There is a lot of buzz and hype since Hamas let it be known it was changing the wording of its notorious charter — the one that calls on Palestinians to slay Jews and carry on armed resistance to replace Israel with an Islamic state.
But the big question over whether Hamas might finally be softening its stance and opening a door to peace with Israel isn’t a possibility. Hamas is not changing its stripes.
While some pundits view this is a positive step, we should remember that Hamas was, and remains, a radical Islamic militant organization and a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood that ideologically rejects the right of Israel to exist. Despite the rumors of a break with the past, the telltale signs of a hardline, militant Hamas have not changed at all.
The purported updates to the charter that have been leaked so far are nothing more than political acrobatics by Hamas leaders who are attempting cosmetic changes for political gain. And the gains they seek are dangerous.
On the political front Hamas is emboldened by the lack of confidence in Palestinian street towards the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas, which many Palestinians perceive as corrupt and self-serving. Ever since the 2007 military coup, in which it seized power in Gaza from Abbas, Hamas has been squeezed by Israel and Egypt’s border restrictions and exposed to increasing criticism with regard to the deterioration of living conditions in the Gaza Strip .
Hamas’ political wing, led by Khaled Maashal, is desperate to open Gaza’s borders and sees the possibility of using soft power to gain political control of the West Bank. By appearing to soften its position and temporarily accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines, Maashal is maneuvering Hamas for an inside takeover of the Palestine Liberation Organization — the umbrella group headed by Abbas.
Knowing Hamas has no chance of military success in the West Bank, it appears the tactical and rhetorical changes have been made to undermine Abbas by other means.
By removing the Jews from the charter, Maashal shows he understands a national struggle against the “Zionist Israelis” is more palatable on the world stage than a religious struggle against the Jews.
However, Maashal is spearheading the repositioning from exile in Qatar. The supposedly leaked information concerning the new charter came from Lebanon, not Gaza, where the new leadership of Yahya Sinwar has said nothing about softening any Hamas positions against Israel.
Sinwar is known for his militancy. The leaked text of the charter contains the same basic militant Hamas ideology Sinwar espouses which completely rejects the three basic requirements set by the Middle East Quartet for Hamas to end its isolation as a terrorist organization: the new text does not accept previously signed accords, does not reject violence and does not recognize Israel.
In fact, the new charter confirms exactly the opposite. It declares “total rejection” of the Oslo Accords, commitment to “armed resistance” and shoots a poisoned arrow through the heart of wishful thinkers who thought Hamas would accept a temporary state on the 1967 lines. The new charter says “Hamas refuses any alternative which is not the whole liberation of Palestine, from the [Jordan] River to the sea.”
No, there is no new pluralism or tolerance in Hamas. There is no new legitimacy to any non-Islamic presence, either Jewish or Christian, within the territories Hamas wants to control.
Hamas very clearly intends to continue its militarization. While it now recognizes the PLO, any student of the region knows to take this with a grain of salt. In the end Khaled Maashal in particular, and the Hamas leadership in general, want to get into PLO to take it over to extend their control beyond Gaza to the West Bank.
Those who hope to see a pragmatic Hamas should be aware it is nowhere near ready to cross the Rubicon, recognize the Quartet conditions or join the peace process. Hamas remains a radical, fundamentalist, Islamic military movement committed to its Muslim Brotherhood roots. A key part of their raison d'être is to bring about a new Islamic caliphate of which the Palestinians are just a part.
Hamas is trying to change its image to ease internal and external pressures, and principally to allow it to take over the PLO. It is also crucial to remember that the change is being pushed by Hamas’ political wing under Maashal. The political branch today is much weaker than the military wing and Gaza’s political leadership under Sinwar. Any change in the charter is ultimately just hot air given Sinwar still operates under the Hamas military motto, branded on every Hamas announcement: “It is jihad — victory or martyrdom.”
Kobi Michael is the former deputy director general and head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs and is a Senior Research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.