Hamas is to try to break the deadlock in the Middle East peace process – and end its own international isolation – by unveiling a new version of its founding charter which called for the destruction of Israel.
The new statement will say that Hamas accepts in principle a future Palestine based on 1967 borders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but will not explicitly recognize the state of Israel.
The new charter will also distinguish between the group’s objection to Zionism rather than to the Jewish people.
The ultimate aim of the new charter is to repair divisions within the Palestinian movement and strike a deal that allows international reconstruction to start in war-ravaged Gaza by allowing some opening up of Gaza’s economy.
One diplomatic source said: “This could be the one last chance to put Gaza on a sensible path before it utterly destructs.”
The new charter was due to be unveiled at a press conference in Qatar by the head of the movement’s political bureau, Khaled Meshal, and follows nearly two years of only partially resolved internal debate.
The new charter will still contain language to which Israel, the US and Europe object – and there will be questions about why the new charter is additional to the existing charter first issued in 1988 rather than supplanting the existing version. Assurances have been given that Arabic text is the same as the English text.
But some western diplomats are likely to interpret the new charter as sign that Hamas is at least willing to accept a regional peace initiative largely sponsored by Egypt.
The move by Hamas comes – not entirely coincidentally – two days before Mohammed Abbas, Hamas’s rival Palestinian leader in the West Bank, travels to the White House to meet Donald Trump.
Ahead of the meeting, Abbas, leader of the Fatah movement, has been trying to show his leadership credentials to Trump by clamping down on Hamas in Gaza, including by cutting subsidies, a move that has led to electricity cuts in Gaza.
The Islamist Hamas group wrested control of the Gaza Strip from the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, controlled by the Fatah movement, in 2007. Since then, all efforts since to reconcile the two Palestinian factions have faltered.
Figures such as Tony Blair, the former Middle east peace envoy, Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s international envoy on Israel, and Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, have been briefed on the developments, and in some cases have been directly involved in encouraging the process.
The new document defines the movement’s goals as “political and not religious”, easing its entry into the Palestine Liberation Organization, headed by Abbas. It describes Hamas as a “Palestinian national liberation and resistance movement with religious references”, a diplomatic source said. “It is an open question whether Israel will feel able to respond positively,” one western diplomat said.
A spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said: “Hamas is attempting to fool the world but it will not succeed.”
“They build terror tunnels and have launched thousands upon thousands of missiles at Israeli civilians,” he said. “This is the real Hamas.”
Although leaders of the Islamist movement have long spoken of the more limited aim of a Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, they have not explicitly set this down in its charter in the way the new version proposes.
The new charter also abandons past references claiming Hamas is part of a pan-national Muslim Brotherhood, to which it was closely linked when formed.
This aspect of the statement could improve the currently difficult relations with the Egyptian government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who as army chief overthrew his Islamist predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013 and has since led a bloody crackdown on the Brotherhood.
The Palestinian Authority recently stepped up pressure on the Hamas government, announcing that it would institute a 30% cut in the payment of wages to Palestinian Authority employees in Gaza, many of whom have not been actually performing work since the Hamas takeover.
Some diplomats have given up on Abbas as a serious leader seeking a settlement, rather than retaining power in the West Bank for himself and his allies.
In a sign of the uneasy internal compromise, a senior Hamas official said the new document would clearly present the objective of establishing a “sovereign Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital in the 1967 borders if that is the wish of the Palestinian people. It does not constitute in any way a recognition of the Zionist entity.”
A leading Hamas official, Bassem Naim, said the new document was the fruit of years of discussion within the movement.
He said the new document was “a tool for the future but it does not mean we’re changing our principles.
“The resistance remains and we will fight [Israel] with all our might,” he said.
Hamas swept Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 but the international community refused to deal with any government in which it participated until it renounced violence and recognized Israel and past peace agreements.
The resulting deadlock led to mounting friction between Hamas and the PLO, which culminated in its seizure of Gaza.
The international community, represented by “the Quartet” (the US, EU, UN and Russia), has long called on the newly formed Palestinian government to accept three principles:
- A Palestinian state must recognise the state of Israel without prejudging what various grievances or claims are appropriate;
- it must abide by previous diplomatic agreements, and
- it must renounce violence as a means of achieving goals.