Hamas Gets an Ideological Makeover

May 5, 2017 Topic: Politics Region: Middle East Tags: TerrorismHamasIsraelDefensePalestinians

Hamas Gets an Ideological Makeover

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

The more prevalent criticism, in the West at least, is that the new Hamas document does too little, that it is basically an exercise in spin and deception. That was to be expected as an argument deployed politically by certain quarters for the purposes of point-scoring and to avoid engaging substantively with the positions expressed in the document. But as a serious and substantive critique by serious people, an approach that simply dismisses the document is curiously naive and inadequate, especially when one takes into account the context in which the document was launched and the dynamics of how resistance/liberation movements tend to evolve.

The Hamas leadership has issued these new positions, new openings and departures in its thinking at a time where there can be little expectation of progress or direct benefits accruing to Hamas. This is not a propitious moment for advancing deoccupation, peace, the opening up of Gaza to the world, or even breakthroughs in Western involvement with Hamas. Often a liberation movement clarifies a position in advance of an anticipated breakthrough in a conflict. That is not the case here. So, the extent to which Hamas has been willing to answer specific Western calls for change (only partially) has to be measured against what is on offer in exchange to Hamas (nothing). What that suggests is that this is, in most respects, an internally generated intention by Hamas to clarify and reposition.

Partial clarifications and incremental movement towards more pragmatic and realistic positions also reflect the manner in which resistance/liberation movements tend to evolve, rather than in great leaps. What is crucial as a movement takes steps in the direction of pragmatism is to hold the movement together and carry the bulk of the movement on that journey. If a leadership looks over its shoulder and finds its cadre and people have abandoned it, little has been achieved. The IRA moved cautiously, and by the time its moves were decisive, the opposition which became the “real IRA” had been shrunk to a largely insignificant grouping. For this development in Hamas to be most useful for future Palestinian and peace dynamics, the movement has to hold together, and therefore advance cautiously.

Finally, one has to take into account the real events that have been experienced during these years in which the document and the evolution in thinking have occurred. Hamas governing Gaza has experienced three wars and rounds of Israeli strikes (December 2008, November 2012 and summer 2014) with 3,760 Palestinian fatalities (according to the Israeli B’Tselem human-rights NGO)—both movement members and civilians. Many of the Hamas leaders behind this document have themselves been targets of Israeli assassination attempts or have lost close family members.

The issuing of the new Hamas Document of General Principles and Policies does not change the world overnight. It does however pose several challenges, and should over time be responded to by the concentric circles of audiences outside the movement to which the various new points in thinking are addressed.

For the Palestinian body politic, the document reaffirms that there is a basis not only to finding technical solutions to end the West Bank-Gaza division, but also to build a consensus national platform and strategy, as well as to revive and relegitimize the national institutions. The internal Palestinian divide has been debilitating to the ability of Palestinians to advance their legitimate aspirations. It has also been a wonderful excuse, effectively utilized by Israel, to avoid addressing the occupation, and for the international community to limit its engagement. Whether Hamas is really ready to live up to its new document should be tested, the suspicion among some in Fatah being that this is a step towards a takeover or a new national movement. We will only know if this is an opportunity for internal Palestinian politics if it is explored as such.

The current Israeli leadership has made clear that it has no intention of changing any of its position. It is worth noting that Israel’s governing Likud party has a platform that is now probably more rejectionist of two states than is Hamas. Israel’s leadership is not looking for a Palestinian partner, neither for peace nor for long-term understandings, and therefore it will make sure to not find one. Nevertheless, Israel has maintained its own kind of ongoing communication with Hamas, sometimes by way of mediating by third parties, sometimes direct signals, including violent ones, that the parties have sent to each other. Those who have argued for a more comprehensive approach to reaching facilitated understandings with Hamas (including senior ex-security establishment figures) have been vindicated by this new document. If and when the naysayers vacate the Israeli cabinet-table, the opportunity for progress should belatedly be acknowledged and pursued.

Hamas has also sent a signal to regional players, not least Egypt, but also in the Gulf and elsewhere. The most appropriate response would be a return to active regional mediation in bringing the rival Palestinian parties to end their division and restructure the national institutions. If there is no appetite to do that, actions should at least be taken to alleviate conditions in Gaza.

Finally, the international community—and in particular the West, which has shunned engagement with Hamas—should be paying attention. This new document has further undermined and exposed the stupidity of lumping all Islamists together, exacerbating our own security challenges through a willful ignorance that for instance places Hamas in the same category as Al Qaeda or Daesh. Channels do exist to Hamas (including former British prime minister Tony Blair). These should be expanded and upgraded at the official level. Those who are behind this evolution in Hamas thinking should be encouraged via enhanced dialogue (which itself has already helped reach this point), rather than cut-off at the knees by being ignored. Specifically, a seam of dialogue should be mined that teases out where armed resistance can adhere to international legitimacy and legal norms, and where it deviates from those, driving home the point of not targeting civilians and of nonviolent resistance.


Maybe the results of the Trump-Abbas summit will surprise us all. Far more likely the prevention of new Israeli-Palestinian escalation and suffering and the opening up of space for progress will require hard and persistent work by multiple actors. Any serious new opportunities for progress should be seized, the document issued by Hamas this week is precisely such an opportunity.

Daniel Levy is the president of the U.S./Middle East Project, based in New York and London and is a former Israeli negotiator.


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