This week, Hamas published a new "Document of General Principles and Policies" in a press conference in Doha, Qatar. Released only two days before a scheduled meeting between Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, and US President Donald Trump in the White House, the document attempts to present a softer and more moderate face of the Palestinian Islamist movement known for its violent terrorist campaigns against Israel.The new document, presented by Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, was not portrayed by the group as a replacement of its original charter, which was published in 1988; it does, however, seek to update the principles and policies of the movement to the changing geopolitical environment and to the current constraints it faces.
One much-discussed aspect of the new document is Hamas' attitude towards Israel. While its original charter is rife with anti-Semitic language, compares Jews to Nazis, and calls for Israel's destruction, the new document (which does not replace the charter) distinguishes between Zionism and Jews. "Hamas affirms that its conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion," it says. The document states Hamas would accept a Palestinian state on 1967 lines – a first for the group – but it reiterates its aims of liberating Palestine “from the river to the sea.” It also makes clear that Hamas does not give up on violent "resistance" (muqawama) against Israel, and states that "there shall be no recognition of the legitimacy of the Zionist entity [Israel]."
In that sense, while the new document presents a ‘softer face,’ which claims to oppose Israel on national rather than religious grounds, the document does not present a fundamental shift in its position towards the Jewish state. Further, it emphasis that “the Zionist project is the enemy of the Arab and Islamic Ummah.”
Other parts of the document do hint at a more significant change in the movement's strategic thinking, however: namely, its relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas emerged as the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1970s and 1980s, and Article Two of Hamas' original charter described the movement as "one of the wings of [the] Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine." The new document presents a different tone. While it does not explicitly reject an affiliation with the Brotherhood, the document contains no mentions of it either. This seems to indicate a desire to brand Hamas as a local Palestinian movement which "stresses the necessity of building Palestinian national institutions," rather than part of a pan-Islamic organisation. Furthermore, the document also states that Hamas "opposes intervention in the internal affairs of any country."
These positions appear to be a response to allegations made by Egypt and other Arab states about the Brotherhood's interference in their domestic politics and internal affairs. Since the military coup in July 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood had been labeled by Egypt and the UAE as a terrorist organisation, and Egypt has often accused Hamas of collaborating with the Brotherhood in planning terrorist attacks within the country. The lack of any affiliation with the Brotherhood, unlike Hamas' stated position in its charter, seems to be an attempt to distance the Palestinian movement from the outlawed Islamist organisation. The document further states that "Hamas believes in the values of cooperation" and "welcomes the stances of states, organisations and institutions that support the rights of the Palestinian people." These statements are consistent with Hamas' past efforts to gain international legitimacy, as well as its past political and financial relations with various state actors such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.
In all, Hamas' new document appears to be an attempt to present to the world a more moderate face of the militant group, in order to improve its international standing. This takes place against a background of Palestinian unity attempts and power struggles with the Abbas-led Palestinian Authority. It is also parallel to continued militant activities by the group, which have shown little sign of softening.
However, while Hamas does not fundamentally change its position towards Israel (or the use of violent struggle against it), it does present a more pragmatic approach towards other Arab states and the international community.
As Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, claimed, “The document gives us a chance to connect with the outside world. To the world, our message is: Hamas is not radical. We are a pragmatic and civilised movement.” The lack of any affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood is a significant move in this direction, but it remains to be seen how Egypt and other Arab states will react to Hamas' new branding efforts.
The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.