GAZA, Palestinian Territories – The Islamic militant group Hamas has drafted a new political program it hopes will improve ties with neighbouring Egypt and the West, and present a more moderate image that will help it get off Western terrorism lists.
The internationally isolated group, which has ruled the Gaza Strip for the past decade, characterizes itself in the manifesto as a Palestinian resistance movement against Israeli occupation, dropping references to holy war against Jews. It also raises the possibility of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
The document plays down ties to Hamas’ parent movement, the regional Muslim Brotherhood, which is being targeted by Egypt’s government as a terror organization.
However, Hamas appears to have stopped short of a significant ideological shift amid concerns about alienating its hard-line base at a time when ultra-fundamentalist Islamist groups, such as the Salafists, are making inroads, particularly in Gaza.
The new program, to be made public at the end of the month, will not formally replace Hamas’ 1988 founding covenant, which called for the destruction of Israel and for “confronting the usurpation of Palestine by the Jews through jihad.”
Such language has drawn accusations of anti-Semitism.
In referring to a Palestinian state, Hamas does not spell out whether it considers this an acceptable solution to the conflict with Israel or a stepping stone to its longstanding goal of an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine, including what is now Israel.
It makes no mention of recognizing Israel, which its political rival, the Palestine Liberation Organization, did in 1993. At the time, the PLO was led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ predecessor, Yasser Arafat.
The program points were pieced together in interviews with several Hamas officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the platform hasn’t yet been made public.
Salah Bardawil, a Hamas official, confirmed that the document was approved after internal discussions and has been translated into several languages.
“It’s the culmination of political experiments the movement has experienced through its history,” he said.
Some said the document falls short of helping Hamas emerge from its isolation, arguing it does not mark a genuine departure from the group’s core beliefs.
“The document carries a kind of superficial change, but in fact it upholds most of Hamas’ principles,” said Gaza analyst Akram Atallah.
“The world recognized the PLO after it went into direct negotiations with Israel,” he said of the Palestinian umbrella organization. “Does Hamas agree to do the same? If yes, that’s the way for the world to accept Hamas.”
The document will be released after Hamas completes internal elections, with results for leader of its ruling political bureau expected at the end of the month. Separately, different sectors, such as the West Bank and Gaza, have voted for their own leadership councils.
In Gaza, the base of Hamas’ political power, strongman Yehiya Sinwar, a former long-term prisoner in Israel who is close to the Hamas military wing, was chosen for the top spot. Sinwar replaces Ismail Haniyeh, now a contender for leadership of the political bureau, as current leader Khaled Mashaal ends his term.
Hamas has controlled Gaza since seizing the territory of 2 million people in 2007 from forces loyal to Abbas.
Since the takeover, Hamas has been isolated from the world, with Israel and Egypt enforcing a tough border blockade that has hollowed out Gaza’s economy and driven many residents deeper into poverty. Despite the pressure, Hamas has rejected the West’s conditions for relations, such as renouncing violence and recognizing Israel.
Hamas was formed in December 1987, shortly after the outbreak of the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation.
The Hamas founding charter advocated “liberating Palestine” and urged neighbouring countries to “open their borders to Mujahedeen,” or holy war fighters, for this purpose.
A decade later, the group’s then-spiritual leader, Ahmed Yassin, appeared to soften positions, raising the possibility of a Palestinian state in the 1967 lines. Instead of recognition, Israel would get a long-term truce from Hamas, according to Yassin, who was assassinated by Israel in a 2004 airstrike.
Repeated Hamas rocket fire on Israel and the construction of tunnels for infiltration into Israel have triggered three devastating cross-border wars since 2008.
Hamas’ ties with Egypt worsened significantly after elected Egyptian president from the Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi, was ousted by the military in 2013.
Hamas hopes its new manifesto will reassure Egypt that it is no longer a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, though it has stopped short of formally cutting ties. Instead, the document portrays Hamas as a “Palestinian movement with an Islamic background,” according to a Hamas official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the as yet unreleased document.
Even though the old charter is not being formally revoked, the official said, the new program will serve as a future guideline for Hamas.
The political division between Hamas-ruled Gaza and the Fatah-led Palestinian autonomy government in parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank is a major obstacle to Palestinian statehood, since the Palestinians seek both territories for a future state.
Jibril Rajoub, a senior Fatah official, said Monday that he considers Hamas to be part of the Palestinian “national fabric” and that he is optimistic that the time is now ripe for unity.
Political Islam has failed “in the whole region,” Rajoub said, adding that he believes pragmatists within Hamas have gained the upper hand.
“I think our impression now is that the pragmatist group is the mainstream in Hamas and therefore we are not surprised that they are trying to change their charter and are accepting the establishment of a Palestinian independent state on 1967 borders,” he told foreign reporters in the West Bank town of Ramallah. “It is great progress and we have to build on that.”
Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh and Josef Federman in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.