Hamas backtracks on charter changes

Bellicose statements by some Hamas leaders appear to suggest the organizations' new leadership is tossing aside recent changes to its charter.

al-monitor Hamas Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar (L) looks on during a meeting with Egyptian intelligence chief Khaled Fawzi (not pictured) in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, Oct. 3, 2017.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohammed Salem.

Oct 26, 2017

“The Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades can fire [as many missiles] on Tel Aviv in 51 minutes as it fired in 51 days [in 2014],” proclaimed Yahya Sinwar, Hamas' leader in the Gaza Strip, on Oct. 24.

Several days earlier, in a meeting with youths in Gaza, Sinwar had waxed enthusiastic, stating, “We are not discussing recognizing Israel, but destroying it and when that will happen.” A few hours after journalists disseminated his words, his bureau issued a clarification, saying that he had not actually meant “destruction.” Journalists who attended the meeting told Al-Monitor that Sinwar had indeed uttered those very words to the sound of audience applause.

A Fatah member in Gaza told Al-Monitor that after Fatah and Hamas entered reconciliation talks, Hamas leaders began issuing frequent statements about their organization's military strength. He cited two reasons for this. The first is to show Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that Hamas has no intention of disarming. The second is to prove to Iran that despite the reconciliation, they have no intention of relinquishing Hamas' weapons of resistance, but instead just the opposite: They intend to strengthen Hamas militarily by equipping it with more technologically advanced weapons of their own making.

Indeed, since the Palestinian reconciliation agreement was signed in Cairo earlier this month, hardly a day goes by without Sinwar making some kind of militant proclamation toward Israel in which he boasts about the might of the military wing, the Qassam Brigades, of which he is a founder.

For example, on Oct. 19 Sinwar celebrated the sixth anniversary of the 2011 exchange deal in which Israel released some thousand Hamas prisoners, including Sinwar himself, for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. Once freed, Sinwar proceeded to make his way to the top of the Hamas organization. He told his audience that he had conversed with Mohammed al-Deif, the head of the military wing, who had “updated” him that the brigades are now capable of crushing the Israeli army and “bringing it to its knees.”

As Sinwar bragged in Gaza, the deputy head of Hamas’ political bureau, Saleh al-Arouri, did the same in Tehran. During his second visit to Iran in less than two months, Arouri swore on Oct. 23 that his movement would never relinquish its weapons of resistance and would not accede to Abbas’ demand that Hamas disarm. He added that Hamas would never waive its right of resistance and would not recognize Israel even after the founding of a Palestinian state, even if Israel would withdraw to the 1967 borders.

With these statements, Arouri and Sinwar rejected the compromise route that Hamas' previous political bureau chief, Khaled Meshaal, had laid out as an honorable exit strategy for his successor, Ismail Haniyeh. Prior to stepping down this year, Meshaal had initiated amending Hamas’ charter provision calling for Israel’s destruction. In the “Meshaal amendments,” the word “destruction” was removed. Instead, after much soul-searching, Meshaal arrived at the formulation that Hamas may recognize a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders, “However, without compromising its rejection of the Zionist entity [Israel] and without relinquishing any Palestinian rights, 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.”

As I wrote at the time in Al-Monitor, the charter amendments were made public on May 1, just a few days before Haniyeh took the reins from Meshaal. They were to give Haniyeh a certain amount of flexibility, so he could extract the movement from its existential crisis. Although Meshaal had thrown a lifeline to Haniyeh, elections for the leadership of the Shura Council favored the military wing. Therefore, Haniyeh had no choice but to join ranks with them.

Deif, Sinwar and Arouri are now navigating, steering Hamas according to their military worldview and the patent interest of the military wing, such as increasing its strength and stocking up on weapons and war materials. Thus Hamas’ goal for now is to draw closer to Iran. How does that fit in with the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation? This is a mystery that even Fatah’s top brass is hard-pressed to solve.

Arouri is the person charged with improving relations with Tehran. In his recent visit to the Islamic Republic, he was privileged to receive an out-and-out promise from Iranian Foreign Ministry official Hussein Sheikh al-Islam: “Anything Hamas requests from Iran will be given.”

“They [Hamas] are well-aware that they will have to compromise if they really want reconciliation with the [Palestinian] Authority,” a Palestinian source in Gaza told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “But in order not to look like they are abandoning their principles, they are circulating unrealistic statements, without basis, to tell their people that they are yielding from a position of strength.”

On the other hand, said the source, officials in the Palestinian security apparatuses on the West Bank are beginning to conclude that the chances for a real reconciliation with Hamas are negligible. It is likely that Hamas has also come to the same conclusion.

“They can’t dance at all the weddings — also an army, also Iran and also reconciliation. It just doesn’t fit together,” said the Palestinian source, who wagers that Hamas is already preparing its “alibi” in case the reconciliation attempt fails. “They will tell Gaza residents that Abbas wanted to dismantle the weapon of resistance that can pulverize the Zionists and restore their honor and ensure their future. But it was them, Hamas people, who were not willing to allow such a thing to happen.”

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