Let’s address head-on the Hamas Charter that denies Israel’s right to exist. (We will leave aside in this post Israel’s Likud Party platform that denies the right for a Palestinian state to ever exist.) I have tried to keep abreast of the makeup and intentions of Hamas for some years but confine myself in this post (or series of posts) on two relatively recent studies:
The prevailing inability or unwillingness to talk about Hamas in a nuanced manner is deeply familiar. During the summer of 2014, when global news rooms were covering Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip, I watched Palestinian analysts being rudely silenced on the air for failing to condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization outright. This condemnation was demanded as a prerequisite for the right of these analysts to engage in any debate about the events on the ground. There was no other explanation, it seemed, for the loss of life in Gaza and Israel other than pure-and-simple Palestinian hatred and bloodlust, embodied by Hamas. I wondered how many lives, both Palestinian and Israeli, have been lost or marred by this refusal to engage with the drivers of Palestinian resistance, of which Hamas is only one facet. I considered the elision of the broader historical and political context of the Palestinian struggle in most conversations regarding Hamas. Whether condemnation or support, it felt to me, many of the views I faced on Palestinian armed resistance were unburdened by moral angst or ambiguity. There was often a certainty or a conviction about resistance that was too easily forthcoming.
I have struggled to find such certainty in my own study of Hamas, even as I remain unwavering in my condemnation of targeting civilians, on either side.
(Baconi, p. xi)
- Baconi, Tareq. 2018. Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
- Caridi, Paola. 2012. Hamas: From Resistance to Government. New York: Seven Stories Press.
The Hamas charter, adopted in August 1988, made clear the Islamist values of Hamas, declaring that the Quran was its constitution and the land of Palestine part of Islam’s sacred territory that could never be surrendered to non-Muslims.
A few months after its creation, in August 1988, Hamas issued its charter, “The Charter of Allah: The Platform of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas).” This document introduced the movement and outlined its mission, values, and goals. It defined Hamas’s motto as “God is its goal; The messenger [the Prophet Mohammed] is its Leader; The Quran is its Constitution; Jihad is its methodology ; and Death for the Sake of God is its most coveted desire.”
(Baconi, p. 21)
On August 18, 1988, Hamas published its charter, the Mithaq, its most debated, cited, and condemned document and one that was often used as a political bargaining tool. Article 13 expressly states that “the initiatives, what is called a ‘peaceful solution’ and ‘international conferences’ to resolve the Palestinian problem, are contrary to the ideology of the Islamic Resistance Movement, because giving up any part of Palestine is like giving up part of religion. The nationalism of the Islamic Resistance Movement is part of its religion; it educates its members on this, and they perform jihad to raise the banner of God over their nation.”
(Caridi, p. 101)
Who wrote the Charter?
The charter was a rambling work of religious and antisemitic slogans put together by an aged cleric a generation removed from the contemporary leadership of Hamas. The charter was never debated.
According to the most credible account, the text of Hamas’s Charter was penned by Abdel Fattah al-Dukhan, one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood’s older generation in Gaza, who was among those present at the December 9, 1987, meeting at Sheikh Ahmed Yassin’s house. Nearly the same age as Yassin and a refugee from the Ashkelon area . . . . It was therefore neither one of the new leadership’s ideologues nor one of the future leaders of the Diaspora who wrote the Mithaq. The hand that wrote the foundational Charter, the militant text that over the years became a political manifesto that Hamas itself never debated, belonged to a teacher of fifty years, a preacher from one of Gaza’s refugee camps.
