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Hamas’ strategic quandary

Image of Ismail Haniyeh on April 10, 2017 [Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency]
Image of Ismail Haniyeh on 10 April, 2017 [Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency]

The release of a new policy document by the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) has touched off a flurry of speculation as to the real political and strategic motives behind the apparent policy shift.

Coupled with the election of the Gaza-based Ismail Haniyeh as the new leader of Hamas’ political bureau, at a minimum the new policy document hints at fresh political initiatives on the part of Hamas’ leadership. For its part, Hamas is adamant that Haniya’s ascent to the apex of the political bureau does not reflect a “failure of leadership”.

In ideological terms, the latest declaration of principles is not a significant departure from Hamas’ established world view. The cornerstone of the new charter – namely the recognition of 1967 borders – is a pragmatic choice emerging from calculated and prolonged internal deliberations. It is worth noting that unlike Hamas’ 1988 founding charter, the new document is the product of years of internal debate.

Read: The new Hamas charter and Palestinian consensus

Crucially on two core issues, namely the recognition of Israel and the right of return of all Palestinian refugees, Hamas has not revised its position. This ensures that the Islamic Resistance Movement retains its distinction amongst leading Palestinian factions, notably Fatah.

Wither resistance?

The official Israeli attitude toward the new charter is unsurprisingly characterised by derision and dismissal. In a 97-second video clip, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu theatrically tossed a copy of the policy paper in the bin.

In the United States, some media outlets have been less dismissive of the new charter by framing it as a case of highly qualified moderation. But clearly in so far as the US government is concerned anything falling short of full recognition of Israel and renunciation of armed struggle is insufficient to remove Hamas from the US State Department’s terrorism list.

More broadly, some of the most trenchant critiques of the new policy document have focussed on Hamas’ recognition of 1967 borders at a time when all the key stakeholders appear to have lost faith in the two-state solution.

Read: Hamas’ new platform is an opportunity for political manoeuvres

In political, strategic and ideological terms, three core issues form the context and driving force of Hamas’ initiative. First and foremost, is an impulse to impact the current stalemate in Palestinian-Israeli relations and by extension a desire by Hamas leaders to break out from confinement to the Gaza Strip; the second is a delayed strategic reaction to the downgrading, if not full breakup, of relations with Iran and the broader “axis of resistance”. Third, a desire to place relations with key Arab states on a more stable footing.

It is now widely accepted that the peace process grounded in the Oslo Accords is as good as dead. Whilst superficially this would appear to affirm Hamas’ hardline position, specifically its policy of armed struggle, in reality it poses a set of fundamental challenges to the Palestinian Islamic movement. In the short to medium term, the abandonment of the two-state solution will further entrench the two leading Palestinian factions, notably Hamas and Fatah, in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank respectively.

This poses potentially existential challenges to Hamas, for if it is to even minimally secure its core objectives, the Islamic movement has to operate in the context of Palestinian unity. The physical detachment of the Gaza Strip from the West Bank is the embodiment of a deep political and ideological breach which Hamas has to address.

Question of ideology

On its relationship with Iran, the new charter may well consolidate the recent estrangement flowing from radically different attitudes on the Syrian conflict. A deeper strategic breach with Iran is immensely significant inasmuch as the Islamic Republic is by far not only Israel’s most formidable adversary but one with a tendency to monopolise the anti-Israeli struggle under the rubric of an axis of resistance.

So far the reaction from Iran has been mixed, with one seasoned Iranian diplomat chiding Hamas for its apparent appeasement of Arab states Arab states, whilst another is insistent that Iran will continue to maintain its “fatherly” approach toward Hamas.

Hamas’ distance from the Iranian-sponsored “axis of resistance” is not only important from a strategic point of view, but it is equally consequential in ideological terms in so far as the Islamic Resistance Movement will need clearer terms of reference to justify its opposition to Zionism and the State of Israel.

Another important feature of the document is the denial of affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood. In practical terms, this is a red herring as Hamas has no meaningful organisational ties to regional Islamist groups. However, in ideological terms, it is important in so far as it distances Hamas from the destiny of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

By appearing as a fully independent actor – distant from the two central poles of Islamic revivalism, namely the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Republic of Iran – Hamas is in a better position to manage its international relations.

Establishing stable ties with key Arab stakeholders and potentially key European states are central to Hamas’ drive to remain a leading force in Palestinian national life. But whether it can achieve a breakthrough in the struggle against Israeli occupation remains to be seen.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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