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Hamas stops calling for Israel's destruction, but still thinks the country has no right to exist

Hamas stops calling for Israel’s destruction, but still thinks the country has no right to exist

In a stunning about-face, Hamas has formally declared acceptance of a Palestinian state (based on 1967 borders), moving away from its hyperbolic calls for the destruction of Israel. Khaled Meshaal, the Islamic militant group’s outgoing political leader, announced the new political stance in a press conference no doubt timed partly to disrupt President Trump’s first meeting with Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, on Wednesday. 

The announcement is the latest indication Hamas is trying to change its image from uncompromising terrorist group to a pragmatic political movement ready for the international stage and a seat at the negotiating table. They hope to break out of isolation, mend ties with Arab states, and challenge the claim of the Fatah leader in the process. It’s also a reminder to Trump, as he prepares to meet Abbas at the White House to kick-start peace talks with Israel, that the aging Fatah head is battling a leadership challenge from Hamas and represents only half of the Palestinian territories — the West Bank.

“We in Hamas believe that renewal and reinvention is a necessity,” Meshaal said during Monday’s press conference in Qatar.

Acceptance of a Palestinian state on the 1967-established borders is a surefire way for Hamas to reposition itself in the international conversation. Since the 1990s, an Israeli acceptance of the 1967 borders, which would allow for a Palestinian state, has been a goal for leaders like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who saw it as the best way to achieve peace in the region.

Yet few are convinced the announcement signals genuine change among Hamas leadership. Hamas has been a sworn enemy to Israel since its 1987 founding, and has fought three wars with Israel since 2009 alone. Until recently, Hamas paid no heed to the international consensus on a two-state solution, and pledged to wage armed struggle against Israel until the Jewish state was destroyed. And while the Islamist party says it accepts the “national consensus” on a Palestinian state, the Hamas document does not replace its anti-Semitic founding charter and declares that the group remains committed to the liberation of all Palestine, an area that includes Israel — an attempt to maintain its status as an unbowed resistance movement while also being considered a serious political player crucial to the success of any peace deal with Israel.

“It’s significant because if you accept a Palestinian state on 1967 lines, that is, a limited Palestinian state, you also de facto recognize that there will be another entity on the other side of those borders.”

Despite the mixed messages, experts in the region maintained the new document was a significant shift for Hamas and for the future of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Its new position on a Palestinian state brings Hamas closer to that of its rival Fatah, the nationalist group that has pushed for a Palestinian state since 1988 as a way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A Palestinian state “has been talked about for a long time by some Hamas leaders and then later retracted by other leaders who are more hard-line. Now we have it in ink,” said Bjorn Brenner, a lecturer at the Swedish Defense University who studies Hamas. “It’s significant because if you accept a Palestinian state on 1967 lines, that is, a limited Palestinian state, you also de facto recognize that there will be another entity on the other side of those borders.” Brenner said that amounts to a backhanded recognition of Israel, though Hamas leaders insisted they were not granting any legitimacy to their enemy.

“Large parts of the movement think it’s necessary to reinvent themselves and keep track of developing realities,” Brenner added.

The most significant reality Hamas confronts now is that of deep isolation. Since 2007, when Hamas came to power in Gaza, Israel has put the coastal strip under a crippling blockade, leading to widespread unemployment and trade and movement restrictions.

“This could buy breathing room with Egypt, and buy them goodwill with countries in the region.”

But it is Egypt, Gaza’s southern neighbor, that is the “primary audience” for Hamas’ new document, said Grant Rumley, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who studies Palestinian politics.

Egypt has always been a partner in the blockade of Gaza. But since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power, Egypt’s crackdown on smuggling tunnels into Gaza has intensified, adding to Hamas’ economic woes and cutting off arms-smuggling routes.

Sisi carried out that crackdown in part because he saw Hamas as an ally of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that was once Egypt’s most formidable opposition group. The new Hamas document notably distances itself from the Muslim Brotherhood by not mentioning the group and by defining itself as an “Islamic national liberation group,” instead of as a branch of the Brotherhood, as it did in its founding charter.

The Hamas document is “a recognition that Sisi is here to stay, and that Sisi’s war on the [Brotherhood] has put them in a bind,” said Rumley. “This could buy breathing room with Egypt, and buy them goodwill with countries in the region.”

Hamas has also faced isolation from two key power brokers, the European Union and the United States. Western powers have long demanded that Hamas agree to three conditions before it can be seen as a credible negotiating partner: recognize Israel, renounce violence and agree to past agreements with the Jewish state. Yet  the document does none of those things — which explains why Israel rejected the document outright.

“Hamas is attempting to fool the world but it will not succeed,” said David Keyes, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a statement to VICE News. “Daily, Hamas leaders call for genocide of all Jews and the destruction of Israel,” Keyes wrote. “This is the real Hamas.”

Hamas’ about-face coincides with President Trump’s first meeting with Abbas, and comes at a time when the Fatah chief faces numerous challenges from within his own party. Even so, the Trump administration is expected to pay little attention to Hamas’ new policy positions.

But while the president is not about to welcome Hamas to the White House, the document’s release has stolen some of Abbas’ thunder, capturing the news cycle at a time when the longtime leader is looking to prove to Washington he is the main address for the Palestinian cause.

Abbas’ leadership credentials have come under intense strain in recent weeks, as a hunger strike lead by Marwan Barghouti, a fellow Fatah member and leadership rival, has picked up pace throughout Israeli jails.

Hamas’ new document only adds to Abbas’ woes, said Tareq Baconi, author of the forthcoming book “Hamas: The Politics of Resistance.”

“Abbas is now in a very difficult position, where he is really losing legitimacy among Palestinians under occupation,” Baconi told VICE News. “If Hamas is seen to be making signs toward reconciliation [with Fatah] and Abbas continues to oppose those signs, that will be a further threat to his rule.”

Alex Kane is a journalist focusing on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. 

Cover: Hamas supporters burn a poster depicting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a protest against Abbas in southern Gaza Strip on April 14, 2017. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

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