An interview with a key Hamas figure in al-Monitor published Friday explores a pragmatic potential and a shift in tactics for the movement.
‘Pragmatic’ is certainly the word interviewer Shlomi Eldar, one of Israel’s top television reporters covering Palestinian affairs, wants readers to remember. His subject is Dr. Ghazi Hamad, currently Deputy Foreign Minister of the Hamas leadership in Gaza, heads the “pragmatic wing” of Hamas and the interview is all about the changes of policy, external relations, and possibly even ideology.
Three specific points are worth noting, two internal and one related to Israel:
First, in the context of Palestinian politics, Hamad works to convey institutional legitimacy. He emphasizes that Mashal was re-elected to the head of the political bureau through a participatory political process:
First of all, we must remember that these were democratic elections, and as such, they are a credit to the movement. Elections for Hamas’ other institutions ended a year ago, and that was the last time that the Hamas movement expressed confidence in its leaders
He may have been overstating the “democratic” case – it’s not exactly a popular primary but the top layer of a multi-layered delegate structure – the shura council – that elected Mashal. Still, Hamad clearly wants to convey the legitimacy of the decision-making process and political maturity.
Second, he stresses the commitment to advancing the long-stagnant plan for Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. Hamad discusses some of the mechanics of how this could happen, which indicates a serious effort and also highlights a change from the past.
There is an extensive political and diplomatic program which we must advocate and work toward, and that includes joining the official institutions of the PLO. Those are our objectives, and that is our new approach.
Should this come to pass, it could help erode Israel’s widely-embraced notion that there is “no partner,” because the Palestinian leadership is too divided to agree or implement an accord.
Finally, with relation to Israel, Hamad states openly that Hamas accepts 1967 borders without recognizing Israel. It’s not the first time Hamas has indicated support for 1967 as the basic borders. Khaled Mashal stated so last November, in a CNN interview on the day of the ceasefire that ended the Pillar of Defense war in Gaza:
We have two options… the way of peace and a Palestinian state, according to the border of 1967 with the right to return. And this is something we have agreed upon as Palestinians, as a common program.
But it was an ambiguous time. Just a few weeks later, when the UN held a vote on accepting Palestine based on the 1967 borders as a non-member observer state, Hamas flip-flopped, eventually lending grudging support. A year earlier, when the possibility of a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) also arose, Hamas figures roundly rejected the idea, calling it “nonsense” and a “scam.” The fact that Hamad now explicitly and repeatedly states acceptance of ‘67 lines, to an Israeli interviewer, shows much greater clarity on this policy issue.
But in the same breath Hamas says: “We do not say ‘two states,’” and “Hamas does not recognize Israel.”
What does this mean? In fact, it is only confusing if one fails to appreciate the symbolic aspect of politics, diplomacy, conflict and political change. Hamas has opted to become a player rooted in the world of political facts, rather than fantasies that are de-linked from reality. In reality, its leaders know that there will be no Palestinian state west of the Green Line, and its policy statements reflect that.
But Hamas is also a symbol of political community. It is the community of resistance against Israel (“as long as the occupation continues,” he says. If Palestine is 1967, then this is a finite struggle). It also distinguishes them from Fatah, which is increasingly identified with failure to end the occupation, or even blamed for perpetuating it.
Violence was once the primary meaning of “resistance.” Yet Hamas has largely relinquished violence now: Hamad emphasizes that “armed struggle remains a right,” but that “popular uprising” (the term for the unarmed protests – ds) is the tactical preference.
Hamas put a stop to its resistance [terrorist attacks]. It respects the cease-fire. There has been a major change in policy.
Therefore the remaining symbol of Hamas’ political identity is resistance to recognizing Israel – a symbolic measure in itself, for it affects the life of no one. It clings to this even as its policies now acknowledge political facts.
Further, recognition in any formal form will be a major symbolic concession to the other side. Israel will probably eventually negotiate with Hamas, in some combination with other Palestinian leaders. Recognition of Israel is also a bargaining chip for that stage; one that would not logically be surrendered beforehand.
Deeply committed ideological players in a conflict cannot be expected to change rapidly or openly, and their symbolic identity will be the last to go. But consider this: Mustafa Akyol reads Israel’s apology to Turkey as a sign of incremental openness to dealing with moderate Islamic political forces. By analogy, we might hope that Hamas’ empirical analysis of the situation has shifted, and its policy has followed. Maybe its symbolic stance is next in line.