Is Hamas preparing itself to accept a peaceful Israeli-Palestinian coexistence? There are good reasons to believe so.
The Islamist terror group has taken several significant steps in recent months that strongly suggest it’s inching toward accommodation. One is the adoption of a new charter that moderates its positions in several critical ways, most notably tacit acceptance of a two-state Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Another is a tentative agreement to let Mahmoud Abbas’s West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (P.A.) resume governing in Gaza, a decade after Hamas gunmen forcibly expelled it. That effort was launched with much fanfare October 3 when the P.A. cabinet convened in Gaza for the first time in three years.
There are also good reasons to doubt whether Hamas is really changing at all. Every effort over the last decade to reconcile Hamas with the P.A. and its ruling Fatah party has collapsed in infancy. It’s foolish to put money on this one ending differently. Hamas has already rejected one of Abbas’s key conditions for reconciliation, namely dissolving its military wing or merging it into Abbas’s U.S.-trained security forces.
Overall, “it’s too early to form a judgment concerning the effect that this is going to have,” said Efraim Halevy, former chief of the Mossad intelligence agency and former director of Israel’s national security council, in a phone interview.
Some observers suspect that Hamas’s reason for allowing the P.A. to resume control isn’t a new spirit of cooperation but rather a plan to abandon the hopeless task of managing Gaza and return to what Hamas does best: underground terrorism.
Ominously, Hamas announced just two days after the October 3 cabinet meeting that it was appointing one of its most wanted terror-masters, Saleh Arouri, to be the movement’s deputy head. It was Arouri, running Hamas’s West Bank terror cells semi-independently out of Turkey in 2014, who ordered the kidnapping of three yeshiva students, surprising Hamas leadership and pushing Israel and Hamas into a war that neither side wanted. He’s since been expelled from Turkey at Israel’s insistence, then from Qatar at Saudi insistence, and is now said to be holed up with Hezbollah in Lebanon. If Hamas was looking for a way to stick a finger in Israel’s eye in the midst of the seeming moderation, it couldn’t have found a better one than promoting Arouri.
But Halevy, one of Israel’s most authoritative Hamas-watchers, believes the reconciliation process, while fragile and uncertain, is genuine. “The joy in Gaza is very, very real” over the arrival of the Palestinian Authority cabinet ministers from the West Bank. “The emotions there are very high. There seems to be a groundswell of real feeling that this is a real event.”
The 2 million residents of Gaza have more to gain than anyone from a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. Hamas’s violent takeover of the district in 2007 prompted Israel and Egypt to impose a blockade, leading to spiraling economic decline and what’s now a humanitarian crisis. If Abbas and the P.A. were to regain control, the closure would ease. That’s assuming that the P.A. would manage to ensure security and disable the many terrorist cells riddling the district, no mean task.
“The real work hasn’t yet begun,” said Halevy. “The devil is in the details. The key problem is whether the military wing of Hamas will be dissolved or absorbed into the P.A. security forces.”
The process also has high stakes for Israel. Gaza under Hamas rule has been a security nightmare for Israel. It’s led to thousands of rockets and mortar shells raining on Israel and three increasingly bloody wars that ultimately convinced Hamas to halt the rocket fire, but at a horrible cost.
What’s more, reestablishing P.A. control over Gaza is essential if Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are ever to make progress. Since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, any negotiations have been between Israel and a crippled Palestinian partner that can’t deliver nearly half its population in a deal.
Israel has viewed past efforts at Fatah-Hamas reconciliation with intense hostility, whatever their theoretical benefits. Successive Israeli governments have seen granting Hamas a seat at the table as legitimizing the Islamist group’s brutal terrorism, its commitment to Israel’s destruction and rank antisemitism.
This time seems to be different. Israel has responded with uncharacteristic moderation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, instead of his usual condemnation of any and all Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, issued a short list of conditions to be met before Israel accepts reconciliation.
“We are not prepared to accept bogus reconciliations in which the Palestinian side apparently reconciles at the expense of our existence,” Netanyahu said in a prepared statement issued October 3, the day of the Gaza cabinet meeting.
