The new political manifesto of Hamas - not a charter, as the antisemitic founding charter of the Palestinian Islamic movement is still in effect and has not yet been consigned to the rubbish heap of history - is a deft exercise in re-branding that says much more about the challenges facing Hamas than its members’ ideology.
While the main points of interest in the manifesto are those regarding Hamas’s approach towards Israel, Zionism and Jews, the Israelis are not among the intended audiences of this document.
Hamas is a political party, military organisation and religious movement rolled into one. The manifesto, launched at a press conference in Doha to coincide with the start of Israel’s Independence Day, was drafted and tailored to the needs of its political wing.
In the decade since the bloody coup in Gaza, Hamas has never been so isolated. International aid money coming into Gaza is at an all-time low. Its main sponsors – Iran, Turkey and Qatar - have all drifted away, focused on the never-ending war in Syria, which forced Hamas to close its own political offices in Damascus.
Egypt, which controls Gaza’s main exit to the world, the Rafah Crossing, is under the iron fist of the El-Sisi military regime, which regards the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s ideological parent, as a threat to the nation.
Within Gaza, tension is rising as electricity and water shortages continue, and Daesh-inspired Islamists challenge Hamas rule. And while Hamas’s main Palestinian political rival, Fatah, is hardly more popular, its 82-year-old leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is still recognised by the world as the spokesman of the Palestinian people, meeting this week with President Donald Trump in Washington.
The new manifesto is first and foremost an attempt to challenge President Abbas and Fatah. By claiming that “Hamas does not wage a struggle against the Jews because they are Jewish, but wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine”, the movement is not giving up the “armed struggle”, but trying to portray itself as an alternative to Fatah.
The manifesto’s consent to a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders, just like its declaration of independence from the Muslim Brotherhood, are not a disavowal of its refusal to recognise the Jewish State or a rejection of the fundamentals of Brotherhood-style political Islam. They are merely an attempt at pragmatic political positioning, born out of frustration at a lack of progress towards any of its goals and a fear of losing relevance in the Arab world.
Hardliners in Gaza have insisted in recent months that the old charter, launched in 1988, must not be revoked. This is certainly the view of Yahya Sinwar, the new Hamas prime minister in Gaza, who combines that role with leading the movement’s military organisation in the Strip. From their point of view, the manifesto is a temporary concession which they hope will help convince Egypt to keep Rafah open, gain more aid money and perhaps put some pressure on Israel. Nothing more.