The following essay is an abridged version of Khaled Hroub’s essay with the same title that appeared on Journal of Palestine Studies (46) 4, 2017, 100-111. We would like to thank the author and the University of California Press for their permission to publish this adapted version on Maydan and JPS for their editorial work on this version.
In terms of general form and tone, the document unveiled on 1 May 2017 in Doha by the outgoing head of Hamas’s political bureau, Khalid Mishal, is couched in straightforward and mostly pragmatic political language. Unlike earlier and seminal texts such as the 1988 Hamas Charter, where vague religious rhetoric and outlandish utopian pronouncements prevailed, the new Hamas document outlines the movement’s positions on the fundamentals of the Arab-Israeli conflict in forty-two carefully worded and numbered paragraphs, including a preamble. While asserting the movement’s adherence to its founding principles, the document also exhibits flexibility by leaving gray areas allowing Hamas political room for maneuver in the future.
“While asserting the movement’s adherence to its founding principles, the document also exhibits flexibility by leaving gray areas allowing Hamas political room for maneuver in the future.”Such cautious calibration is, however, counterbalanced by the simultaneous attempt to address what is, in effect, a broad array of often conflicting constituencies. These include the movement’s own core base, its wider circles of support inside and outside Palestine, its Islamist allies in the region and beyond (particularly organizations affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood), Arab and non-Arab governments in the region (notably Iran and Turkey), and, last but not least, Western and Israeli policymakers. Criticism of the new document soon surfaced from quarters as diverse as the audiences it addressed, and they spanned the gamut from disparaging Hamas for offering nothing new to accusations that it was making unwarranted compromises. The official Israeli response was crassly patronizing, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gleefully tearing up a copy of the document in front of the camera. Sister Islamist organizations such as the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine (PIJ) criticized the document for undermining fundamental Palestinian principles. U.S. and European responses appeared lackadaisical, but close attention seems to have been paid “behind the scenes.”
In its preamble, the document provides a nonreligious definition of Palestine [that] breaks significantly with that of the 1988 charter describing Palestine as an “Islamic endowment” (waqf) that belongs to the Muslim nation at large. In an eponymously named section borrowing from the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (revised) 1968 charter, the document goes on to define who constitutes “the Palestinian people.” In a similar vein, Hamas’s description of itself appears in a section titled “The Movement” that is couched in language quite different from the 1988 charter.
“Framing the struggle in nationalist terms is not only a novel element of the 2017 document but it is repeatedly emphasized and clearly articulated.”
Framing the struggle in nationalist terms is not only a novel element of the 2017 document but it is repeatedly emphasized and clearly articulated. Steering away from the tenor of the original charter where the struggle against Israel is depicted as a religious one, here Hamas makes plain that the “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.” To be fair, Hamas and its leadership have been making this distinction since the 1990s but its statements have failed to countervail the anti-Semitic overtones of the 1988 charter. The new document offers a definitive framing of the struggle against Zionism and Israel as having nothing to do with religion.
The document also tackles the Oslo Accords. The new and interesting element here is the grounding of Hamas’s position in political argumentation and the principles of international law rather than in religious claims.
“The document also tackles the Oslo Accords. The new and interesting element here is the grounding of Hamas’s position in political argumentation and the principles of international law rather than in religious claims.”
The document addresses the thorny issue of the PLO and its representativeness. Hamas has always viewed any acknowledgment of the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people as denying [it] the opportunity of casting itself as an alternative. But the movement has also avoided an overt and public rejection of the PLO’s representativeness knowing that this would come at a tremendous cost since the majority of Palestinians still view the PLO as their national political umbrella.
Significance and Background
A hasty reading of the new document may lead to the conclusion that little is new. However, a closer analysis reveals novel approaches, nuanced policy stands, and the willingness to create openings designed to shake off perceptions of Hamas’s rigidity and stand as a new official policy document that speaks in the name of the movement as a whole.
