WASHINGTON — Since the Hamas victory in the Palestinian legislative elections last week, the Islamic fundamentalist group has come under international pressure to remove any calls for Israel’s destruction from its charter.
The problem is that asking Hamas to remove such passages would be like demanding that Marx and Engels drop their calls for overthrowing capitalism and establishing a classless society from “The Communist Manifesto,” or asking America’s Founding Fathers to forswear life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
When the document was written in August 1988, I was covering the territories for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, crisscrossing the West Bank and Gaza to document the first intifada that had erupted in December the year before. For the first few months of the uprising, Palestinian Islamists were missing in action from the clashes with Israeli forces. On more than one occasion, supporters of Yasser Arafat’s secular Fatah movement mocked the Islamists for sitting in the mosque and plotting the restoration of the caliphate, while contributing very little to the immediate struggle.
The creation of Hamas was the Islamists’ answer to such criticisms, and its charter was crafted as a religious repudiation of the secularist Palestine Liberation Organization leaders who were willing to reach a territorial compromise and accept the presence of an infidel Jewish state on what Islamists view as holy Muslim land.
In its charter, Hamas made three main arguments to justify an all-out, unrelenting struggle “to raise the banner of Islam over every inch of Palestine.” The first such argument is that Jihad, holy war, becomes an individual duty when “enemies usurp part of a Muslim land.” This idea was first introduced by Hassan El-Bana, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the early 20th century. In recent years, it was honed by Al Qaeda to become one of its main theological tenets.
The second argument is that the land of Palestine, all of it, “is an Islamic Waqf, consecrated for the future of Muslim generations until Judgment Day.” In other words, territorial compromise is not only politically wrong but also religiously forbidden. It is heresy. Furthermore, any agreement that recognizes non-Muslims’ right of to the land of Palestine is “null and void,” the charter said. The third argument is that the occupation of Palestine is more intolerable than that of any other Muslim land conquered by infidels, both because it is the third holiest site to Islam — “the navel of the globe and the crossroads of the continents” — and because it is occupied not by any infidels but by Jews.
The charter is peppered with antisemitic expressions, including a reference to “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” an early 20th-century forgery that outlines a Jewish conspiracy to run the world. In the Hamas charter, Jews are referred to as “Nazis,” “the worst war criminals” and as an omnipotent global power that “took control of the world media” and stirred revolutions worldwide to “reap the fruit” of collapsed societies.
Some Hamas leaders recently said that the charter is “not the Koran,” implying that the document could be altered, but there is no evidence that it no longer expresses the terrorist group’s views. In fact, the beliefs and views expressed in the charter were reiterated numerous times in public statements, speeches, pamphlets and articles issued by the organization’s leadership in the 17 years that passed since it was authored. And although several Hamas leaders recently said that the organization is not calling for Israel’s destruction, none of them is willing to say that the struggle against Israel will stop at the 1967 borders. “Palestine means Palestine in its entirety — from the [Mediterranean] Sea to the [Jordan] River, from Ras Al-Naqura [on Israel’s northern border] to Rafah,” Mahmoud Zahar, the Islamic group’s leader in Gaza, in an interview this week with Al-Manar, a Lebanese satellite television station. “We cannot give up a single inch of it. Therefore, we will not recognize the Israeli enemy’s [right] to a single inch.”
Even after taking several diplomatic and public steps to accept Israel’s existence, the PLO took a decade to abolish the anti-Israeli articles in its 1968 charter. In 1989, Arafat first referred to these articles as “caduc,” the French term for “obsolete,” but only in 1998 did the Palestinian National Council officially delete them from its charter.
Asked how long it would take for international pressure to make Hamas change its charter, a panel of experts at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy this week unanimously replied: “Don’t hold your breath.”