Middle East

How much of a shift is the new Hamas policy document?

This file photo taken on July 03, 2015 shows a Palestinian man waving the green flag of the Islamist movement Hamas during a demonstration outside the Dome of the Rock at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem. Image copyright AFP
Image caption The founding charter has not been repealed - but the policy document marks a tonal change

There have long been reports of possible changes to the 1988 founding charter of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, best known by its acronym, Hamas.

Three decades ago, it was referring to itself as part of the Muslim Brotherhood and laying out its aim to obliterate Israel, creating an Islamic state on "every inch" of historic Palestine.

In its 36 articles, the 1988 document often uses anti-Semitic rhetoric to describe its struggle as a confrontation between Muslims and Jews.

Now, after years of internal wrangling, Hamas has produced a new policy document, which softens some of its stated positions and uses more measured language.

There is nothing so dramatic as recognition of Israel.

In fact, Hamas restates the Palestinians' claim to all the land "from the River Jordan in the East to the Mediterranean Sea in the West".

However, the new document does formally accept the creation of a Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem - what are known as pre-1967 lines.

This idea has been the basis for previous rounds of peace talks with Israel.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal announced the document

At a press conference in Doha, where he lives in exile, the Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal also stressed a change in approach to the Jewish faith.

"Hamas believes our struggle is against the Zionist occupation, the Zionist enterprise. It's not a struggle against Jews or Judaism," he said.

The indications are that Hamas wants to improve its international standing.

It has dropped all references to the Muslim Brotherhood since Egypt and some Gulf Arab states decided to categorise the wider organisation as a terrorist group.

And yet, the new declarations will not see Hamas itself removed from the terrorist lists of the United States and the European Union any time soon.

They make clear that Hamas remains committed to what it calls "armed resistance" against Israel.

The Israeli prime minister's spokesman, David Keyes dismissed the new Hamas document.

"When you look at what they tell their own people on Hamas's TV stations, in their mosques, in their schools, they are calling on a daily basis to destroy Israel," he said.

There has been speculation that Hamas is seeking entry to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), an umbrella group for Palestinian political factions.

Its original charter states that on the day the PLO "adopts Islam as its way of life, we will become its soldiers."

Now, the body - headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - is described as "a national framework for the Palestinian people inside and outside of Palestine".

That shift could play well with many Palestinians - keen to see an end to the damaging division between their main political factions, Hamas and Fatah.

However, Fatah spokesman, Osama al-Qawasmi, criticised Hamas for not altering its stance earlier.

"Hamas should apologise to the PLO after 30 years accusing it of treachery and blasphemy and for causing a sharp split between the Palestinian people," he said.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption File photo: Hamas members celebrate the release of prisoner Mohammed al-Bashiti in 2016

Tensions have recently increased between Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian Authority governing parts of the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls Gaza.

Hamas took over Gaza by force in 2007, a year after it won legislative elections.

The more moderate tone from Mr Meshaal comes as he is about to step down as leader of Hamas after serving two terms.

Some analysts suggest he hopes to alleviate the economic pressure in Gaza, which has long seen tight border restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt.

This new document also comes as his political rival Mahmoud Abbas prepares to meet US President Donald Trump this week.

While Hamas officially criticises his diplomatic efforts, it may not want to be marginalised if the moribund peace process is revived.

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