New Hamas manifesto—more of the same

Ofer Bavly says there isn't much new in Hamas' new manifesto.

Last month, Hamas published a new statement of principles.  It's the first such manifesto since the Hamas Charter was published when the terror organization was established in 1988. Once finalized, it is designed to replace the old charter. As a fundamental document, it is important to evaluate whether and how it differs from the 1988 charter. Spoiler alert: there is a Hebrew saying that sums it up succinctly -- "Same lady, different dress."

The new manifesto was published due to  a number of factors. First, the Middle East has changed radically in the past three decades. Two cataclysmic Iraq wars, the Arab Spring, Syria's civil war, and the ever-shifting sands of the Middle East have created a new Shi'ite-Sunni divide in which Hamas found itself virtually isolated and losing popularity in the Arab world. As a former ally of both Iran and Syria, the organization now finds itself with no meaningful international backing. The hope that Hamas had when the Muslim Brotherhood (its parent organization) came to power in Egypt was short-lived, as the military in that country ousted the Brotherhood and installed the virulently anti-Hamas General Abdel el-Sisi as president. 

Another factor that led Hamas to amend its manifesto is concern regarding the policy of the new Trump Administration. Labeled a terror organization not just by the U.S, but by the U.N. and the E.U., Hamas runs the risk of further getting marginalized as the U.S. launches a new peace initiative with the Palestinian Authority as sole representative of the Palestinian people. In that context, Hamas is also striving to present itself as an alternative to Abu Mazen's Palestinian Authority headed by the Al-Fatah group. As an alternative to the legitimate Authority, it needs to ramp down its extremist rhetoric, at least in appearance if not in reality. 

Hamas also recognizes that in its weakened position, any future armed conflict with Israel might be used by the Israeli government to crush the organization and deal it a death blow (which Israel did not do during extended battles in 2009, 2012, or 2014). 

Finally, Hamas is finding it ever harder to shoulder the burden of responsibility for the day to day life of two million Palestinians under its control in the Gaza Strip. With Egypt closing down most of the smuggling tunnels and the destruction of Hamas' underground tunnel infrastructure which was used for trade and control of Gaza, the organization finds it impossible to supply its population's basic needs. It is in dire need of a breakthrough to exit its current state of isolation. 

In order to address these factors, Hamas is now trying to present a softer, gentler image without actually changing its true character. Ismail Haniyeh, newly appointed Head of the Hamas Political Bureau, said that "the new document will undermine neither our principles nor our strategy." The Palestinian Authority, led by the Al-Fatah faction, issued a statement saying that the Hamas manifesto is nothing new and changes nothing. 

There are, however, a few semantic differences between this new manifesto and the Hamas Charter of 1988. First and foremost, the new document allows for the possibility of a Palestinian State being established on the pre-1967 borders-a possibility rejected by the original charter. Having said that, the new manifesto also says very clearly that this would by no means signify an end to the Palestinian demand to regain all of the land-including every inch assigned to Israel in the 1949 Armistice Agreement. In other words, Hamas views a limited Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza not as a permanent solution, but rather as a temporary stepping stone on the road to conquering all of Israel. 

Another novelty presented in the new manifesto is the declaration that the fight of the Palestinians is not with the Jewish people, but only with the Zionist State of Israel. That change is no more than semantic and designed to alleviate pressure on Hamas in Europe and the U.S. as an anti-Semitic organization. 

Another important change in the manifesto has to do with Hamas' affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, stated clearly in the 1988 charter but erased in the new document. Born out of the organization's growing isolation in the Middle East and collision course with Egypt, there is a clear interest in downplaying Hamas' alliance with the Brotherhood, currently viewed as a common enemy by many Arab countries. 

The new Hamas manifesto therefore presents a number of changes from the foundational 1988 charter but those changes are not substantial to the organization's character and long-term goals. It does place more emphasis on the national Palestinian interest than on the Islamic aspects of its existence. On the other hand, it has not abandoned its complete rejection of the right of the State of Israel to exist; its demand that all Palestinian refugees and all their offspring be allowed to return to "their" ancestral homes in Israel proper; its claim that the armed struggle is legitimate and is the only way to gain the Palestinians' national goals, and its rejection of the possibility of a long-term peace with Israel. 

It is a manifesto born out of Hamas' need to survive and not a change of course; it is a political statement, not an ideological one, meant for international consumption but not as a real change. In actual terms, nothing has changed and Hamas remains a terror organization dedicated to destroying the State of Israel. 

Ofer Bavly is the director general of the JUF Israel Office.

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