The Charter, in Arabic Al-Mithaq (the Covenant), was Hamas's first attempt to produce a written document for others to learn what Hamas stood for. It was published on 18 August 1988, less than nine months after the foundation of the movement.
Since then, however, it has hardly ever been quoted or even referred to by the Hamas leadership or its official spokesmen. Their language has become virtually indistinguishable from that of any freedom fighter in Latin America, South Africa or East Asia.
On 7 March 2004, the following statement was placed on the Izzadin Al-Qassam internet site by the Hamas leader in Gaza, Dr Abd Al-Aziz Al-Rantisi, just ten days before his assassination at the hands of the Israelis:
"Hamas's strategy is underpinned by four principles:
1.) Our homeland has been usurped in its entirety, but we cannot concede one inch of it.
2.) There is an obvious imbalance of power in favour of the Zionist enemy.
3.) We do not possess the armaments our enemy possesses, but we have a faith which generates a will that does not recognise defeat or retreat before our goals are accomplishd. This is a faith that demands sacrifice for the sake of religion and homeland.
4.) The Arab and Islamic Ummah is weak, feeble and divided, and is therefore unable to support the people of Palestine. The international community is hostile to the hopes and aspirations of the Palestinian people and supports Zionist terrorism. Hamas's strategy therefore has two parallel goals: to resist occupation and confront Zionist aggression, to maintain the unity of the Palestinian people and safeguard the Palestinians from internal strife, which hinder resistance to the occupation."
Ironically, the Hamas Charter has frequently been involved by the movement's critics, as proof of either its inflexibility or its anti-Semitism. Until the late 1990s, this did not appear to concern anyone within the movement. Seemingly, the primary concern of the Hamas leadership was to adress their own Arab and Muslim constituents inside and outside Palestine, paying little attention to the views of the rest of the world about the movement.
When it was drafted, the Charter was an honest representation of the ideological and political position of Hamas at that moment in time. Hamas had emerged from the Ikhwan (the Muslim Brotherhood), and the Charter was a reflection of how the Ikhwan perceived the conflict in Palestine and how they viewed the world. On the first page of the Hamas Charter, following a quotation from the Qur'an, (Verses 110-112 of Sura 3), there is a quotation from Hasan Al-Banna, who founded the Ikhwan in Egypt in 1928. Banna says: "Israel will be created and will continue to exist until Islam sweeps it away, just as it swept away what came before it."'
While the Hamas leaders of today would not necessarily wish to revise phraseology of this kind , they are increasingly convinced that the Charter as a whole has been more of a hindrance than a help. Many would admit that insufficient thought went into the drafting and publication of the Charter. Once it had been drafted, Hamas institutions inside and outside Palestine were never adequately consulted over its content. According to Khalil Mish'al the Charter was rushed out to meet what was perceived at the time as a pressing need to introduce the newly founded movement to the public.
Mish'al does not view it as a true expression of the movement's overall vision, which "has been formulated over the years by inputs from the movement's different institutions". He sees the Charter as a historical document, which gives an insight into Hamas's original philosophy at the time of its establishment. However, it "should not be regarded as the fundamental ideological frame of reference from which the movement derives its positions, or on the basis of which it justifies its actions."' Ibrahim Ghosheh takes a similar view. According to him, "it goes without saying that the articles of the charter are not sacred; in other words they are subject to review and revision in a manner that does not contradict the main ideas with which the movement emerged and to which it continues to adhere."'
Such clarifications, or reservations, are quite recent. Until the beginning of the second Intifada in September 2000, very little debate had taken place within Hamas on this issue, despite the fact that much of the criticism levelled against the movement has involved references to the Charter. It was as if Hamas had totally forgotten that it had issued a Charter, or as if its leaders were completely oblivious to the criticism that had hitherto been directed against it.' Only recently have certain Hamas leaders begun to voice their concern that it has perhaps taken them too long to recognise that "the text of the Charter does not reflect the thinking and understanding of the movement". They have only just started to admit that this may constitute "an obstacle, or a source of distortion, or a misunderstanding regarding what the movement stands for".
