Hamas Moves to Soften Charter, But Won't Recognize Israel

  • Revised document expected to be presented later this year
  • Anti-Semitic clauses removed, but moderation appears temporary

Members of the Palestinian Hamas security forces march during a graduation ceremony in Gaza City on March 30.

Photographer: Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images

Hamas, the militant Palestinian movement that controls the Gaza Strip, may seek to project a more moderate image when its revised ideological charter is released. But that doesn’t extend to accepting Israel.

The Islamist movement is aiming to mend fences with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who considers Hamas an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood, and to repair a split with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas by accepting a temporary territorial compromise in the West Bank, veteran Hamas figures and political analysts said. 

The group also is seeking to improve its international standing by removing the most nakedly anti-Semitic material from its 1988 charter. The new document is expected to remove references to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion -- a czarist-era forgery that portrayed Jews as seeking world domination -- and descriptions of Jews as implacable enemies of Islam. 

Indications of the planned revisions come from a report by Al-Mayadeen, a pro-Iranian channel in Lebanon that says it received a leaked copy of the document, and from Israeli media. But any expectation of a softening toward Israel is misguided, Gaza-based political analyst Akram Atallah said.

“This would keep the door open for a long-term truce or at least halting hostile actions between the two sides,” but doesn’t mean Hamas accepts Israel’s right to exist, Atallah said. “The Hamas movement’s political program is for liberation in stages, and doesn’t give Israel the right to be on the other part of historic Palestine.”

Dire Straits

While Hamas rules in Gaza, the sliver of coastal territory and its population of 1.8 million are fenced in by Israel and Egypt and its leaders are treated as pariahs in the West. Since Israel withdrew its citizens and military from Gaza in 2005, mini-wars have erupted three times as Hamas fired thousands of missiles over the border and Israel retaliated by air, land and sea. 

Gaza has been propped up by international donations funneled through the Palestinian Authority, but unemployment hovers around 40 percent and the World Bank consistently warns the economy is on the verge of collapse. Israel charges that donor funds sent to Gaza are diverted by Hamas to build weapons and dig tunnels for cross-border attacks.

Khaled Mashaal, Hamas’s political leader, had been planning to unveil the new charter when he steps down -- expected to happen later this year -- but has postponed the presentation because of the leak, said Ahmad Yousef, a former Hamas leader who runs the Dar al-Hekma think tank in Gaza.

“What interests me is not that the platform doesn’t change their basic anti-Israel attitude and lack of recognition and their intent to destroy Israel; what’s interesting is that they felt the need to do this,” Chagai Tzuriel, director general of Israel’s Ministry of Intelligence, said at a briefing Monday in Jerusalem. “Someone there said, ‘Guys, we’re in bad shape, let’s make some changes. Nothing that we really mean -- we still want to kill Israelis -- but let’s put it in a different way so maybe more people will talk to us.’ ”

Bloody Trail

Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union, having carried out scores of suicide bombings and other assaults that have killed and injured hundreds of people. It has been accused of war crimes for indiscriminately targeting Israeli civilians and for allegedly using Palestinian civilians as human shields against Israeli attacks. Israel also has been accused of war crimes for its actions in Gaza, where more than 2,000 Palestinians died in the last round of fighting in 2014, including many civilians.

Hamas’s current charter describes the group as part of the Muslim Brotherhood. Any attempt to curry favor with Egypt’s El-Sisi, who has made clear his antipathy for the movement and its offshoots, is likely to fall flat, analysts said.

The Egyptian government’s “hostility toward the Brotherhood, and by extension Hamas as a political organization, coupled with the very strongly functional relationship with Israel at the moment, will be enough so that there’s very little Hamas can do to elicit change from Sisi,” said Crispin Hawes, London-based managing director of the research firm Teneo Intelligence. Revising Hamas’s charter is a “gesture that does very little to affect the reality of the difficulties the organization faces.”

The text described by Al-Mayadeen shows a willingness to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war. That has been the basis for U.S.-backed peace talks dating back to 2002. 

Phased Plan

But the changes fall short of benchmarks set by the U.S. and other peace brokers for Hamas to be accepted as a legitimate political movement, said Mukheimer Abusada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. These include renouncing violence, recognizing Israel and accepting past accords that the Palestinians have signed with the Jewish state.

The new document also indicates Hamas’s violent approach won’t change.

“Resisting the occupation is a legal right and the armed resistance is a strategic choice,” it says.

— With assistance by Tarek El-Tablawy

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