistance as a “legitimate right”, as shown in articles 25, 29, and 30.
Going forward, Hamas is expected to pay greater attention to the issue of joining the PLO, and will seek to build Palestinian alliances to overcome the era of Oslo Accords, with the possibility of accepting an agreement on the areas occupied in 1948.
In its new document, Hamas shows more maturity than the usual emotional rhetoric of Palestinian leaders. It recognises that a relationship with the Arab governments is necessary to ensure the freedom of movement for Palestinians, at the bare minimum. It also sees the importance of securing financial support for Palestinian institutions from the region.
Here, it seems that the absence of any reference to Hamas’ relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood in the new document, was a face-saving tactic in front of its supporters at home and abroad, thus facilitating the movement’s efforts to mend fences with regional actors.
The new document emphasises the movement’s rejection of “sectarian extremism and bigotry” and affirms its support for the values of tolerance, justice, and minority rights. It also made it abundantly clear that its conflict is with Zionism as a political movement, and not Judaism – a clause that prevented it from establishing relations with western governments in the past.
Such changes will make it easier for Hamas’ Palestinian supporters across the world to defend it, but the movement will remain a party that the Western governments will refuse to deal with.
The document also re-emphasises its rejection of the Middle East Quartet’s demands; reaffirming its rejection of the Oslo Accords, its decision not to recognise the legitimacy of Israel, and its support for armed resistance.
This month, the movement is also expected to announce a new Hamas leader to replace Khaled Meshaal. The most likely successor is 54-year-old Ismail Haniya, Hamas’ Gaza-based political leader, known for his flexible positions.
The February 2017 election of Yahya Sinwar, a founding member of the group’s military wing, as the new leader of Hamas in Gaza, led some to predict the dominance of the military arm over the political wing of the movement.
However, Sinwar’s ascendancy was necessary for preserving the movement’s unity and achieving balance. The aforementioned fear of Hamas softening its stance towards Israel in this new document, required the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, to highlight and reaffirm the movement’s focus on armed resistance.
This was not only achieved with the election of Sinwar, but also by the local media’s promotion of Qassam achievements in recent months in an attempt to stave off the fears that Hamas may slip into the PLO framework.
Electing Haniya would be in line with the democratic values that Hamas has advocated in its new political document and ensures a channel of communication with external players. Similarly, Sinwar’s election was important for maintaining the cohesion of Hamas as a resistance movement.
Haniya, who is known for his moderate stances since the mid-1990s, when he was one of the supporters of the first legislative elections in 1996, would be a good choice in Hamas’ viewpoint for succeeding Meshaal with the new political document in hand.
Among other leaders in the movement, Haniya is one of the most accepted by the rest of the Palestinian factions. And as he is a leader in Gaza, he will relieve the movement of the accusations that it was bowing to pressures after it was exiled from Syria to Qatar, which will make it more capable of building relations with regional powers.
If Haniya is elected, it may be possible for Hamas to manoeuvre more smoothly with the Arab states and western powers.
In the coming days, news headlines will focus on Hamas’ acceptance of a state within the 1967 borders, but it seems that the new political document will push Palestinians even further away from this option.
Hamas has placed this provision because it is temporary, and Hamas sees that liberation is not incumbent on statehood, which means that its focus will be on the PLO and not the PA.
Now that it has accepted new methods of resistance as legitimate, Hamas may, in fact, seek to establish a coalition based on popular resistance that rejects the Oslo Accords.
Belal Shobaki is a policy analyst at Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, and the head of the political science department at Hebron University.