“Whoever wants to make such a reconciliation,” the statement continued, “our understanding is very clear: recognize the State of Israel, disband the Hamas military arm, sever the connection with Iran — which calls for our destruction.”
Netanyahu’s conditions are unlikely to be met anytime soon, but the very fact that he issued conditions rather than a blanket condemnation shows huge movement. There is now an indirect but open three-way bargaining process among Israel, the P.A. and Hamas.
Israel isn’t the only party making concessions. Hamas has offered several nods toward Israel’s needs. One was a largely unnoticed hedging of the group’s refusal to disband its military. In announcing the refusal in an October 3 interview on Egyptian television, Hamas secretary-general Ismail Haniyeh said that while “the resistance” has a right to keep its weapons “as long as there is a Zionist occupation on Palestinian land” — Egypt reportedly told Abbas that Haniyeh meant until there’s a peace deal with Israel — Hamas was willing to discuss with Fatah “how and when to resist” and even to make it a “joint decision.”
“We in Hamas are ready to dialogue with our brothers in Fatah and the rest of the factions to agree on how to make decisions including that of the decision of resistance,” Haniyeh said, according to the Jerusalem Post. “We have no problem with the decision of resistance being a joint decision.“
That’s not the same as merging Hamas’s armed wing into the Palestinian security services, but it’s a baby step in that direction. That’s pretty much all one can expect right now.
Hamas’s most important concession is arguably its new charter, made public May 1 after lengthy discussions in Hamas councils in Gaza, the West Bank, the diaspora and Israeli prisons. It replaces the organization’s founding charter, issued in 1988. While the new document has many of the old denunciations of Zionism — “racist,” “colonial,” “a danger to international sescurity and peace and to mankind” — there are also some astonishing differences.
For one, the new document jettisons the old one’s murderous antisemitism. The old one said that “Israel, Judaism and Jews challenge Islam and the Moslem people” and quoted a traditional Hadith verse calling for killing Jews everywhere. The new one says that Hamas’s “conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion. Hamas does not wage a struggle against the Jews because they are Jewish but wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine.”
Additionally, the old charter said there was “no solution to the Palestine question except through jihad” and derided diplomacy as “a waste of time.” The new version approves “all means and methods” of “resisting the occupation,” including but not limited to “armed resistance.” This is a subtle but critical change. Accepting diplomacy means accepting negotiations. And negotiations only end when there’s a solution both sides can live with, meaning compromise.
Most important, the new document breaks with the old charter’s refusal to give up or “abuse” any part of historic Palestine, including what’s now Israel. The new one insists repeatedly claims ownership of all of Palestine, but then it says this:
“Hamas considers the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967, with the return of the refugees and the displaced to their homes from which they were expelled, to be a formula of national consensus.”
The revised Hamas charter thus repeats precisely the revisions to the 1968 covenant of the Palestine Liberation Organization that were adopted by the organization’s governing council meeting in Cairo in 1974. Like Hamas in 2017, the PLO in 1974 scrapped its founders’ language that “armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine” and instead approved diplomacy alongside terrorism. More dramatically, the PLO’s Cairo Declaration scrapped the 1968 insistence that Palestine is “indivisible” and called for creation of a Palestinian “authority” on any territory “liberated.”
Israel derided the Cairo declaration as “the salami program,” using bits of captured land to capture the rest of the land, slice by slice. But Palestinians point to it as the first step on the PLO’s road toward formal recognition of Israel in 1993.
Does this mean that Hamas’s new charter recognizes Israel, as both Israel and Fatah demand? No. Like the “joint decision” offer on planning future terrorism, it’s at best a baby step. But that’s how things move, inch by inch until one day, if luck holds, you’ve reached a new place.
Right now, though, it’s important to recognize the limits of what’s possible. “Hamas is not going to recognize Israel at this early stage,” said Efraim Halevy. “You don’t take one of the major concessions and put it up front. It’s like asking somebody who’s coming to dinner to go straight to the dessert.”
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).