(Caridi, p. 101)
A nationalist-religious charter
Through its charter, Hamas made clear its refusal to recognize the State of Israel. The document stressed the indivisibility of the land of “Historic Palestine,” referring to the land that constituted the British Mandate, located between the Eastern Mediterranean and the River Jordan, over which Israel was established. Hamas defined this territory as “an Islamic land entrusted to the Muslim generations until Judgement Day.”107
(Baconi, p. 23)
The Charter’s preamble speaks of the destruction of Israel, but through one of the three citations that appear at the beginning of the text rather than by means of a discussion. The citation is taken from Hassan al-Banna, who in 1948 said, “Israel will grow and will remain strong until Islam will eliminate it, just as it eliminated what came before it.”4 Paradoxically, however, it is not so much these words of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood that created a nearly insurmountable obstacle to changing the Mithaq, but Article 11, which defines Palestine as an Islamic waqf, and therefore a land that can not be subject to the disposal of men, but rather “an Islamic land entrusted to the Muslim generations until the Judgment Day.”’ Thus, adds the Charter’s author, “no one may renounce all, or even part of it.”6
(Caridi, p. 102)
Hamas leaders respond to calls to change its charter
Hamas’s secular rival, the PLO, had always bound itself to the Palestine National Congress’s charter that likewise declared its national duty to be “the liberation of Palestine” and “the elimination of Zionism in Palestine”. Since the PNA’s charter did not prevent Israel from negotiating with the PLO Hamas leadership have dismissed Israel’s objections to its charter as an excuse. They believe that Israel is most perturbed by Hamas success in popular elections in Gaza and that this is its real reason for refusing to negotiate.
According to sources inside Hamas, it was on this article that internal debate had in recent years focused in order to try to allow what is, after all, a pragmatic organization to move beyond the formal impasse that had bogged it down. Hamas’s Mithaq, after all, simply echoed what had already been said in a nationalist vein in the Palestinian National Charter, approved by the Palestinian National Congress on July 11, 1968, according to which “the liberation of Palestine, from an Arab viewpoint, is a national duty . . . and aims at the elimination of Zionism in Palestine.”Eliminating that phrase, just like the other anti-Zionist elements in the Palestinian National Charter, was not the sine qua non condition for the negotiations between the PLO and Israel that led to the Oslo Accords. In practice, the question of its elimination was tackled only in 1996, after the PNA had already been established, and even then it was left formally unresolved.
The history of the Palestinian National Charter has been taken as an example by many Hamas leaders to argue that their Mithaq has been used by Western governments as an alibi and by Israel to avoid contact with the Islamist Movement, especially after its decision to take part in electoral politics in 2005.
. . . . For the Islamist leadership, however, recanting even parts of the Mithaq meant recognizing Israel without having obtained a reciprocal legitimization and, according to many among that same leadership, without having obtained an equally formal recognition not only of the Palestinian people, but of Palestinians as a nation. From a strictly political point of view, Hamas has always feared repeating the mistakes made by Fatah and the PLO, who gave away too much to Israel without receiving anything in exchange. On the contrary, during the life of the PNA and during the negotiations between the 1991 Madrid Conference and the 2000 talks at Camp David, Hamas had always opposed the stances of the PLO and of the PNA, which it considered lax. According to Islamist leaders, if they had a similarly flexible negotiating stance, it would lead to making significant concessions without substantial and tangible results in return.
(Caridi, pp. 102f)
In late 1988, a few months after Hamas issued its charter, Yasser Arafat convened the exiled Palestinian leadership in Algiers. . . . [Arafat] declared the independence of the State of Palestine and invoked international resolutions that demonstrated the PLO’s willingness to accept a state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as the capital. Arafat’s declaration signaled the PLO’s readiness to concede the 78 percent of Palestinian land that had been lost in 1948 and willingness to fulfill the American demand of renouncing terrorism. This signaled to the United States that the PLO was ready to enter into a negotiated settlement with Israel, prompting the administration of President Ronald Reagan to open a dialogue with the PLO in late 1988.
. . . . The PLO’s concessions were anathema for Hamas, whose charter proclaimed that “jihad for the liberation of Palestine is obligatory.” No other path for liberation was viable. The movement dismissed diplomatic efforts as contrary to its ideology, primarily because they were premised on the condition of conceding parts of Palestine, but also because Hamas believed they were unlikely to serve Palestinian interests.
