Why the Hamas charter isn’t a key obstacle to peace with Israel

A Hamas flag flies over a destroyed neighbourhood in Gaza, where Israel’s military assault revived support for the struggling Islamic movement. EPA/Mohammed Saber

As the dust settles in a bloodied Gaza, after what one US official described as not so much another military exercise in “mowing the lawn” as “removing the topsoil”, Palestinians greeted the ceasefire with a characteristically black-humoured “rubble bucket challenge”. Israel responded with the greatest land heist in the West Bank for the last 30 years.

With Hamas entrenched in Gaza once more and Israel’s Netanyahu government demonstrating contempt for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, what chance is there of peace?

A core issue is the refusal of Hamas and Israel to recognise each other. That has turned what might have been a conflict over borders into an existential conflict.

Throughout the conflict much opprobrium was heaped upon the notorious 1988 Hamas Charter. This founding document calls for the liberation of all of historical Palestine and a refusal to recognise the Israeli state created therein in 1948.

Instead of interpreting these as immutable positions, one should also examine Hamas’ political practices – rather than its putative ideological tendencies. After all, dogmatic ideologies don’t lend themselves well to the demands of practical politics. And Hamas is an activist political movement grounded in temporal aims, not one prone to extensive philosophising.

So what does an analysis of Hamas’ political practices signal for the possibility of peace with Israel?

What is the status of the charter?

Let’s start with the Hamas charter. This undeniably controversial document is replete with conspiracy theories and virulently anti-Judaic sentiments. Critics posit that the charter and the refusal to recognise Israel point to genocidal tendencies.

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu again invoked the spectre of Nazism and anti-Semitic genocide while denouncing Hamas in an address this week to the United Nations. Netanyahu moved to tie Hamas to the West’s present bete noire – Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. We have yet to see any reports of Hamas beheading journalists, engaging in ethnic cleansing and selling women as sex slaves that might support the prime minister’s assertions.

So how instructional is the Hamas charter? Does it act as a policy document for Hamas’ present political trajectory?

Given the fixation on its charter, one could almost be forgiven for thinking that Hamas has not written a single other document or made public statements to the contrary in some 25 years of existence! The behaviour and political practices of Hamas, however, suggest a degree of pragmatism and flexibility. In a 2006 interview, for instance, Gazan PM Ismail Haniyeh stated:

We do not wish to throw them [Jews] into the sea.

Let’s not forget that the charter is a document that:

a) never went through the internal consultative process that would come to characterise the movement

b) was never implemented as policy even after Hamas won internationally supervised elections in 2006 and then seized exclusive power in Gaza during a “pre-emptive” counter-coup in June 2007 and

c) Hamas Political Bureau chief Khaled Mashal explains:

should not be regarded as the fundamental ideological frame of reference from which the movement takes its positions, or the basis on which it justifies its actions.

Hamas leader Ibrahim Ghoshesh similarly observes that:

it goes without saying that the articles of the charter are not sacred … they are subject to review and revision.

In this light, Cambridge-based scholar Khaled Hroub argues that the charter should be viewed as a historical rather than a policy document.

Why not renounce the charter?

Why then does Hamas insist on retaining its charter? Put simply, it’s a negotiating chip.

Many Palestinians believe Yasser Arafat was hoodwinked in agreeing to the 1993 Oslo Accords. The PLO recognised the existence of Israel and renounced violence. Israel recognised the PLO only as the “legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”.

The accords were sold to the Palestinian public as an agreement that would lead to an independent state within five years. Over 20 years have passed and over half-a-million Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem reside in the 60% of the West Bank still controlled by the Israeli army.

Hamas doesn’t want to follow the PLO down that failed route in surrendering bargaining chips without agreements on core issues such as borders, Jerusalem, diplomatic status, refugees etc. Hamas demands a full sovereign state, not the demilitarised quasi-state envisioned by Israel whereby Israel retains control of borders, airspace, the ability to veto treaties and so forth.

So what is Hamas’ present position on peace with Israel?

Well, for a start, Hamas and Israel are engaged in indirect talks about a long-term permanent ceasefire. How is this possible if we take Hamas’ charter at face value?

Hamas does recognise the reality of the existence of Israel and the necessity to deal with it. As the Islamist Secretary-General of parliament, Mahmoud al-Ramahi, explained to me during a 2010 interview:

We have to differentiate between the right to exist and existence. Israel as a state exists, but we will never recognise the right of Israel to exist in our land.

In essence, Hamas gives Israel de facto rather than de jure recognition. At this stage, Hamas refuses to recognise the legitimacy of Israel’s founding as this would implicitly legitimise Palestinian dispossession since 1947-48.

Hamas has long been open to peace with Israel

Hamas has repeatedly committed itself to accepting any popular referendum on peace with Israel. The movement, for instance, accepted the 2002 Arab League initiative entailing full normalisation of relations with Israel in return for a withdrawal from the territories captured in 1967 and the establishment of a Palestinian state, should the Palestinian public endorse this.

In a recent interview, senior Hamas leader Ahmed Yousef reiterated Hamas’ willingness to reach a peace deal, whether through a bi-national state, a Holy Land Federation, or a two-state solution - as long as this ends the occupation.

Such statements are nothing new. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the assassinated founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, had proposed a hudna (often translated as ceasefire) since the early 1990s entailing a ten-year ceasefire that would be automatically renewed.

A hudna is more than just a ceasefire. In a 2006 article, Yousef, then a senior aide to the Gazan PM, offered a similar deal:

Typically covering 10 years, a hudna is recognised in Islamic jurisprudence as a legitimate and binding contract. A hudna extends beyond the Western concept of a cease-fire and obliges the parties to use the period to seek a permanent, non-violent resolution to their differences.

Before the latest conflict, moreover, Hamas was in a moribund state. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt cut off Gaza’s lifelines, the Egyptian border crossing at Rafah and the networks of cross-border tunnels.

The political reconciliation agreed by Hamas’ Khaled Mashal and the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas angered and alarmed Israel. EPA/Mohamed Hams

The movement’s situation was so dire that it signed an agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to form a reconciliation government, with a cabinet devoid of Hamas politicians, thereby preparing effectively to surrender control of much of the Gaza Strip.

This reconciliation government accepted Israeli and Western preconditions for political engagement including: non-violence; an acceptance of previous agreements between Israel and the PLO/PA; and recognition of Israel.

This was an unprecedented climb-down by Hamas.

Then came the latest bloodshed in Gaza and a consequent surge in support for Hamas. The movement would now win both parliamentary and presidential elections. Yet Hamas appears to have kept faith with the idea of a reconciliation government.

It is entirely possible, of course, that Hamas overtures for peace are merely exercises in political casuistry. But if this is the case - and Israel is truly interested in a just peace - why not call their bluff and offer Palestinian leaders a deal that wouldn’t be political, if not literal, suicide?


Editor’s note: Tristan will be on hand for an Author Q&A session between 9:30 and 10:30am tomorrow (October 3). Post any questions about the Hamas charter in the comments below.