Hamas: A never-ending debate over peace

by Mahmoud Jaraba
ERLANGEN, Germany - Hamas has always been a multifaceted and dynamic player in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The movement, whose ideological roots are highly religious, has increasingly brought forth new arguments to support its newfound pragmatism and growing support for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

The Hamas Charter, drafted in August 1988, set forth the movement’s core strategy: defining the historical land of Palestine prior to the Israeli occupation of 1948 as the land of Palestine, “an Islamic Waqf (religious ownership) for Islamic generations until judgment day (Article 11)”. The Charter rejects any peace initiative aimed at solving the “Palestinian issue” (Article 13), and adopts Jihad (holy war) as a political strategy. The authors of the Charter portray the struggle between the Palestinians and Israelis as a “holy war” between Muslims and Jews (the introduction, Article 1, 31, 34, and 35). They stress that the Palestinian problem is a religious problem, and should therefore be dealt with according to this premise (Article 15).

In contrast, however, with the movement’s Charter and the belief that its perceived unchanging nature is rooted in its religious foundations, Hamas’ new commitment to the national dimension of the Arab-Israeli struggle demonstrates surprising political pragmatism. This is especially true of the period that immediately followed Hamas’ victory in the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, a victory that marked Hamas’ incorporation into the Palestinian political system. During this time, Hamas became more nationalist and less Islamist. This shift is the result of two factors: a rise to political leadership coupled with changing public opinions regarding peace with Israelis.

In the National Conciliation Document (an agreement among Palestinian factions signed after Hamas’ legislative victory), Hamas agreed to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state on the land occupied in 1967, and applied the idea of military resistance mainly to the territories occupied in 1967. In addition, the document links the Arab-Israeli conflict not to religious factors but to the Occupation and to the Palestinian people’s struggle to acquire their rights and establish their own sovereign state. Most notably, the document provides support for the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to conduct negotiations with the Israeli side.

Hamas’ leadership role within the Palestinian Authority, its leadership of the tenth Palestinian cabinet, and its majority control of the legislative establishment, played a significant role in stimulating its shift toward pragmatism. Political leadership contributed towards a strategic change in the movement’s positions and behaviour, as it shifted toward ‘Palestinianising’ the conflict, in contrast to the Charter’s stipulation of a “holy war”. One of the largest factors promoting the shift to viewing the Arab Israeli conflict as political rather than religious was the realisation by the Hamas’ leadership of the profound changes not only in international public opinion, but also amongst Palestinian public opinion and pro-Hamas supporters, towards a desire to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict peacefully.

The role of pro-Hamas supporters in encouraging this shift must not be underestimated. Hamas enjoyed at the time of the signing of the aforementioned document wide and unprecedented popular support. A public opinion survey in the West Bank and Gaza Strip carried out by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in June 2006 showed that a majority of Hamas supporters (57 percent) described themselves as supportive of the peace process (compared to 77 percent of Fateh supporters).

Furthermore, after less than three months (in March 2006) since Hamas' election victory, a large majority of Hamas supporters (60 percent) agreed with the proposal stipulating that there would be mutual recognition between Palestinians and Israelis after reaching a permanent agreement to all issues of the conflict (compared to 76 percent of Fateh supporters). This shows that pro-Hamas supporters’ desire for peace during the period immediately after Hamas’ election victory stemmed from their growing support for political participation on the one hand, and their aspiration to establish a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, on the other. However, a December 2007 poll taken after the rift between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the mutually repressive actions between Fateh and Hamas, the isolation of Hamas in Gaza, and the erosion of confidence in the peace process, reveals that only 30 percent of Hamas supporters backed mutual recognition between Israelis and Palestinians at the time (compared to 66 percent of Fateh supporters).

Most likely, the pro-peace ideology among Hamas supporters and the political leadership played a role in stimulating the party to open up to the peace process, on the one hand, and to ‘nationalise’ the conflict with Israel, on the other hand.

Where does Hamas stand today?

Today, Hamas manifests this shift in a comprehensive national strategy that, like the PLO’s two state solution, focuses on land occupied in 1967. It is certain that the movement will continue to refer to the National Conciliation document as a basis for any future resolution of the Arab Israeli conflict. Ismail Haniyeh, the Prime Minister of the Palestinian government in Gaza, stressed this point at a recent conference in Gaza City in his argument that "Hamas will respect the results (of a referendum) regardless of whether it differs with [Hamas’] ideology and principles". This statement strongly indicates Hamas’ desire to put an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict and simultaneously dismantles the myth of the unchanging religious party. Hamas is heeding the wishes of its followers, resulting in a dramatic change in the nature of the party and its political agenda.


* Mahmoud Jaraba is the author of “Hamas: Tentative March toward Peace” (Ramallah: Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 2010). He is also a Ph.D. Candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at Erlangen - Nuremberg University, Germany.This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) for a series on politics and religious interpretation in the Arab-Israeli context.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 December 2010
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Other articles in this series

The "rule of restitution" as a paradigm for resolving conflicts by Pinchas Leiser
Engagement, not isolation, as the way to a moderate Hamas by Chrystie Swiney
Religious interpretation and the Arab-Israeli conflict by Michael M. Cohen
Learning from Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter by Naamah Kelman
Jerusalem’s potential to bring Jews and Muslims together by Aziz Abu Sarah and Mairav Zonszein