(Baconi, p. 23)
Hamas evolves, reflects on its “worst enemy”
“three people sat around a table and wrote it” . . . “Palestine cannot be considered a waqf”
The conclusion drawn by several Hamas leaders, however, is that the Charter’s significance has in actual fact been overestimated by those who call for its disavowal, given that Hamas’s founding charter has mostly been set aside, replaced over the decades by other documents that are far more important in defining the strategy and politics of the Islamist movement. There are even those who question the idea of the 1988 document as a founding charter. As Nasser al-Din al-Sha’er, a moderate Islamist from Nablus, puts it, “three people sat around a table and wrote it” — a trenchant definition that liquidated any further reflection on the Mithaq. There is one important exception — the single element that is truly controversial and that has prevented Hamas from modifying its Charter throughout its first two decades — namely, the definition of Palestine as a waqf, land belonging to the Muslim community as a whole. “I don’t think that’s true,” Nasser al-Din al-Sha’er retorts. “Palestine cannot be considered a waqf, and I wrote about it in I997·”8
(Caridi, p. 103)
“Hamas’s worst enemy” “written by mistake”
For its part, the organization has never repudiated this document, but over the years this point became the true obstacle to any opening toward the Palestinian Islamist movement, so much so that Azzam Tamimi, historian and author of one of the most in-depth studies of the movement, says that the Charter was “Hamas’s worst enemy.” [Azzam Tamimi, interview by the author, London, July 12, 2008.]
According to Tamimi, this assessment is shared by Khaled Meshaal, who has reportedly said that the Charter was written “by mistake” — a recognition made in private conversations by the leadership itself, albeit not in public. There are those who maintain that no one within Hamas can recall the Charter, nor cite from memory its main points, and that it is better known to the movement’s opponents than to its own members. Others recall the way in which the Charter came to life, who wrote it, the historical moment, and the goals that moment entailed, giving such context a crucial weight when considering the contents of the document. Again, according to Tamimi, Hamas has said much in public since the mid-1990s that has contradicted the Mithaq.
(Caridi, p. 104)
Why not get rid of it?
Having said that, no one within Hamas’s leadership is prepared to disavow the 1988 Charter. But the embarrassment it produces is obvious. In this as in other cases, the movement sacrifices its pragmatic side on the altar of its unity, because Hamas considers it essential that its unique democratic centralism not be undermined. Abandoning the Charter would not be possible even for those who opposed it from the very beginning unless an extensive discussion were to take place that included all of Hamas’s different constituencies:
- its bureau abroad,
- the West Bank,
- and the members detained in Israeli prisons.
(Caridi, p. 104 my formatting)
In 2005-06 Hamas also entered electoral politics and this required a determination to maintain a military calm in order to achieve their goal of a Palestinian State. Representatives of Hamas began to publicly question the charter since it now appeared to be at odds with the practical achievement of a state. Indeed, Caridi writes (p. 106) that the charter came up for discussion several times between 2003 and 2005 as Hamas discussed preparation for entering electoral politics.
182. “The Hudna Has Ended,” FM, February 13, 2006, 21. Hamas’s restraint was most evident following Israel’s ostensibly accidental assassination of Fawzi abu al-Karei, a top Qassam leader who, by chance, happened to be in the same car as al-Aqsa leader Hassan al-Mahdoun, Israel’s primary target. “Wrong Guy to Kill,” The Economist, November 5, 2005.
183. Arnon Regular, “Hamas’s Zahar,” Haaretz, October 26, 2005.
184. “The Hamas Conundrum,” The Economist, November 12, 2005. This comment was made within the larger context of Hamas discussing the possibility of negotiating directly with Israel if the latter withdrew from the West Bank. The spokesman (Mahmoud Ghazzal) denied making these statements upon receiving criticism from his constituency. See Abu-Bakr, Hamas, 91.
16. “Hamas Leader Says Charter Is Not the Koran,” Reuters, September 2005.
