Hamas Gets an Ideological Makeover

IDF paratroopers in the Gaza Strip. Flickr/Israel Defense Forces

The group’s new charter doesn’t necessarily mean it’s changed its principles.

Palestinian leaders hit the headlines twice this week—once on May 3, when President Mahmoud Abbas was welcomed to the White House by President Trump and two days earlier, on May 1, when outgoing Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshal launched the movement’s new “Document of General Principles and Policies” at a press conference in Doha.

The Washington presidential summit understandably garnered more attention, but it is the Hamas Doha document that may well be remembered as having a more significant and lasting impact on the Palestinian future and even on prospects for an eventual peace. The Hamas Document of General Principles and Policies, several years in the making, does not directly replace the existing Hamas Covenant (or Charter) of 1988. However, the contrast between the two documents is significant, and it is worth reading the two back to back. In a subsequent interview, Khaled Meshal described the new document as reflecting “we are not a rigid ideological organization . . . that we are a dynamic and adaptive organization and that we are eager to change if it is in the best interests of our people. In the future, Hamas will issue more papers and policy guidelines to deal with new realities.”

The headlines of the new Hamas document are consequential in five important arenas, and it is worth briefly listing them:

Palestinian politics: in terms of the Palestinian internal political system, Hamas commits itself to “managing its Palestinian relations on the basis of pluralism, democracy, national partnership, acceptance of the other and the adoption of dialogue.” It talks of bolstering unity and accepts the PLO as a national framework to be “preserved, developed and rebuilt on democratic foundations,” stressing the foremost necessity of “free and fair elections” (Articles 28 to 30). Regarding Palestinian politics, the PLO and democracy, this is major new departure from the original Hamas covenant.

The two-state: in the document, Hamas considers as a formula of national consensus “the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of June 4, 1967, with the return of the refugees and the displaced to their homes from which they were expelled.” Hamas raises this option while adhering to its principled commitment to “the full and complete liberation of Palestine from the river to the sea,” and while maintaining its “rejection of the Zionist entity” or “relinquishing any Palestinian rights” (Article 20). The acceptance of the ‘67 lines in practice—of, in effect, the two-state option, as part of an agreed national platform (even while adhering to the more maximalist aspiration in theory) —is in stark contrast to the old charter.

Defining the problem, Zionism not Jews: the 1988 covenant was a horrendously anti-Semitic document. Its text was replete with references to warmongering Jews, their secret societies, their wealth and “control of the world media, news agencies, the press, publishing houses, broadcasting stations.” In short, it was abhorrent. The new document contains none of those references. By contrast, it affirms that, for Hamas, “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” (Articles 16 and 17). While some make the case that opposing Zionism and Israel is itself anti-Semitic, that is a contentious and often spurious argument. What is clear is that Hamas has, in certain key respects, revisited its own Jewish question.

Hamas and the Arab/Muslim world: in the new document, Hamas “opposes intervention in the internal affairs of any country” or being “drawn into disputes and conflicts that take place among different countries” (Article 37). Hamas also defines its own movement as a “Palestinian Islamic national liberation and resistance movement” (Article 1). This is a clear move away from Article 2 of the old 1988 Covenant, which defines Hamas as the “Islamic Resistance Movement,” “one of the wings of Moslem Brotherhood in Palestine.” The signal is clear, important and largely intended for a regional audience.

Resistance: the document argues that resisting the occupation “with all means and methods is a legitimate right guaranteed by . . . international norms and laws.” It also affirms that Palestinians can “develop” and “diversify” “the means and mechanisms of resistance” (Articles 25 and 26). Later (Article 39) it states that “from a legal and humanitarian perspective, the liberation of Palestine is a legitimate activity.” So, armed struggle remains front and center for Hamas—including, it seems, the use of indiscriminate violence against civilians—but a window has been opened both for clarifying what international law and international legality have to say about the boundaries of legitimate armed struggle, and also, implicitly at least, to other nonviolent forms of resistance. The old covenant gave no hint of other kinds of resistance, or of grounding Hamas’ actions in international legality, and even dismissed these.

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