May 3rd 2017
IT WAS a dramatic final act for Khaled Meshal, soon to be the ex-leader of Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip and hopes to run all of biblical Palestine. After months of speculation he unveiled a new policy document meant to amend (though not replace) the militant group’s founding charter of 1988. Most strikingly, it endorses the creation of a Palestinian state in just the West Bank and Gaza. As such, it moves a bit closer to the “two-state solution” that has been the aim of American-led peace talks for more than two decades. Hamas has never accepted it. But now, it says, Palestinian statehood is a “formula of national consensus”, although it still thinks that peace with Israel is anathema.
Its document is also notable for what it does not say. The anti-Semitic language of the charter of 1988 is not repeated. Nor is the declaration that Hamas is a “wing of the Muslim Brotherhood”. The new document makes no mention of the pan-Islamist group, and Mr Meshal made this separation explicit at a press conference on May 1st in Qatar. “We are a part of the intellectual school of the Brotherhood,” he said. “But we are an independent Palestinian organisation.” That was a sop to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which abhor the Brotherhood. Egypt controls the Rafah crossing, the sole gateway to the outside world for most of Gaza’s 1.8m people. The Gulf States could provide badly-needed cash.
Good reasons for scepticism remain. The same document also declares that “no part of the land of Palestine shall be compromised or conceded.” As Mr Meshal prepares to step down, a hardliner, Yahya Sinwar, has risen to the group’s number two spot as part of a reshuffle. And Hamas’s military wing continues to restock its arsenal ahead of a possible war with Israel, which would be its fourth in ten years. A spokesman for Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, calls the charter an effort to “deceive the world”.
Perhaps more important than its content was its timing and motivation. Hamas’s comparatively moderate politburo is vying for power with a belligerent military wing. And the document came out hours before Mahmoud Abbas, the overall Palestinian leader, whose nationalist Fatah faction lost Gaza to Hamas in 2007, landed in Washington for his first meeting with Donald Trump. Mr Abbas has long vowed to regain control of both parts of a would-be Palestinian state, striking a series of abortive “unity” pacts meant to end the schism.
But in the past month he seems to have abandoned that goal. On April 27th he announced that the Palestinian Authority (PA) would no longer subsidise the electricity that Israel provides to Gaza. This accounts for half of the strip’s current but inadequate supply: blackouts often last 12 hours. Gazans fear the cutbacks will leave them completely in the dark. A few weeks earlier, Mr Abbas announced that the salaries of the 58,000 or so Gazans on the PA’s payroll would be cut by nearly a third.
Hamas views such moves with concern. The bleak conditions in Gaza stoke public anger. But the group also sees an opportunity to win recognition as the strip’s legitimate ruler. Even some leading Israelis have come around to this view. No less a hawk than Naftali Bennett, the education minister says Israel should do a deal with Hamas. The revised charter is, above all, a rebranding effort to win favour with suspicious Arab states and with the West.
That will not be easy. After all, Hamas has spent decades carrying out gruesome attacks in Israel and in the Palestinian territories. It is still labelled a terrorist organisation in the United States and Europe, a designation unlikely to change as long as it rearms and plots violence.