17. Hamed Bitawi, interview by the author, Nablus, November 2, 2008.
18. Khalid Amayreh, “Hamas Debates the Future: Palestine’s Islamic Resistance Movement Attempts to Reconcile Ideological Purity and Political Realism,” Conflicts Forum Monograph, November 2007, p. 5 n. 2, http://conflictsforum.org/briefings/Hamas-Debates-the-Future-monograph.pdf.
Hamas’s strong performance heightened Abbas’s worries ahead of the delayed legislative elections, rescheduled for January 25, 2006. Bitter spats between the parties surfaced intermittently, from violence on the streets in Gaza to campaigns of arrest and acts of vandalism in the West Bank, as well as verbal attacks in media outlets. Hamas claimed it put “no trust” in the Palestinian Authority, which it alleged had gone back on all agreements made between the parties after Arafat’s death. However, while stressing the right to armed struggle and self-defense, Hamas maintained the military calm it had committed to.182The movement also appeared invested in portraying a softer image ahead of the elections to assuage doubts about its participation. Mahmoud Zahhar, for instance, granted an interview to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in which he discussed the possible revision of the Hamas charter.183 Hamas’s spokesperson in Gaza was also quoted stating that Hamas’s “charter is not the Qur’an,” indicating Hamas’s alleged willingness to recognize Israel.184
(Baconi, p. )
The most effective statement, from a media point of view, was made in September 2005 to the Reuters news agency by Mohammed Ghazal, head of the Civil Engineering Department at Al-Najah University. The Charter of 1988, he said, “is not the Qur’an,” elaborating that “on the level of history we consider all Palestinian territories the property of the Palestinians, but now we are talking about the reality, about a political solution. Reality is something different.”16
Even Sheikh Hamed Bitawi — a religious authority in Nablus and president of the Union of Palestinian Ulama known for his radical positions — had no problem in confirming that “the Charter is not the Qur’an; we can change it. It is merely the summary of the Islamist movement’s positions in its relation to other factions, and of its politics.”17
Aziz Dweik, founder of the Geography Department at Nablus University — who became speaker of the Parliament after the 2006 general elections but was later that summer imprisoned by Israel until 2009 — went even further, clarifying the political and pragmatic necessity of moving away from the Mithaq. Speaking with Khaled Amayreh, a Palestinian journalist close to Islamist positions, Dweik said that “Hamas wouldn’t remain hostage to past rhetorical slogans such as ‘the destruction of Israel.’”
(Caridi, p. 106, my formatting)
Hamas leaders publicly stated their willingness to accept the 1967 border with Israel (as the PLO had done), though only in return for a Palestinian state.
73. “Doc. 188: Interview with Meshal, June 13, 2006,” WF, 479.
74. Ibid., 478.
75. See “Doc 69: The Political Program, March 20, 2006,” WF, 160.
76. “Doc. 53: Interview with Meshal, February 22, 2006,” WF, 122-26.
77. “Shut Your Eyes and Think of Palestine,” The Economist, May 6, 2006.
[WF = Saleh, Mohsen M., and Wael Sa’ad, eds. Mukhtarat min al-Watha’iq al-Filastiniyyah li Sanat 2006. Beirut: Al-Zaytouna Centre, 2008. Housed in AL-ZAYTOUNA CENTRE, BEIRUT, LEBANON.]
