In recent weeks, armed with a leaked document, many have speculated that the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, will adopt a new Charter. However, the leaked document is nothing but a new “platform” being floated among the movement members, to be officially announced on May 1 as the “General Principles and Policies Platform.” The platform will not replace its original 1988 Charter, according to Ismail Radwan, a senior leader in the movement.
The Charter of Hamas did not provoke much controversy in 1988, the year of the movement’s founding. At the time, Israel alone cited the Charter as proof of Hamas’ extremism. Informed by concepts and images common to Islamist political discourses, while also drawing on the insurgent vocabulary of Arab and Palestinian political cultures of the 1980s, the Charter did not conform to the conventions of international law, the international community, or the changing regional influences of the period. In time, however, these aspects of the Charter provoked greater international criticism.
While it might be assumed that the only critics of the Charter were outsiders, not Hamas members, particularly after the second Intifada, when Hamas signaled a willingness to participate in local and legislative Palestinian Authority elections, many members themselves had criticized and sidestepped the Charter. Hamas has not adhered to all of the Charter’s articles, indicating that, even from the perspective of the movement itself, its political positions did not reflect the Charter faithfully.
So, why do many Hamas members and leaders now speak about a “Charter crisis”? Why has Hamas not amended or revised its Charter over the last three decades? Why is the movement now discussing a new “political platform” rather than drawing up an entirely new Charter? The answer is that replacement or revision of the Charter would spur a significant loss of Hamas’ membership and signal a dramatic retreat from its founding principles, thus fostering the perception that Hamas is succumbing to Israeli and international pressures. Adding to such anxieties is the Palestinians’ past bitter experience with revising charters, specifically the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) amendments of its founding document, which failed to quiet Israeli and Western criticisms of the PLO.
Hamas leaders are not eager to encourage the movement’s rank and file to think that they are following in the PLO’s footsteps. Such a perception, they reason, would threaten Hamas’ existence as a committed resistance movement.
However, local, regional, and international contexts and circumstances have changed markedly over the last three decades, compelling Hamas to face up to its “Charter crisis” in order to ease growing pressures. The new regional and global political landscape has thrown into sharp relief problematic aspects and implications of some articles of the Charter.
On the local level, particularly in the wake of the Palestinian dialogue about Hamas’ participation in the 2006 legislative elections, Hamas began to face questions about some of the Charter’s articles, especially those relating to the PLO and Palestinian identity. Such questions had already emerged with some urgency after the signing of the Cairo Declaration by thirteen Palestinian groups, including Hamas, in 2005. The Declaration called for the reform of elections laws, local and legislative elections, and a more inclusive PLO encompassing all Palestinian factions. Hamas’ signing of the Declaration contradicted key tenets of its Charter. For example, Article 27 stipulates that the Islamization of the secular PLO is mandatory for Hamas’ participation in it:
When the Palestine Liberation Organization adopts Islam as its system of life, we will be its soldiers.
Hamas’ new political platform is not expected to reiterate this condition, which would allow the movement’s incorporation into national institutions without violating its founding document. Nonetheless, Hamas opponents in Palestine are particularly worried about the Charter’s explicit statement that the movement’s ultimate goal is the establishment of an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine. However, according the new political platform, Hamas is explicitly committed to human and minority rights, a position that is not clear in its Charter.
Shortly after Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, transformative changes swept across the Middle East resulting from the Arab Spring. These changes did not work in Hamas’ favor, especially in terms of its relationship with Egypt. After taking over Gaza’s administration in 2006, Hamas was obliged to establish relations with the Arab states, particularly with adjacent countries through which people and goods move, as well as with the Gulf oil states in order to secure a flow of funds. Yet, Hamas’ Charter renders such relations questionable. Article 2 states:
The Islamic Resistance Movement is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood chapter in Palestine.
Hamas has often declared that its relationship with the Brotherhood is purely philosophical, and that it is not bound by the decisions of the Brotherhood. This is either a misleading declaration or a jarring contradiction in the eyes of hardline Hamas members. The new political platform offers an opportunity for the movement to clarify its relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, which might improve its relations with some neighboring countries, notably Egypt, and the Arab Gulf states.
At the international level, however, Hamas’ task seems particularly challenging, if not impossible.
Hamas has drawn the resentment not only of Israel and some of Israel’s allies in the international community, but also some pro-Palestinian organizations. The 1988 Charter characterizes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as religious in nature; it indiscriminately conflates Zionism and Judaism; and it defines Palestine as Islamic land. Article 11 stipulates that:
The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf Trust.
This, however, is not the most important challenge facing Hamas. While in the past the movement used the adjective “Jewish” to describe the occupation, in recent years it has described it as a Zionist occupation. It will thus not be difficult for Hamas to change these references. In fact, the new platform emphasizes that the conflict is with Zionism, not Judaism.
Nonetheless, Hamas will find it especially difficult to establish relations with the Israeli occupation, since it categorically rejects any settlement with the occupier, and also rejects international peace initiatives. Hamas considers military action the only legitimate path to liberation, according to Article 13 of the Charter. Yet, during the Second Intifada, Hamas began to show a willingness to accept the two-state solution, albeit only as a temporary solution. This does not merely contradict its Charter: it flies in the face of its political membership. Any support — even tactical — for the two-state solution worries Hamas’ popular base, because it can signal a gradual retreat from a firm position, which some fear can lead to Hamas’ acceptance of the two-state solution.
Hence, Hamas’ new platform does not forego the military option, nor does it recognize the legitimacy of Israel’s existence, because either would mean Hamas’ demise as a movement. In truth, even specific changes, such as no longer describing the conflict as religious in nature, accepting two states as an interim solution, and not surrendering the demand for an Islamic society and institutions, frighten Hamas.
Any step that might be considered a retreat from the founding principles of Hamas requires either a dynamic personality to carry it out, as was the case with the late Ahmed Yassin, or a strong personality, as with Yahya al-Sinwar today. Since assuming the leadership of Hamas in Gaza, al-Sinwar has been keen to appear militant and militarist. Gaza, as a result, has recently witnessed decisive action against collaborators with Israel. Although this might lead outsiders to view the Hamas military wing as wielding more influence in the movement than its politicians, it certainly makes it easier for Hamas to introduce its new platform with minimal damage to its reputation and internal cohesion
The new platform will give Hamas greater room to maneuver on the Palestinian and Arab fronts and foster greater harmony, but it will achieve little in terms of its relations with Western powers and Israel. The Quartet has set clear conditions for Hamas: the renunciation of violence, recognition of Israel’s legitimacy, and acceptance of the two-state solution as an end to the conflict. Hamas cannot accept this, even if some of its leaders might want it. While Israel will not ignore Hamas’ new platform, it will justify any new assault on Gaza, even in light of the new document, by pointing to Hamas’ conduct and political rhetoric. Although some international authorities may welcome the movement’s new platform as a positive step, they are likely to demand more before they are prepared to deal with Hamas as an internationally accepted Palestinian player.