Hamas, the U.S-designated terrorist group that rules the Gaza Strip, is in the midst of rebranding. Some media outlets and analysts, however, are mistakenly seeing moderation, instead of a strategic attempt to cultivate Egyptian and Western support.
On Jan. 25, 2017, Hamas official Osama Hamdan told Al-Jazeera that the terror group would be publishing a new “political document” that would not attack anyone based on “religion” or “race (“Hamas Official: Group’s New Charter to Address Antisemitic Language,” The Jerusalem Post, Jan. 26, 2017).” Hamdan led listeners to believe that this would mean a new charter. As the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), and others have noted, Hamas’ charter is, like the group itself, violently antisemitic. It claims, among other things, that Jews are responsible for wars and controlling the media and the U.N.
The charter, published in 1988, states, “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors.” The document is clear on the target of that holy war and why:
“The day the enemies conquer some part of the Muslim land, jihad becomes a personal duty of every Muslim. In the face of the Jewish occupation of Palestine, it is necessary to raise the banner of jihad.”
As Hamas has made explicit, the group considers all of Israel to be Muslim land. In keeping with Islamist thought, Hamas considers any territory that was at one point ruled by Muslims to still be Muslim land. Accordingly, the terror group has waged incessant war against the Jewish state, frequently targeting Israeli civilians and often using its own population as cover to deter attacks and generate anti-Israel headlines.
Yet, some have taken Hamas’ vow to publish a new “political document” as evidence of a change in the group’s objectives. Ha’aretz, for instance, ran an Op-Ed by analyst Bjorn Brenner of the Swedish Defence University entitled “The enemy just blinked: Why Hamas’s new charter is a big deal” (March 22). Brenner, added a note of caution, that changes to the charter “have [only] been made on paper” and the “the reason behind these changes is not due to any profound longing for peace and democracy on the part of Hamas.”
Nonetheless, the Ha’aretz commentary still asserted that Hamas “will now agree on a Palestinian based on pre-1967 borders,” even if, Brenner admits, it doesn’t explicitly state what will be on either side of those borders. Further, Hamas will “now state that… its focus will instead be on non-violent and popular resistance activities,” even if “it still considers the use of force to be its legitimate right.” Brenner, who notes, if briefly, the holes in Hamas’s claims, nonetheless believes the projected changes to be a big deal, in a “broader strategic perspective” because the “internal process” required to make any purported changes is difficult. But what Brenner sees as a strategic change is simply a tactic.
A March 21, 2017 Associated Press article “Hamas aims to improve international image with new program,” by reporter Fares Akram, highlighted the reason behind Hamas’ recent pretensions of moderation. Hamas, “an internationally isolated group,” was seeking to “improve ties with Egypt and the West, and present a more moderate image that will help it get off terrorism lists.”
Hamas, like many other Islamist terror groups, has its origins—as its charter notes—in the Muslim Brotherhood, an entity at odds with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. Under al-Sissi, Egypt has blocked smuggling tunnels linking Hamas-controlled Gaza to the Sinai. The tunnels were used to smuggle weapons, people and funds. Egypt’s closures of the tunnels, coupled with decreased financial support from Iran and Qatar, has led to “Hamas in Gaza facing an acute financial crisis as its overseas cash sources dry up,” according to a November 2016 report by the Investigative Project on Terrorism.
Did Hamas change? The new “political document”—it is not certain that it will be a change to the charter or a separate document, if anything—is not, at present, public. Claims as to what it might contain are based off of leaks from people with different motivations. But a look at recent statements and actions of its leadership may provide some clarity.
On March 27, 2017, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said to a Gazan audience “we still are in open war” with the Jewish state. According to a Jerusalem Post dispatch, Mashaal added: “The movement participates in politics and diplomacy and all types of work, but it insists on the choice of jihad and resistance,” Mashaal stated. “[This choice] is Hamas’s greater and first strategy… This is Hamas. Hamas is not changing its skin.”
In February 2017, Hamas elected Yahya Sinwar to lead the group in Gaza. Defense analyst Yaakov Lapin stated that Sinwar’s election “represents the completion of a lengthy takeover by Hamas’ military at the expense of its political wing. And it could signal an imminent confrontation with Israel (“New Hamas Leader is a Vicious Killer,” Algemeiner, Feb. 20, 2017).”
Nonetheless, +972 Magazine has assured its readers that Hamas’ “new political platform…will ratify the organization’s official recognition of the two-state solution (“The Palestinian leadership’s wish for two-states cannot be ignored,” March 10, 2017).”
Claiming to change a document as a means to fool gullible Westerners is an old tactic. The charter of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), founded in 1964 and currently led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, calls for “armed struggle”—a common euphemism for terrorism—against Israel. Although many news media outlets and analysts have frequently asserted that the PLO charter has been amended, including the March 21, 2017 AP report cited above, it has not.
Similarly, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh intonated in May 2011 that his group’s charter might be changed—sparking claims by The New York Times, among others, that the organization was “fully committed to working for a two-state solution.” A little more then three years later the 2014 Israel-Hamas War broke out after the terror group kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers.
How successful Hamas’s latest deception will be, remains to be seen. But for some, hope—and gullibility—spring eternal.
The writer is a Senior Research Analyst for CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. The views expressed are his own.