Shortly after the [Hamas] cabinet was formed, Meshal and other leaders embarked on a tour throughout the Middle East and Russia to cultivate alliances, communicate Hamas’s political program, and raise funds for the government. . . . Addressing calls for more flexibility in dealing with the Quartet’s conditions, Meshal stated, “We have shown enough flexibility’. We cannot say more than the official Arab and Palestinian position, which is to call for a Palestinian state on the land occupied in 1967. The problem is not with us. It is not with Hamas, as in the past it was also not with the official Palestinian and Arab positions. The problem has always been with Israel.”73
In Moscow, Meshal was asked whether Hamas would ever alter its charter so that it would end the call for Israel’s destruction. He asserted that if Israel abided by certain conditions, comprising “withdrawal from Palestinian land beyond 1967, including Jerusalem, implementing the right of return, releasing prisoners, destroying the wall and removing settlements,” then Hamas “would be prepared to take steps that could produce a real peace in the region.”74 Meshal insisted that the movement had explicitly stated its desire to work with the international community to achieve a state based on the 1967 borders.75 He stressed that the constant offering of ceasefires on land occupied in 1967 was another indication that Hamas implicitly recognized Israel.76 Meshal’s views were mirrored by others; Hamas’s finance minister in Gaza stated that “a long-term ceasefire as understood by Hamas and a two-state settlement are the same. It’s just a question of vocabulary.”77
(Caridi, p. 107)
So we see that Hamas has acted and made decisions in contradiction to its charter, so it has become a public-image millstone. As pointed out above, all four constituencies are required to debate the change before a collective decision can be made. Few leaders have nonetheless publicly criticized the charter:
Sayyed Abu Musameh, who in October 2008 revealed that both he and Moussa Abu Marzouq — one of the Islamist movement’s most important figures abroad — had come out against the document. Confirming Abu Musameh’s declaration is a statement made by Abu Marzouq dating to the period after the June 2007 coup in Gaza, during which Hamas was trying to break an even greater international isolation than the one it experienced after its success in the January 2006 elections.
In a comment in the Los Angeles Times of July 10, 2007, Abu Marzouq, in his position as second-in-command of Hamas’s politburo and as a man considered to be the eminence grise of the expatriate center, wrote that the Charter made public in August 1988 has had its time, and indeed it must be understood in its historical context.
The time in which it was written made the Charter “an essentially revolutionary document born of the intolerable conditions under occupation more than 20 years ago.” Abu Marzouq goes even further, making parallels between the Charter and other “founding revolutionary documents” such as the American Declaration of Independence, which “simply did not countenance (at least, not in the minds of most of its illustrious signatories) any such status [as independence] for the 700,000 African slaves at that time,” or the Basic Laws on the basis of which Israel “declares itself explicitly to be a state for the Jews, conferring privileged status based on faith in a land where millions of occupants are Arabs, Muslims and Christians.” . . . . [A]ccording to Abu Marzouq, the experience of Hamas mirrors the experiences of other revolutionary movements.
(Caridi, pp. 105f my formatting)
Caridi acknowledges the bind in which Hamas finds itself. It cannot hope for international acceptance until it renounces or revises its charter and it cannot renounce or revise its charter without an internal debate. The dilemma is evidenced in the statements and documents produced by Hamas that contradict the charter, as well as by public statements (especially international media) that point to the discomfort within Hamas itself over their charter.
Hamas accepts the 1967 border with Israel
Hamas has held firm on its insistence that the Palestinians be granted their own state in the occupied territories of 1967 and such a recognition of Palestinian statehood must coincide with any further Hamas concessions.
78. Author interview, Hamas leaders, Gaza, 2015.
79. For more on Israel’s refusal to engage with Hamas’s political efforts, see Eldar, Lehakir et Hamas. For English reviews of Eldar’s book, see Jose Vericat, “Representing Hamas (Part 1),” Jadaliyya, June io, 2014; and Jose Vericat, “Repre senting Hamas (Part 2),” Jadaliyya, June 13, 2014.
80. See, for example, Abrams’s reasoning on the Bush letter to Sharon, in Abrams, Tested by Zion, 107-9.
81. For more, see Shenhav, Beyond the Two State; Azoulay and Ophir, The One- State Condition; and Gordon, Israel’s Occupation.
