The launch of Hamas’s new declaration of principles on Monday night proved as complex as the document itself.
The management of the Intercontinental Hotel in Doha cancelled the booking for the news conference at the last moment, and the week before, the Hamas delegation in Cairo was refused permission to leave, because Egypt claimed a piece of the action.
Hamas is reaching for the borders of 1967 at the exact time when everyone else who has been pursuing an independent state next to Israel is abandoning this patch of land
The logistical difficulty of holding a news conference outside Gaza was emblematic of Hamas’s imprisonment inside the enclave. And a good reason why the political leadership now wants to break out of its confinement by stating a position closer to other Palestinian factions.
This process, however, is fraught with difficulty for Hamas.
Almost with one voice, the Western media interpreted the document as a softening of Hamas’ position on Israel and as a challenge to Fatah’s monopoly of the principle of a Palestinian state on the borders of 1967.
However, the document itself set three conditions which fell short of following Fatah on its doomed journey. It refused to recognise Israel, refused to relinquish its claim on all the land from the river to the sea, and demanded the unfettered return of all Palestinian refugees.
Nevertheless on Tuesday, the reaction on the Palestinian street and on social media followed the same logic: if there is no difference between Hamas and Fatah on the borders of a future Palestinian state, why all the years of infighting between the two factions? And why should anyone now vote for Hamas? What is different about it?
That is a good question. There is no doubt Hamas went into this debate with its eyes open. Unlike the original charter which was written by one man in a state of war, this document was the fruit of four years of internal debate. The document itself was extensively leaked. The message was backed by the leadership. There is no doubt it represents a deliberate and major strategic shift.
But is the strategy itself right?
Hamas is reaching for the borders of 1967 at the exact time when everyone else who has been pursuing an independent state next to Israel is abandoning this patch of land. Almost 24 years after Oslo, the brights lights of settlements twinkle every night on almost every hillock in the West Bank.
There are 200,000 settlers in Palestinian areas of Jerusalem and 400,000 in the West Bank. Outside the three main settlement blocks, which Israel refuses to abandon, there are a further 150,000 settlers. Two decades of peace process has led to the irreparable fragmentation of a putative Palestinian state.
Israel itself has all but abandoned the idea of a separate Palestinian state. Barring the little piece of theatre produced by the evacuation of Amona (here’s a maths question: if 3,000 police spent 24 hours evacuating 40 families, how many would it take to evacuate 600,000 settlers?) the political mood in Israel is turning now to annexation.
To use the standard Arabic warning given to latecomers, is Hamas going to Hajj when everyone is leaving?
Staying true to principles
At the news conference in Doha, the outgoing political leader Khaled Meshaal was asked whether Hamas would now negotiate with Israel. This too is a good question.
The new strategic position of Hamas places it in a unique situation. If Hamas stays true to its principles, which is not to recognise Israel, it cannot sit down at a negotiating table with representatives of the Israeli state.
To be true to its principles and to reap the political benefits of entering politics, Hamas would have to accept the one-state solution
This means it has to rely on other Palestinian factions to make the necessary compromises on borders, refugees, Jerusalem, while Hamas essentially looks the other way in the name of keeping the consensus. This, in turn, means that Hamas cannot lead the political process or even derive much benefit from it.
This puts Hamas in a different position from say, the IRA, under the leadership of the late Martin McGuinness. Both Hamas and the IRA have seen the limits of military action, although the IRA did not start the decommissioning process until a peace accord was reached. Both were drawn to politics as a way of achieving a united Palestine and a united Ireland.
McGuinness’s recent death produced tributes from the most unlikely of quarters. People who, in my days as reporter in Belfast, would have cast McGuinness as the devil incarnate, praised the journey he travelled from IRA leader to Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister. Lady Paisley, the wife of the late Ian Paisley, McGuinness’s first partner in the power-sharing government, claimed the Republican experienced something akin to St Paul’s conversion at Damascus.
Gerry Adams rightly denied this. He said McGuinness remained a committed Republican, who never abandoned his IRA comrades as a result of the peace process or power-sharing with Unionists.
In other words, the Republican movement ended the armed struggle while staying true to its principles of a united Ireland (one which, if Brexit happens, is probably closer to being realised than at any time before, ironically at the behest of Brussels).
This is exactly the dilemma now facing a Hamas which recognises the 1967 borders. How can it enter the PLO and be part of the leadership of the Palestinian people and stay true to its principles? If it negotiates, it abandons its principles and effaces any difference with Fatah. If it leaves the negotiation to others, it cannot be part of the leadership.
Supporters of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al-Ahrar movement, protest against Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbasin the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on 2 May (AFP)
Sinn Fein has now become the largest political party on the island of Ireland. This is not Hamas's destiny if it limits its vision of a Palestinian state to 1967 borders. It would neither end the fragmentation of the Palestinian people, nor would it solve the problem of the abandonment of Palestinians inside 1948 Israel, nor would it solve the problem of the refugees.
The real choice, the real enemy
Israel has long since abandoned the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and even the most generous models discussed the return of only 100,000, out of a potential diaspora of six million.
The real choice today is between a one-state solution enforced by Israel or a political entity where Jew and Arab are treated as equal
And why would Israel accept Hamas as a negotiator when it has rejected Fatah, which has for more than 20 years been its most flexible friend? What incentive would Israel have to negotiate a "hudna" with Hamas, when it knew that from Hamas's point of view, this would not be an end of conflict?
To stay Hamas, to be true to its principles and to reap the political benefits of entering politics, the movement would have to accept the one-state solution, which would do all of the things Hamas has strived for. It would allow Hamas to lead the PLO. It would reunite a fragmented Palestinian people. It would represent Palestinians who are citizens inside Israel and the Palestinian diaspora.
It would give Palestinians a clear vision in a world where the real choice is not between a one-state or a two-state solution. The real choice today is between a one-state solution enforced by Israel or a political entity where Jew and Arab are treated as equal.
The major achievement of this document is to redefine the enemy. In the original charter, it was Jews and Judaism. In this document, Hamas's enemy is the Zionist project of settlement and occupation. The two are very different, and have been throughout Jewish history, both after and before the Balfour Declaration.
This redefinition could open the path for talks and for peace. But it will need a clear vision for the way forward. It certainly is a bold step. It may not, however, be the final one.
- David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Yahya Sinwar (C-L), the new leader of the Hamas Islamist movement in the Gaza Strip and senior political leader Ismail Haniyeh (C) attend a gathering to watch the speech of Exiled Hamas Chief, in Gaza City on 1 May 2017. (AFP)