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Rather than ‘change of heart,’ Hamas terror group pivots to Sunnis, away from Iran

Hamas terrorists in Gaza City, March, 25, 2017. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.
Hamas terrorists in Gaza City, March, 25, 2017. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.

Hamas recently released a policy document softening some of the Gaza-ruling Palestinian terror group’s language compared to its founding charter, while preserving the group’s goal of destroying Israel. Policy experts say the real objective behind Hamas’s marketing campaign is to pragmatically deal with the movement’s problems by fostering closer ties with Sunni-Arab powers and moving away from Shi’a Iran.

The Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, an Iranian ally, blastedHamas’s softened policy language. While Hamas indicated it would accept a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders, Hezbollah declared it rejects “the resistance that sells the blood [of ‘martyrs’ in exchange] for land.”

Sunni powers Saudi Arabia and Egypt designate the Eyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s parent group, as a terrorist organization. The new Hamas document delinks the group—at least rhetorically—from the Brotherhood. Further, the document partially cleans up the Hamas founding charter’s anti-Semitic language and names the terror group’s targets as Zionists or Israelis, rather than Jews.

“The new document is intended to shore up Hamas relations with Egypt, and pave its way to take over the Palestinian national movement,” Prof. Meir Litvak, a leading Israeli expert on Hamas and director of the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, told

Yet Hamas’s ongoing terror activity and the past statements of the terror group’s new top leader, Ismail Haniyeh, indicate that not much about the Palestinian faction has changed.

Haniyeh’s rhetoric has promoted jihad as a religious duty and the use of violence to bring about the final liberation of “Palestine” from “the river to the sea,” according to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which monitors and translates Arab media reports.

MEMRI noted May 9 that Haniyeh has also voiced anti-American rhetoric, including condemning the killing of Osama bin Laden.

“Regardless of the different views in Arab and Islamic circles, we, of course, condemn the assassination or killing of a Muslim mujahid (an individual engaged in jihad) and an Arab. We pray for Allah to cover him with His mercy, next to the prophets, the righteous and the martyrs,” Haniyeh has said regarding bin Laden.

Tel Aviv University’s Litvak explained, “Of course, the new document is an adjustment to realities rather than a change of heart. But, it is an admission that Hamas cannot realize its ideology or vision, and this may be a step in a long process which may lead Hamas to greater moderation.”

This process, according to Litvak, “resembles to some degree” the evolution of Hamas’s current rival Palestinian faction Fatah in the early 1970s, when Fatah made an “adjustment to realities that went much further than anyone had anticipated at the time.”

Litvak said there is a dispute within Hamas in which the Gaza-based “military wing” prefers close relations with Iran, while political leaders such as Haniyeh and his predecessor Khaled Mashaal prefer closer ties with Sunni-Arab countries. Haniyeh’s successor as Hamas’s political leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, was a senior official in the “military wing.”

It is doubtful Hamas is nearing reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is headed by Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, due to the “recent measures Abbas carried out against [Hamas],” Litvak said. The PA recently announced it would stop paying for electricity Israel sends to Gaza.

Ido Zelkovitz, an expert on Palestinian society and head of the Middle East Studies Program at Israel’s Yezreel Valley College, told that Gaza-based Haniyeh’s rise to power gives prominence to the Gaza-relevant portion of Hamas’s agenda, as opposed to the era of Mashaal, who focused less on the coastal territory and had ruled from exile in Qatar.

The new policy document is an effort by Hamas “to become accepted as a legitimate political player by the international community,” said Zelkovitz, adding that the group “seeks to redefine itself away from its terrorist image.” The document places the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the framework of more of a nationalist discourse rather than a religious one, added Zelkovitz, who also is a research fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Haifa.

“Hamas doesn’t want to be considered as anti-Semitic, so it is a smart move for them,” said Zelkovitz, noting that the new document did not cancel Hamas’s 1988 charter, which used blatantly anti-Semitic language such as “warmongering Jews.”

Yet according to Zelkovitz, the founding charter maintains far more authority for Palestinians than the new document. Senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar said May 10 the new document is not a substitute for the charter.

“We have reaffirmed the unchanging constant principles that we do not recognize Israel,” Zahar said, Reuters reported. “We do not recognize the land occupied in 1948 as belonging to Israel and we do not recognize that the people who came here (Jews) own this land….Therefore, there is no contradiction between what we said in the document and the pledge we have made to God in our charter.”

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