Hamas’s stance made clear that explicit ideological revisions would not be forthcoming before ironclad assurances that its demands would be met. Hamas leaders noted in private that they were willing to put these offers forward in full confidence knowing that Israel would never accept a Palestinian state on 1967.78 Hamas’s gamble paid off in the sense that its bluff was never called. The movement’s repeated invocations of its willingness to accept the 1967 borders for a future Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, were consistently ignored by Israel.79 They also fell far short of expectations within the Bush administration of what Palestinian concessions needed to be. American officials involved in the peace process believed behind closed doors that in pursuit of the two-state solution Israel would retain its major settlement blocs and the right of return will not be implemented.80 In the accepted wisdom of the peace process, this was viewed as the starting point for negotiations rather than the mutual Israeli-Palestinian recognition of the 1967 borders as a basis for negotiating land swaps. While accepting the 1967 line was a major concession for Hamas, the Israeli government had itself not shown interest in preserving the 1967 line, but had rather deliberately blurred the border by continuing massive settlement expansion to ensure the irrelevance of the Green Line in any future negotiation.81 This underscored Hamas’s sense that the PLO’s blind and subservient dedication to negotiations had ensured that the demands Palestinians needed to meet kept shifting, while Israel sustained its colonization of Palestinian land.
(Baconi, p. 108)
Refusing to follow in the steps of the PLO
Hamas has seen that the PLO’s acceptance of the 1967 borders with Israel has not led to a Palestinian state and that such a state is farther beyond the horizon than ever with the ongoing increases to Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. Hamas has determined, therefore, to refuse to give any further concessions to Israel unless Israel agrees to reciprocate by granting Palestinians the right to an independent state.
Apart from its Islamic nature, two other factors have undergirded Hamas’s ideological strength.
The first is the failed precedent of the PLO. Like Hamas, the PLO was ostracized until it accepted formulaic conditions that had been dictated by the United States: the renunciation of armed struggle, and the recognition of Israel. The PLO believed, rightly, that ideological concessions would allow it to negotiate with Israel. It also imagined, mistakenly, that diplomacy would lead to Palestinian statehood. Hamas has learned this lesson and is unlikely to concede on any of its core ideological tenets without guarantees that such compromises would lead to the fulfillment of Palestinian rights. In Hamas’s view, the PLO’s concessions were its ticket into the corridors of diplomacy at the cost of its legitimacy. Far from securing Palestinian rights, these concessions have weakened the Palestinian struggle and entrenched the Israeli occupation to previously unimaginable levels.
The second factor is that Hamas has what it sees as two resounding victories that justify armed struggle. Israel’s withdrawals from south Lebanon in 2000 and from the Gaza Strip in 2005 were both unilateral Israeli measures taken after years of armed resistance in each of these locales. Rather than the byproduct of diplomacy or negotiations, these instances of “liberation” are perceived by Hamas as the vindication of resistance.
(Baconi, p. 228, my formatting)
Hamas’s offers of concessions to Israel
I skip ahead to the Conclusion in Baconi’s book and to what is effectively the current situation with Hamas.
While remaining ideologically inflexible, Hamas has offered pragmatic concessions when dealing with the three conditions imposed by the international community:97. This included commitments to abide by the Arab Peace Initiative if accepted by the Palestinian people in a public referendum. Private correspondence between Meshal and international mediators, in the possession of Avi Shlaim, University of Oxford.
- renounce violence,
- recognize Israel,
- and accept past agreements.97
As various chapters in this book demonstrate, Hamas has issued repeated offers to end its violence in return for Israeli reciprocity. Throughout the years of the Second Intifada and afterward, Hamas intermittently held fire unilaterally in the face of rapid Israeli militarization. Israel has consistently ignored these overtures. Even after its takeover of the Gaza Strip, Hamas became increasingly effective at policing Gaza’s borders, yet calm interludes were systematically ignored by Israel, which maintained its violent chokehold and incursions into the strip. Hamas also made great strides with regard to accepting past agreements, offering to abide by whatever outcome a reformed and representative PLO puts forward. This concession has been made even as successive Israeli governments have themselves failed to respect or uphold past agreements. By 2007, when Hamas accepted the Mecca Agreement, the movement declared its willingness to respect international agreements and defer to the PLO in negotiations with Israel. These political concessions have consistently been deemed insufficient.
(Baconi, p. 229, my formatting)
A follow up to come …
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