By Tareq Baconi
2 May 2017
On Monday night, the head of Hamas’s political bureau, Khaled Meshal, officially unveiled the organisation’s much-anticipated “Document of general principles and policies” during a press conference in Doha. Hamas’s leaders have denied that this document replaces the movement’s founding charter. Nonetheless, its publication is a long-overdue move that cannot be ignored.
Hamas’s charter is an anti-Semitic, polemical document that calls for the creation of an Islamic state over the entirety of the land of historic Palestine. Since its release in 1988, numerous Hamas leaders have distanced themselves from it. Yet in order to maintain an image of ideological purity for the benefit of the broader constituency, and to avoid fissures within the movement, previous calls to revise the charter have faltered.
Compared to the movement’s founding document, this new one is relatively nuanced and politically astute. Although it falls short of many privately voiced hopes regarding anticipated reforms within Hamas, it offers a fair representation of Hamas’s evolution as a movement and governing entity in Gaza nearly 30 years after its founding.
On the political front, the document offers few surprises. Hamas unequivocally supports the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital. It does not recognise the state of Israel or abandon the right of return of Palestinian refugees. Acquiescence to intermediate statehood while maintaining a commitment to the eventual liberation of Palestine is presented as a “formula of national consensus”. This phrase underscores the nature of this document as a compromise between Hamas’s various constituencies, as well as one that can offer a platform for reconciliation with Fatah.
Unlike Hamas’s original charter, this document does not justify the quest for liberation using rabidly anti-Semitic language. Rather, it articulates an ideology of anti-Zionism, viewing Zionism as a “racist, aggressive, colonial” project that must be undone in a post-colonial world. The document explicitly differentiates between Jews and Judaism on the one hand, and political Zionism on the other, and notes that Hamas’s struggle is limited to the latter. It stresses that the Jewish people’s struggle with anti-Semitism is not tied to Arabs or Muslims but rather to Europe’s past. To confront “the Zionist project”, Hamas views armed resistance against the occupation as a divine right, one that is also legitimate within international law.
This document is a counterweight to claims that Hamas is an irrational, fanatical and bloodthirsty group intent on murdering all Jews. However, the notion that it is a sign of absolute moderation or a volte face by Hamas is hype. The release of the document should be understood as a balancing act, an effort to allow pragmatism within Hamas to be presented publicly without undermining the movement’s ideological base. It is a diplomatic tool that opens space for both the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and the international community to engage with Hamas.
Given the current political stalemate, this effort should not be dismissed, even if concerns persist. Hamas draws on international law to underscore the legitimacy of its armed struggle, yet violates these laws by indiscriminately targeting civilians. It is imperative to condemn the murder of civilians while also placing Hamas’s actions in context.
Israel has systematically acted in violation of international law for decades, killing thousands of Palestinian civilians through its occupation and in warfare conducted in densely populated areas. This is not to say that the two sides are equivalent or to present a hierarchy of suffering. Rather it is to suggest that the premise of engagement and diplomacy cannot be withheld from one party and extended to another when both commit acts that violate international law.
The same can be said about Hamas’s refusal to recognise Israel. Hamas’s political document is closer to the two-state framework than the manifesto of Likud, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own political party. Likud’s platform makes no mention of the 1967 lines and, just as Hamas refuses to recognise Zionism’s legitimacy, Likud refuses to recognise the right of Palestinians to self-determination. The racist views of the Israeli political establishment have been met with a strengthening of diplomatic ties with the US and the UK, while Hamas continues to face marginalisation.
Despite its shortcomings, Hamas’s new document articulates political demands that have long been central to the Palestinian struggle, and that are enshrined in numerous UN resolutions, including the right of return. Trenchant criticism of Zionism and its political manifestations in Israel today is hardly limited to Hamas or even to Palestinians. Israel has historically chosen to evade these political demands, preferring instead to manage the conflict. This has resulted in intermittent efforts to “mow the lawn” in Gaza, and the recent sounding of war drums suggests another round is in the offing. Hamas’s new document must be recognised as an opportunity to engage with a crucial interlocutor that continues to enjoy some legitimacy among its constituents.