So, what promoted Hamas to unveil its revised platform at this time? Were there any pressing elements involved, whether in terms of timing, context, and/or immediate audiences to target? While concrete answers may be difficult to provide, it is possible to extrapolate answers to these questions by contextualizing the publication of the document.
To understand the context behind the release of the new document, it is useful to examine the increasing pressures on Hamas since it seized power in the Gaza Strip in 2007, and particularly since the eruption of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011. The current document comes on the heels of Hamas’s ten-year anniversary as the governing entity in the Gaza Strip during which the movement’s political choices have grown more constrained [at both] Palestinian and regional levels. Hamas’s current challenges started soon after it assumed power, as an immediate blockade was imposed on the Gaza Strip in general, and on Hamas in particular, by Israel and Egypt, with the approval of the United States and the European Union. Ever since, Hamas’s predicament has evolved around four major tracks of action, each with its own address, so to speak.
The first track was working on ending the blockade and the main address was Cairo, with Hamas offering concessions over the control of the Rafah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. The second was opting for internal Palestinian reconciliation. The main address here being Fatah and the PA, with Hamas offering concessions to the Palestinian president that could amount to abandoning their full control over Gaza. The third track was agreeing to a long-term truce with Israel in return for an easing of the blockade (despite Egypt’s reluctance). The address here was Tel Aviv, with Hamas risking damage to its image and [the] support [it receives] as a resistance movement. And fourth, was remaining passive and opting for a wait-and-see approach in anticipation of regional developments that might bring about favorable changes.
“Over the period of 2007-10, Hamas tested the waters on the first three options intermittently, realizing that the cost was unbearably high for each of them, and thus resorted to the safer wait-and-see default option.”Over the period of 2007-10, Hamas tested the waters on the first three options intermittently, realizing that the cost was unbearably high for each of them, and thus resorted to the safer wait-and-see default option. It should be noted that the latter option has come at tremendous cost in terms of the Gaza Strip’s economy and the extreme hardship experienced by the population due to the relentless blockade and successive Israeli attacks (2008-9, 2012, and 2014), which according to the United Nations will render the entire territory uninhabitable by 2020. Hamas has of course been paying the resulting cost in terms of its popularity and support.
Regional and International Context
For a short period of time, things seemed to change extraordinarily for Hamas, with Egypt’s blockade of Gaza all but lifted. In 2011-12 the election of Muslim Brotherhood (MB) head Mohamed Morsi as Egypt’s president strengthened the movement’s standing almost overnight. The rising tide of Islamist parties elsewhere in those two years came as a lifeline for Hamas, erroneously leading to a sense of overconfidence. Winning Egypt’s support encouraged Hamas to risk losing that of Syria and Iran in 2012 after the movement’s public endorsement of the Syrian uprising. Having Cairo, Ankara, and Doha on its side counterbalanced losing Damascus and Tehran in Hamas’s calculus.
“Hamas’s Arab Spring gamble failed, however, as Egypt not only returned to pre-uprising politics but in July 2013 was taken over by military strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.”
Hamas’s Arab Spring gamble failed, however, as Egypt not only returned to pre-uprising politics but in July 2013 was taken over by military strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
From the vantage point of this wider regional perspective, some general considerations can be enumerated that informed the publication of Hamas’s new document. In the first place, Hamas wanted to create a more flexible and moderate political and diplomatic framework that might encourage the various players to consider easing the blockade on the Gaza Strip and its two million Palestinians. [. . .] In an attempt to both defy [the dictates of the Middle East Quartet] and distance itself from the “terrorist organization” label, Hamas has endeavored to project a different image of itself—as a responsible political partner, whose leadership won free and fair elections, which is capable of speaking the language of both politics and resistance in its own way and without succumbing to external pressure. The new document published in May 2017 falls in line with that effort.
