The recent unveiling of Hamas’ new charter has evoked a wide range of reactions and discussions among those interested in the question of Palestine. Analysts are already busy explaining what implications this could have on the peace process, and on the conflict in general.
The attention surrounding the announcement is understandable. For all intents and purposes this is a momentous occasion. Changes of this caliber in internal Palestinian politics have been exceedingly rare. Some hope that this new charter could perhaps breathe some life into the political process after years of stagnation.
Without a doubt, the new charter does bring with it some needed changes, such as the distinction between Israelis occupying Palestine and the Jewish people as a whole, as well as the interpretation of the struggle in Palestine through an anti-colonial lens, rather than through a religious one. However, the “change” that seems to get most of the attention is Hamas’ acceptance of the two state solution along the 1967 borders. This has been cited as a major departure for the movement, and a possible sign of “moderation”.
On this particular point, I must disagree. When it comes to visions for political resolution, the updated charter is merely catching up to the party’s current politics, rather than it ushering in a change of policy.
The extent to which Hamas has shifted its politics over the last 13 years remains mostly unappreciated and overlooked. If we are to understand the roots of this new charter, and how its political resolution is a continuum -not a departure- of current party policy, a brief look at Hamas’ history and change over the years is required:
Four years into the second Intifada, Palestinian society underwent a phase of fatigue. No political achievements could be named; it was quite the opposite, living conditions had deteriorated for most of the population, with 63% of households witnessing at least a 50% cut in income. Poverty rates consequently rose sharply.
It is in this context that Hamas found itself facing considerable political challenges. Opinion polls revealed that Hamas was facing a legitimacy crisis, with its support having dropped significantly since the beginning of the second Intifada, meanwhile, the Fatah movement, their main rivals, witnessed an increase in support.
Contrary to the dogmatic ideological image Hamas is portrayed with in mainstream discourse, Hamas — and the Muslim Brotherhood in general — have shown pragmatism in their politics, and an understanding of realpolitik when it comes to the survival of the movement. This was seen time after time with the Muslim Brotherhood and their navigation of the minefield of Egyptian politics, especially following the Free Officers revolution of 1952, and the subsequent shift in policy and ideology later under Sadat.
Similarly in the case of Hamas, this pragmatism can be clearly seen through their own shift following their dwindling popularity. As early as January 2004, Hamas leaders signaled that they were willing to adopt a different strategy when it came to ending the conflict. Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, a founder and spiritual leader of the movement, stated that the movement was prepared to drop its armed resistance in return for what he called a “true and genuine state” in the areas comprising the West Bank, Gaza strip and East Jerusalem. This statement however, was not exclusive to the ideological and spiritual leadership of the movement. Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, the political leader of Hamas at the time, made similar remarks, and offered a renewable 10 year truce if Israel were to withdraw from the occupied territories leading up to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
This was a huge shift in the political rhetoric of Hamas, bringing it closer to the mainstream PLO position on conflict resolution: The two state solution based on the 1949 armistice line. This was demonstrated on the ground with Hamas competing in the Palestinian municipal elections in 2004. This was seen as a major precedent, as Hamas had previously rejected the Oslo agreement and any political process that resulted from it. This included election campaigns, which all operate under the framework of the Palestinian Authority which is a direct result of Oslo. Taking this a step further, Hamas decided in mid 2005 that it would also take part in the Legislative Elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC).
By that point, the (in)famous Hamas foundation charter, which is criticized for having the destruction of the Israeli state as one of its goals, was already defunct. This was officially confirmed in a 2010 interview with incumbent Hamas chairman, Khalid Meshal. In the interview, he was asked about the charter and its relevance to the party at the time. His reply was “[T]hat it is a piece of history and no longer relevant, but cannot be changed for internal reasons.”
In an attempt to gauge whether these statements were still representative of the movement’s politics, in early 2016, I interviewed Mr. Mohammed Totah, a member of parliament representing Hamas. His response to this was that, when it comes to a political resolution, the official position of the movement remains the 2006 prisoners’ paper.
The June 28, 2006 prisoners’ paper, The National Conciliation Document of the Prisoners, was a shared document drafted by Palestinian prisoners of all factions in Israeli jails in an attempt to reconcile Fatah and Hamas and formulate a unified position with which to face Israel. The very first goal of the prisoners’ paper states the following:
1- The Palestinian people in the homeland and in the Diaspora seek and struggle to liberate their land and remove the settlements and evacuate the settlers and remove the apartheid and annexation and separation wall and to achieve their right to freedom, return and independence and to exercise their right to self-determination, including the right to establish their independent state with al-Quds al-Shareef as its capital on all territories occupied in 1967…”
This was hardly the first time Hamas had agreed to a state based on the 1967 borders, and it would not be the last. Khaled Meshal reaffirmed this position once again in an interview in mid 2016, stating that Hamas
“..accepted a joint Arab and Palestine program, based on 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as its capital….”
Behind its fiery rhetoric, then, the official Hamas position for quite a while has been the two state solution. Its transformation from a spoiler to a player is frequently ignored, perhaps out of a misunderstanding of internal Palestinian politics, or perhaps because maintaining a certain image of Hamas is more beneficial to some parties.
The main feature separating Hamas’ two state solution from the PLO’s is the question of refugees. Hamas clearly states that refugees have an unconditional right of return. Meanwhile the PLO stresses finding “a just solution to the refugee issue” without ever specifying what this looks like, or if it includes a return at all.
Despite what Israel has been claiming, then, Hamas has been open to the idea of the two state solution for a considerable period of time. Yet this is also a red herring. The PLO’s acceptance of the two state solution has not brought it any closer to reality after decades of negotiation. Palestinians were not any closer to achieving peace before the creation of Hamas, which is a relatively new addition to the conflict, than they are now. Israel has negotiated with those who have recognized it, yet has refused to reciprocate this recognition. The one common factor here is Israeli intransigence, and its continued expansionism and colonialism.
Israeli pretexts and excuses are many. The old charter is only one, and I suspect new ones will arise with time. But one thing remains for sure: Israel is the party in control and holding all of the cards, it alone has the key to achieving a negotiated solution should it only choose to. Looking at Israeli policy since the beginning of the peace process, it should be clear what that choice has been.