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Religion out, nationalism in: Will Hamas' charter divide the movement?

Hamas new ‘Document of Principles’ ditches Islamism for frank positions on borders, international law, and human rights. But can the movement maintain unity as it inches closer to the ideas held by its rivals in the PLO?

By Menachem Klein (translated by Philip Podolsky)

Masked gunmen from the Qassam brigade, the armed wing of Hamas, attend the funeral of Mazen Faqha in Gaza City, Saturday, March, 25, 2017. (Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

Masked gunmen from the Qassam brigade, the armed wing of Hamas, attend the funeral of Mazen Faqha in Gaza City, Saturday, March, 25, 2017. (Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

Hamas’ recently-revised charter, titled “Document of General Principles and Policies” sees the group go down a path that could eventually result in its fracturing. Once it chose to depart from the simplistic and monolithic guidelines of the Islamic Charter, it had no choice but to acknowledge the ideological differences that drive the movement’s leadership apart (as do the inevitable power struggles at the top).

The ideological inconsistencies are manifest in the Document of Principles. Take for example the borders of Palestine, which it bases on the ones drawn by Britain and France after World War I. The borders mapped out by two colonial powers in accordance with their then-strategic interests are invested, in the language of the document, with a divine significance: enclosed within them is the “holy blessed land” of the Quran.

While the movement’s 1988 covenant draws from the Quran, the new manifesto resorts to the discourses of international law and human rights. In other words, God no longer enjoys exclusive authority. The charter cites non-divine texts by Western non-Islamic authors, granting them a status similar to that of the word of God.

Indigenous people of the land

The religious exclusivism of the old Hamas charter largely gives way to nation-based definitions. There are only minor differences – which should be addressed elsewhere – between the document and the principles of the PLO and positions the majority of Palestinians have long subscribed to. According to the document, Palestinians are the Arabs and their descendants who resided in Palestine prior to 1947. Palestinian identity is inherited, passed on from father to son. The definition is at once ethnic and territorial.

The Palestinian identity that emerges from the document is at once local and transcends locality. While the communal identity was forged in the land of Palestine, it isn’t cancelled out by displacement, immigration, or the establishment of the State of Israel on Palestinian land. Arabs indigenous to the land of Palestine alone are the rightful residents of the land. Israelis – i.e. the Jews living in the land of Palestine – are not indigenous to the land and can have no claims to it.

Palestinian supporters of Hamas during student council elections at An-Najah University in the West Bank town of Nablus, April 18, 2017. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Palestinian supporters of Hamas during student council elections at An-Najah University in the West Bank town of Nablus, April 18, 2017. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

The historical narrative, and the account of the Zionist movement are, too, are similar to those that prevail among the Palestinians. Like every narrative about the past, it is a response to the material conditions of the present. In this case: the ever-expanding Jewish settlements and the absence of any prospects of independence on the horizon. Zionism is described as a racist, expansionist movement hostile to Palestinians, Arabs, and Islam. It enlisted Western imperialism to conquer Palestine and made its home there. Hamas rejects the Balfour Declaration and the subsequent division of the land. According to Hamas, the very fact of Israel’s existence on Palestinian land is an injustice, the victims of which have the right and the responsibility to fight it.

This change of direction places the onus on Hamas to show how it is different from Fatah and the PLO. The title “A Document of General Principles and Policies” sends the message that, unlike those two organizations, Hamas remains true to its principles in formulating policy. It should be noted that the document doesn’t try to present itself as a political program or a roadmap for the future: it is a set of general principles.

The principles are formulated in the negative: what should not be done. Palestinians should not renounce the right of return or agree to the permanent settlement of the refugees at their present places of dwelling; the return of some of the refugees does not cancel out the right of return of the rest; no part of Palestine should be surrendered, no matter how long its liberation will take and under what circumstances it occurs; Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque should not be divided between Israelis and Palestinians, and so forth.

An unequivocal ideology

What, thus, does the charter propose to undertake? Precious little. According to the document, armed resistance against Israel is a strategic choice that should be undertaken when circumstances permit; there is no ban on negotiating with Israel, merely on recognizing it, since it legitimizes its presence on Palestinian land and the circumstances of its establishment. An independent state with borders based on the 1967 lines and the return of refugees is a recipe for national unity with the PLO; additionally, Palestinians must act in the international arena. The document, however, is tight-lipped on how exactly to do so, an omission that brings to mind the chasm between its principles and those of the Saudi-penned Arab Peace Initiative.

The general impression from this chain of proscriptions is one of apprehension. Hamas is afraid of the concessions the Fatah might yield, and is afraid it might find itself heading along the same path as a result of the retreat from the resoluteness of its original charter. The strictures are directed at Hamas just as they are at Fatah, yet they leave open the question of what active measures should be taken. From here onward, Hamas can choose between further politicization and pragmatism, while maintaining the distinction between rights that should not be abdicated and their partial realization in accordance with circumstances.

Hamas head Ismail Haniyeh waves to the crowd during a rally, February 26, 2016, in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah. (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)

Hamas head Ismail Haniyeh waves to the crowd during a rally, February 26, 2016, in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah. (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)

This is how Hamas can, for instance, reconcile between the historic ownership claim over the land of Palestine and obtaining autonomy in parts of it. This path would see it catch up with the PLO and the majority of Palestinians – the historic narrative and definition of national identity found in the new document suggest as much. Conversely, Hamas can become entrenched in its position and wait and see if the concessions that the PLO makes would lead to independence within 1967 borders, a capital in East Jerusalem and a limited return of refugees, and reconcile itself with this de facto reality if not in principle.

Should the PLO fail in obtaining those goals, Hamas would insert itself as a political and ideological alternative. This was its strategy with the Oslo Accords, to which it objects till this day, even though it accepts them in practice and even integrates into the political institutions that the accords gave rise to. Hamas can also adopt the middle path and put forth – alongside the prohibitions of the document – an unofficial doctrine that would give it room for political maneuvering, taking advantage of the scarcity of directives for action in the document. Hamas’ leadership has been following this path for over a decade, when the original charter was shown to no longer be relevant.

In the event that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is signed, and the time to decide between these alternatives comes, Hamas may become a movement divided. So far it has managed to conduct a lively debate on its principles and direction while preserving unity. Yet – similar to what happened in Ireland and the split within the IRA – the constrains of choosing between principles and reality could ultimately divide it.

Menachem Klein is a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University. He was an advisor to the Israeli negotiating team during the 2000 peace talks, and is one of the leading members of the Geneva Initiative. His book, Lives in Common: Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron, was selected by The New Republic as one of 2014’s “best books for understanding our complicated world.” This post was originally published in Hebrew on Local Call.

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    1. i_like_ike52

      A few years ago, it seemed the political Islamism was on the rise, but it has suffered a number of defeats in Egypt and Tunisia. Although there is more or less a stalemate, it has not succeeded in knocking out the Assad regime, and, perhaps most importantly, the ISIS “Caliphate” is shrinking. Since the “strong horse” gets support among the Arab masses, these failures will have an effect on public support for political Islamism. HAMAS seems to understand this, so they have decided to somewhat downplay the political Islam side of its ideology. This, of course, does not mean they have changed their ultimate goal which is to take control of the Palestinians. They seem to believe that the rotting FATAH control of the Palestinian Authority will give them the opening to become the dominant force in Palestinian society. The irony is that there is no doubt that most of the public in Gaza would be glad to get rid of the HAMAS regime. If the IDF were to enter the Gaza Strip and oust the HAMAS regime, most of the public would welcome them as liberators for a couple of days at least. HAMAS is most popular on the West Bank where the public is not groaning under the weight of their control.

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