The document could also be read as an attempt to repackage Hamas’s long-standing positions. On the Egypt-blockade track, Hamas projects itself as a capable political party that has nothing in common with terrorist groups such as al-Qa‘ida and the Sinai Province of the Islamic State (SPIS) and as being independent of the MB. That message is meant to facilitate the opening of channels to dialogue with Cairo without the specter of the Brotherhood in the backdrop.
“The document could also be read as an attempt to repackage Hamas’s long-standing positions.”The same message is also directed at other Arab countries, in particular Jordan and the Gulf states. A number of these, spearheaded by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and to a lesser degree Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Bahrain, are engaged in what could be considered a region-wide war against the MB. Over the past several years, Hamas has realized that its historical antecedents with the MB are damaging rather than benefiting the movement’s standing. In the current atmosphere, abandoning its association with the MB and demonstrating complete independence from other transnational organizations allow Hamas to reassure MB-nervous countries.
One of the most striking developments around the issuance of the document was the simultaneous departure of Hamas leader Mishal, who had been at the helm for almost twenty years. As head of the political bureau, Mishal was the architect of the document, which he fashioned as his tangible legacy to the movement. Another significant development has been the rise of military leaders to the top echelons of the organization during recent internal elections. The outgoing leadership, represented by Mishal, seemed to have wanted a solid consensus on all declared Hamas positions, committing the new leadership to those positions.
“The outgoing leadership, represented by Mishal, seemed to have wanted a solid consensus on all declared Hamas positions, committing the new leadership to those positions.”It is worth noting here that over the decades of struggle with Israel, Hamas has been the only Palestinian organization that has never succumbed to splits and that has managed to sustain a great deal of internal unity.
Palestinian over Pan-Islamist Context
There is no claim in the document that Hamas is abandoning its religious and Islamic pedigree. However, the emphasis on the “Palestinian-ness” of Palestine, and on the Palestinian nationalism articulated in the new document, has never been as clear or obvious in previous movement literature.
Severing links with the MB was not only directed to regional and international audiences as discussed above, but was aimed equally at engaging with internal Palestinian politics. The new Hamas document is concerned with the contemporary boundaries of Palestine (in fact, the very boundaries created by the British Mandate), declaring them to be immutable. Against the concreteness of geography, history is invoked only rhetorically. That the Palestinian people are part of the Arab and Muslim ummah is mentioned several times, but again only in passing fashion.
Asserting nationalist connections in new language while abandoning links with Islamist transnationalism, Hamas attempts to counter an oft-repeated accusation in the Palestinian arena that the movement is more loyal to pan-Islamist causes than to national Palestinian aspirations.
Internal Contradictions or “Openings”?
The new document is carefully worded, with many gray areas concerning some of the movement’s specific positions. It is clear that many of the opacities in the document have been deliberately included. This approach will not satisfy a number of actors, including those that wanted Hamas to recognize Israel along similar lines to the PLO, and those that wanted it to reject a two-state solution. The challenge of Hamas’s attempt to protect itself with a buffer zone of ambiguity while trying to satisfy many constituencies has created points of tension and ambivalence in the document.
“The new document is carefully worded, with many gray areas concerning some of the movement’s specific positions. It is clear that many of the opacities in the document have been deliberately included.”
Three main areas of ambivalence can be summarized as follows: Hamas’s acceptance of a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines without outright recognition of Israel; its rejection of the Oslo Accords while accepting the PA; and its emphasis on diversifying the means and methods of resistance as well as “managing resistance” through escalation and de-escalation according to circumstance.
Hamas’s new document has shifted the movement’s positions and policies further toward the spheres of pragmatism and nationalism as opposed to dogma and Islamism. With this shift, Hamas creates areas of positive ambiguity that can be considered as openings to facilitate the emergence of new creative and inclusive approaches for other actors to deal with the movement, whether to end the blockade on Gaza or to resolve the conflict as a whole. Yet, the very same areas of intended incongruity could also be seen as impediments or obstacles that confirm Hamas’s unchanging nature. It all depends on who wants to see what in the new document, how they use it or misuse it, and which agenda they are pursuing.