Rather than signalling any major, dramatic or radical change in direction, the new ‘charter’ (officially called ‘A Document of General Principles and Policies’) of the Palestinian group Hamas formalises what has existed in terms of the party’s policies and practices for more than a decade, superseding its old charter which has largely been outdated, irrelevant and an albatross around the organisation’s neck.
The new document, which took two years to debate and draft (but has been in the making since 2006), replaces the ‘Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement’, which was authored by a single individual in 1988, and adopted barely nine months after Hamas’s founding. Hamas has variously defended, been apologetic about and embarrassed by the 1988 charter, but, for mysterious reasons, has not been able to get rid of, or even amend, it. The group’s spokespersons have often said broad consultation was too difficult within its security constraints – even though it regularly holds leadership elections that encompass its members in various parts of the world. In 2006, in the run-up to elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the first Palestinian Authority (PA) election that Hamas contested, the party issued an election platform that articulated changes in its positions from that contained in the original charter. But the platform was not comprehensive enough to be regarded as superseding the charter, and Hamas leaders themselves never referred to it in this way.
The platform did highlight the irrelevance and embarrassment of the old charter, and sparked a debate within the organisation on a range of issues – from the role of religion in the Palestinian struggle to the nature of a future Palestinian state. That debate culminated on 1 May 2017 with the launch of the new document. The process leading up to the launch was vigorous, and produced some issues of sharp disagreement within the movement. The 1 May document attempts to balance those debates within the Hamas constituency, and still provide a vision and strategies in a manner that will keep the organisation united, and allow all its members to feel satisfied.
Since the launch, much attention has been paid to the clause that accepts a Palestinian state along the 4 June 1967 border – essentially confining a future Palestinian state to the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza. The clause, however, does not actually go as far as ‘accepting’ the 1967 borders or a two-state solution, but notes that ‘Hamas considers the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967...to be a formula of national consensus.’ The clause was qualified with its ‘rejection of the Zionist entity’, support for the right of return of all Palestinian refugees – including to their homes in Israel, and rejection of ‘any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea’. It is debatable whether the 1967 border ‘formula’ ever was one of ‘national consensus’ among Palestinians. In the past few years, especially, after Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu repeatedly rejected any notion of a two-state solution, former US secretary of state John Kerry lamented its end, and US president Donald Trump refused to endorse the well-worn US support for such a solution, Palestinians have increasingly been arguing that a two-state solution is not possible, and the current reality is that there is already a single state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea that is governed by Israel. Despite the language in the document, however, after the launch Hamas leader Khaled Mesha'al, interpreted it as supporting a two-state solution. This contradiction between the charter’s insistence on Hamas’s ultimate goal being the ‘liberation’ of all of British Mandate Palestine, and the seeming acceptance of a two-state solution could prove to become a difficulty for the movement in the future, even though the notion of a two-state solution has already been articulated by Hamas spokespersons, including by its founder Shaykh Ahmed Yassin and by Mesha'al. The document’s position might be viewed as support for a two-state solution as the first phase towards a single state.
This is not the most significant aspect of the document, however. Perhaps most significant (and the most radical change) is the language and tone that describes Hamas as a nationalist Palestinian movement rather than as part of a global Islamist one. This begins with the description of Palestine as ‘the land of the Arab Palestinian people’, while the old charter regarded Palestine as ‘an Islamic Waqf [endowment] consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgement Day’ – somewhat mirroring the Zionist conception of Israel as the land of all Jews. No longer. While Palestine is still ‘a land whose status has been elevated by Islam’, it belongs, according to Hamas to Palestinians, not to Muslims. Even in its characterisation of itself, Hamas now views itself as a ‘Palestinian Islamic national liberation and resistance movement’. The positioning of the words ‘Palestinian’ and ‘Islamic’ are not accidental. ‘Its goal is to liberate Palestine and confront the Zionist project. Its frame of reference is Islam,’ and there is no proclamation of ‘The universality of the Islamic Resistance Movement’ as in the old document. This new orientation is likely the reason that references to the Muslim Brotherhood (whose name and slogans peppered the earlier document) have been dropped. There is a glaring question that the document does not answer, however: if Palestine is ‘the land of Arab Palestinians’, what would be the place of Jews in a future Palestinian state.
Despite speculation that the document would attempt to placate Israel and western powers, it makes no serious attempt to do so. Even its strong emphasis that the ‘conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion’ and its accusation that it is Zionists who have co-opted Judaism and Jews in service of its ‘colonial project and illegal entity’ reflects a change in the way the movement views Jews and Zionism, and is guidance provided to its own constituency, rather than a placatory gesture to outsiders. Indeed, the three demands that the West (through the Middle East Quartet, comprising of the UN, USA, EU and Russia) have made of Hamas since 2007 have been emphatically rejected in the charter. The demands were that Hamas recognises Israel; renounces violence; and accepts all previous agreements made by the PLO and PA with Israel. Instead, the charter emphasises that ‘There shall be no recognition of the legitimacy of the Zionist entity’; insists that ‘At the heart of [means of resisting occupation] lies armed resistance’; and rejects the Oslo Accords ‘and all that flows from them’.
Of course, the rejection of the Oslo presents a contradiction. The charter affirms a role for the PA (a creature of Oslo) ‘to serve the Palestinian people and safeguard their security, their rights and their national project’. Further, the movement contested elections for the PLC (another Oslo creation), plays a role as part of the PA, and has expressed no intention to extract itself from the PA and refuse to contest future elections.
If we ignore the opportunity Hamas provides us to do interesting analyses of a new document, its release is a rather ‘ho hum’ moment. In itself, it says nothing new, and only documents what has already become a reality within the movement through decade-and-half shifts in thought and practice. At most, it will allow its spokespersons a sigh of relief that they no longer have to defend the old anti-Semitic and irrelevant document. The timing of its release does has some significance. While it will be seen as Mesha'al’s swan-song (he did not contest the recent leadership election, whose results will be announced later this month), it also happens when more militant leaders are rising, and they have expressed no criticism of the document. Yahya Sinwar, for example, a leader of Hamas’s armed wing, the 'Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, who spent twenty years in an Israeli prison, is now the group’s Gaza leader and the ‘prime minister’ in the territory. His embrace of the document indicates that the political and military wings of the movement are united in supporting it, and it is not an imposition by ‘moderates’ on the rest of the organisation.
If Hamas was unconcerned about how its critics in Israel and the West might view its new charter, it should be concerned about criticism from Palestinians, particularly the disappointment (and even anger) expressed by some at the seeming acceptance of the two-state solution. For many Palestinians who have become weary of the shenanigans of the PA, Fatah and the PLO, who oppose the PA’s ‘security coordination’ with Israel, and who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel had hoped that Hamas would not compromise its support for armed resistance, and would clearly express support for a one-state solution. For some in this group, the new document does not distinguish Hamas from Fatah in terms of its vision for the future (even though that’s not a correct reading of the relevant clauses).