A new Hamas?

Image: Screenshot of the translated version of Hamas' new charter.

By Erik Skare
The new political document of Hamas has understandably received much attention from the media after it was published on the movement’s website 01 May 2017 (can be found in English and in Arabic). Not surprisingly, the new policies and principles of Hamas highlight an evident ideological and real-political change within the movement that have been long expected.

As the original charter of 1988 was formulated within a distinct religious framework, and with clearly anti-Semitic references in the way it portrayed people of Jewish faith, it became a source of embarrassment for its leading members. The 1988 charter has been described by several, such as Azzam Tamimi, to be the result of a Hamas that during the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s was more concerned with addressing their Palestinian and Arab constituents, being a movement that emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet, whereas Hamas was on the fringes of Palestinian politics in terms of international coordination, dialogue and interest in 1988, it would subsequently grow to such an extent that new restructures within were required. This growth and subsequent interest from third parties and the international community would necessarily lead to additional ideological changes. Yet, throughout the 1990s, as Hamas became increasingly visible in the world’s media, with a largely negative image of the movement presented, it became a necessity for Hamas to counter the negative publicity. This moderation, which came to the foreground in the early 2000s, can be explained by several factors: The first factor, as already mentioned, is the increased attention that was given to Hamas by international media when the movement developed into an international household name. Second, with the growth and popularity of Hamas in the mid-1990s with its Political Bureau in Amman, Jordan, contact with Western diplomats was also established. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the terror attacks 11 September 2001 made it an additional issue of urgency.[1]

My point here would be to argue that Hamas throughout the 1990s went through a process of political moderation albeit the movement still constituted a militant resistance movement. This would not be a streamlined process but rather a process that entailed the different contradictions within Hamas.

What is different?
Thus, the surprise was not so much the fact that Hamas chose to revise its original charter from 1988, but that it has not happened earlier. However, what do these changes consist of?

  1. No longer Muslim Brothers: One of the first thing that Hamas established in its 1988 Charter was that, in article 2, “[Hamas] is one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine”. However, in the new charter, in its first article, Hamas has cut all ties to its mother organization as Hamas is now, “[…] a Palestinian Islamic national liberation and resistance movement” [emphasis added]. Although significant, it is hardly a surprise considering the state of the Gaza Strip under the Israeli/Egyptian blockade. As the Strip has suffered severely under the blockade, the Egyptian regime has – after the coup’ d’état against Mursi and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood – used Hamas’ affiliation with the Brotherhood to declare it a terrorist organization in 2015.

    Thus, Hamas’ affiliation with its mother movement has been more of an inconvenience than a gain, and it should be interpreted as a movement trying to reconcile with the Egyptians in order to ease the blockade through the Egyptian-Palestinian border.

  2. The anti-Semitism is gone: Perhaps one of the things in the 1988 Charter that (understandably) tarnished the image of Hamas in international eyes was the clear anti-Semitic references. For example, article 22 stated the following about the Jews:

    They stood behind the French and the Communist Revolutions and behind most of the revolutions, which we hear about here and there. They also used the money to establish clandestine organizations that are spreading around the world, in order to destroy societies and carry out Zionist interests. […] They also used the money to take over control of the Imperialist states and made them colonize many countries in order to exploit the wealth of those countries and spread their corruption therein.

    In the new 2017 Charter, Hamas spend considerable effort to distance themselves from the previous charter where ‘world Jewry’ is gone. Instead, in article 16, “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”. Again, this is hardly surprising considering the resistance Hamas has faced because of its anti-Semitic remarks in 1988.

  3. We do not recognize Israel, but… One of the most important themes in the new Hamas Charter is not that the movement still rejects any recognition of Israel (it still does not), in article 19. Nor is it surprising that, in article 20, “Hamas believes that no part of Palestine shall be compromised or conceded, irrespective of the causes, the circumstances and the pressures and no matter how long the occupation lasts”.

    What is significant is that Hamas considers the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967-borders (with Jerusalem as its capital), “to be a formula of national consensus”. Thus, the new Hamas charter does indeed underline the development that we have seen for several years in the way Hamas has approached Israel in its various drafts for hudnas [truces/cease-fires]. That is, Hamas does not recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel, but it does recognize the fact of its existence, which is a reality that the movement must deal with.

What is the same?
Still, some things do not change. For example, Hamas still claims, in article 25, its right to wage armed resistance against the Israeli occupation. That being said, anything else would be a deathblow to its legitimacy, as vast parts of it derives from Hamas as a resistance movement. Conversely, what would have happened with all the soldiers and hard-liners in its armed wing, Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigade, if Hamas denounced armed struggle?

The same applies to the rights of the Palestinian refugees, article 13, in which Hamas “rejects all attempts to erase the rights of the refugees, including the attempts to settle them outside Palestine and through the projects of the alternative homeland”. Hamas also rejects, in article 22, all agreements, initiatives and settlement projects. Last, in article 10, Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine.

The new set of principles and policies should thus be read as an attempt by the movement to soften up Hamas’ image in the international community, as well as retaining the movement’s appeal as a resistance movement.

A movement of internal contradictions
That being said, it is too early to state that we are now approaching a “new” Hamas. That is, a more moderate Hamas. Instead, this charter confirms a change and a development that already took place in the movement fifteen years ago, instead of pointing out a new, future direction.

Indeed, the Islamist movement has since its inception embodied several contradictory currents and political lines within, always struggling and always competing – from pragmatics to hard-liners. Whether armed action alone can liberate Palestine or whether a peaceful settlement can open up for dialogue and settlement. This is not just a contradiction existing within Hamas, but also between Hamas and the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigade – the latter often being the hard-liner.

Simultaneously, we should avoid categorizing the different leaders in Hamas as static actors operating within determined categories. Maḥmūd al-Zahār, for example, was considered one of Hamas’ pragmatists, as he already in 1988 proposed a draft for a hudna with Israel. Subsequently, this draft led him to having his life threatened by Hamas’ own al-Qassam Brigade. However, al-Zahār would later develop into one of the most ardent hardliners in the leadership of Hamas after the Israelis bombed and killed his son, Khālid, and wounding his daughter, Rīmā.[2] Khālid Mishʿal, on the other hand, would develop from one of Hamas’ hardliners into one of the movement’s pragmatists.

The same applies to the current leadership of Hamas. As Yaḥyā al-Sinwār, one of the founders of the al-Qassam Brigade in 1992, took over the leadership of Hamas in Gaza, several proclaimed it a message of defiance to Israel, and stalling reconciliation between Mahmoud Abbas and the Israelis. However, this only occurred while the pragmatist Ismael Haniya gained more power of the overall decision-making in the movement.

Thus, although Hamas has published a new set of principles and policies, it does allow for some maneuvering for its leadership, with the ambivalence of the recognition of Israel and the 1967-borders as two examples.

What future direction Hamas will take depends on what current within Hamas has the upper hand.

Erik Skare is a PhD candidate at the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages (University of Oslo).

[1] Tamimi, A. (2009) Hamas: Unwritten Chapters. London: Hurst & Company, 149.
[2] Tuastad, D. (2014) Palestinske utfordringer. Oslo: Cappelen Damm Akademisk, 92, 99.