Politics, it has been said, is the art of the possible. But when it comes to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it can also become the art of the absurd. In a prosaic repetition of history, Hamas — the 30-year-old, Gaza-based Islamic resistance movement — decided to amend its charter, releasing a political document of principles that basically severs ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and accepts a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital, without recognizing Israel.
The outgoing head of the movement’s political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, said in Doha last week that while the new document does not abandon the “constants” of Palestinian rights, it reflects Hamas’ ability to evolve in light of changing political realities. The contrast between the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) own evolution from the 1970s onward, and Hamas’ apparent shift toward moderation, cannot be ignored.
Under its historic leader Yasser Arafat, the PLO underwent a slow departure from the principles of the armed liberation of Palestine and destruction of Israel — etched in its Palestine National Charter — to the adoption of UN Security Council resolutions, the creation of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, and finally the recognition of Israel. In return, the PLO gained international acceptance, particularly by the Americans, which eventually led to direct negotiations with Israel and the signing of the Oslo Accords.
Hamas was born in Gaza during the first Palestinian intifada (uprising) of 1987. It presented itself as an alternative to the secular PLO. Hamas immediately became a major rival of Fatah, the largest Palestinian faction, building grassroots support among conservatives mainly in Gaza but also in the West Bank. It identified ideologically with the Muslim Brotherhood, and believed fundamentally in armed struggle and the destruction of Israel.
Its military wing, Al-Qassam Brigades, became a key player following the Oslo deal — which Hamas rejected — when it waged a series of suicide attacks inside Israel in the 1990s. That prompted direct Israeli reaction in the form of lethal airstrikes on Gaza, and the assassination of political and military leaders of Hamas, including its founder Ahmad Yassin.
Hamas’ role in undermining Oslo, and eventually Arafat’s position, remains central to the widening rift between the Islamist movement and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Even before its forced takeover of Gaza in 2007 and the ousting of the PA, Hamas had engaged in provocative acts against Israel that led to the first major Israeli operation against the besieged territory in 2006. Two other major offensives took place in 2008 and 2014, all resulting in massive civilian deaths and injuries, and the destruction of the Gaza’s volatile infrastructure.
Hamas needs to change it actions, not only its rhetoric, if it wants to achieve political rehabilitation, but most importantly it must become part of the mainstream political structure to be recognized as a relevant player.Osama Al-Sharif
Despite Israel’s indiscriminate use of munitions — some of them banned under international law — in the heavily populated territory, it was never held accountable for its crimes. Major world powers leaned toward Israel and condemned Hamas’ firing of rockets on Israeli towns and settlements.
The movement’s ideological platform became a political straightjacket as the Israeli blockade remained intact and its key sponsors — Turkey, Qatar and Iran — could do little to end its isolation and irrelevance. It took Meshaal and key leaders years to wake up to the new geopolitical reality, post-Arab Spring, that their fundamentalist course was leading them nowhere.
Their iron grip over impoverished Gaza had made them unpopular. Their strategic relationship with Egypt had waned following the toppling of President Mohammed Mursi in 2013. Ties with Tehran became a liability following the latter’s sectarian interventions in Syria and Iraq. Their refusal to hand back power to the PA in Gaza derailed numerous attempts to restore Palestinian unity.
So now they claim to embrace pragmatism and offer a vague compromise, which was quickly rebuffed by Israel and belittled by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Hamas document raises more questions than answers, and does little to bridge the gap between Gaza City and Ramallah. It was also rejected by Islamic Jihad, Hamas’ rival and ally in Gaza, and with no takers in Israel one wonders who it is really directed at.
The departure from the Muslim Brotherhood may remove one big hurdle in relations with Cairo. Egypt controls the only non-Israeli land crossing to Gaza, and its opening is vital for the livelihood of almost 2 million stranded Gazans. But while the Hamas shift, late and surreal in many ways, is a good thing in general, it will hardly change the grim reality of the Israeli blockade on Gaza and its effect on the lives of Palestinians.
Instead of making an inchoate compromise that falls short of what the Quartet — the UN, US, EU and Russia — is demanding, the new leadership under Ismail Haniyeh should launch a credible initiative to mend fences with the PA and restore Palestinian unity. Lack of unity has weakened the Palestinians and compromised Abbas at a time when US President Donald Trump is getting ready to intervene and force a controversial deal.
Hamas needs to change it actions, not only its rhetoric, if it wants to achieve political rehabilitation, but most importantly it must become part of the mainstream political structure to be recognized as a relevant player.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.