The Good, Bad, and the Ugly on the new Hamas Policy Principles

This article first appears in World Affairs.

Hamas’s new “document of general policy principles” which was unveiled in Doha by political bureau chief Khaled Meshaal had something of the good, the bad, and the ugly about it. The document garnered praise in some Western media outlets, with headlines proclaiming Hamas had softened its tone regarding Israel, dropped its call for Israel’s destruction, and was poised to accept a Palestinian state along 1967 borders. Yet a closer look demonstrates that Hamas has shed little – if any – of its maximalist goals and its new positions fall far short of the minimum the international community demands for Hamas to have a seat around the diplomatic table.

The document – which took several years to draft and integrated opinions from Hamas’s overseas veterans, prisoners, and the movement’s Gazan military wing – doesn’t actually abrogate the original 1988 charter. It thus maintains the position that any lands once conquered by Muslim forces – such as Palestine and Andalusia – are considered a waqf (endowment), and thus consecrated for future Muslim generations until “Judgment Day”. Yet while neither the Spanish nor even the Viennese – whose gates famously repelled the Ottomans during the 1529 siege – seemed especially concerned by this revanchist component, the current document should primarily be viewed within the context of Hamas’ dire diplomatic and economic situation.

Hamas is politically isolated and struggling under the weight of maintaining its resistance ideology while governing Gaza, which is facing a severe energy and humanitarian crisis. It is under pressure from Sunni states to moderate its tone, and is being squeezed by a suspicious Egyptian regime that believes it cooperates with – or at least actively sympathises with – the  Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS in Sinai. Indeed, in the last fortnight, the Palestinian Authority has reduced its payments to Gazan civil servants, and ceased fully subsidising the supply of electricity to the Strip.

It is Hamas’s attempt to improve its frayed relationship with Egypt that explains why the document obliges Hamas “‎not to intervene in the affairs of other countries” as well as the absence of Hamas’ claim – which appeared in its 1988 Charter – that it constitutes an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. Perhaps with a nod to European capitals, Hamas also toned down the anti-Semitic rhetoric that was apparent in its original charter. The movement now states that “Hamas is not locked in a struggle against the Jews because they are Jewish, but wages a struggle against the Zionist occupiers as aggressors”.

Yet while all but conspiracy theorists will undoubtedly be relieved that Hamas no longer views Jews (and one assumes the Freemasons and Rotary clubs as well) as “cells of subversion” who are responsible for the French Revolution, Communism and World War Two (as the original charter did), the new document is still a long way from making peace with the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. Indeed, moving from wanting to destroy Jews to “merely” wanting to destroy the Jewish national movement is unlikely to have Israeli diplomats scurrying to the negotiation table.

Many headlines focused on the statement that Hamas believes “the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of 4 June 1967, to be a formula of national consensus”. But describing a consensus and advocating it are very different things. In fact Hamas continues to explicitly define Palestine’s territory to be the land that lies between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, claiming that “there is no alternative to a fully sovereign Palestinian State on the entire national Palestinian soil”. The document also “rejects all attempts to erase the rights of the refugees, including the attempts to settle them outside Palestine” – a position that if implemented would flood Israel with millions of Palestinians which both undermines and contradicts the logic of the “two states for two peoples” principle.

Unfortunately, there is also little indication that Hamas is open to accepting the long-established Quartet principles – that a Palestinian interlocutor must recognise Israel, abide by previous diplomatic agreements (such as the Oslo Accords), and renounce violence as a means of achieving goals – which would allow the international community to open a dialogue with the group. Hamas continues to reject the Oslo accords (as well as the Balfour Declaration and UN Partition Plan), and asserts that resistance for the liberation of Palestine will remain “a legitimate right, a duty and an honour”. Matching its words with deeds, the movement siphons off significant amounts of its Gaza budget for military uses and continues its attempts to carry out terror attacks in the West Bank. Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, recently warned the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee that “Hamas and global jihadi infrastructure are working every day in attempting to conduct terrorist attacks in Israeli territory”.

Some analysts have expressed cautious optimism that Hamas – driven by geostrategic and socio-economic necessity – might be moving towards a “PLO 1988 moment,” in other words, a historic announcement accepting (even if begrudgingly) partition of the Holy Land that might subsequently pave the way for a diplomatic breakthrough. But while the new document may alleviate its strained relations with Egypt and others in the Arab world, the Islamist movement remains a long way from satisfying the minimum of internationally accepted positions for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Calev Ben-Dor is Director of Research at BICOM.