Hamas has become increasingly visible in the world's media, and a very negative image has often been presented, mostly filtered through the views of Israel and its supporters. This has prompted the senior Political Bureau officials to seek advice on how to counter such negative publicity. Concern over this issue goes back to the mid-1990s, when the Political Bureau was still in Jordan and the movement was beginning to have some contacts with Western diplomats in Amman. However, it was in the aftermath of the events of 11 September 2001 that it took on a degree of urgency. Hamas began to feel that an image-building initiative was needed, in order to counter the efforts by certain hostile media and academic quarters to identify all Islamic movements and organisations with Al-Qa'ida. Israel in particular sought to capitalise on the American-led war on terror to further its campaign to convince the Western world of its continued strategic value as an ally, despite the end of the Cold War. Israel's contention was that no distinction existed between one strand of political Islam and another, and that Israel stood as a bulwark to protect the West.'
A series of consultations conducted in Beirut and Damascus from early 2003 until the end of 2005 reinforced the feeling of a number of senior Hamas Political Bureau officials that the time had come for the Charter to be re-written. A process of consultation culminated in the commissioning of a draft for a new Charter. However, in the aftermath of the Palestinian legislative elections of 25 January 2006, in which Hamas won a majority, the project was put on hold until further notice, lest the new Charter be seen as a measure in response to outside pressure.
What's wrong with the Hamas Charter?
The current Charter is written in a language that no longer appeals to well-educated Muslims. It may have been a major obstacle in the way of Hamas's efforts to win over pro-Palestinian secular Muslims and non-Muslims to its side. Its language and ideas typify the prevalent discourse of the Ikhwan at the time when the Charter was written, not only in Palestine but elsewhere in the world. The Ikhwan have moved on since then, but the Charter has remained unchanged.
Today, the Charter gives the impression that its author wrote it for the benefit of his own immediate circle of devotees, rather than for the public as a whole. The author of the Charter is believed to have been Abd Al-Fattah Dukhan, one of the seven founders of Hamas and a long-time leader of the Palestinian Ikhwan. He often acted as second-in-command to Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. At the time of Hamas's establishment and the publication of the Charter, he was the leader of the Ikhwan in Gaza, at a time when Sheikh Ahmad Yassin had not yet resumed his leadership responsibilities following his release from detention in the exchange of prisoners in May 1985.
The Charter in fact reads more like an internal circular. It has been criticised from within Hamas itself for not having the correct tone for an official document, suitable for the introduction of the ideas of Hamas to the world. Not everyone in the movement at the time felt that the publication of a Charter was necessarily a good idea, though they may not have had any objection to its language or content. With hindsight it seems that the issue of the Hamas Charter formed part of the ongoing process of competition with the PLO. The PLO Charter was utterly secular, and therefore did not reflect the Islamic identity of the Palestinian people or their cause.
Many Hamas leaders now recognise that the fundamental and essential positions expressed in the Charter could be expressed in more universal language, that could appeal to both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Instead of justifying its statements in religious terms, which may mean little to those who do not share the same faith or the same vision, a new Charter should refer to the historical basis of the Palestinian cause. It should give a succinct account of the story of the Palestine conflict as it has unfolded. It should trace the roots of the problem to Europe in the 19th century, showing how the Palestinians have been the victims of the European plan conceived more than a century ago to resolve Europe's own Jewish problem. This was done at the expense of the Palestinians through the creation of a homeland for the "Jewish people" in Palestine. Such an argument would be more universally acceptable than the idea that Palestine is a waqf (endowment) "consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day".'
As Article 11 of the Charter itself explains, the lands conquered by the Muslims from the time of the second Caliph Omar onwards were all assigned as waqf in order not to be distributed among the conquering troops. The same consideration applies equally to Iraq, Persia, Egypt, North Africa and even Spain. The reference to this issue in the Charter was intended to condemn those who were willing to give away any part of Palestine to the Israelis as part of a peace agreement. This is the logic behind the passage: "It is not permissible to concede it or any part of it or to give it up or any part of it; that is not the right of any single Arab state or all the Arab states together nor any king or president or all the kings and presidents together nor any single organisation or all the organisations together whether Palestinian or Arab. This is so because the land of Palestine is an Islamic waqf (endowment ) property consecrated to the generations of Muslims up to the Day of Resurrection; and who can presume to speak for all Muslim generations to the Day of Resurrection?""
It is widely accepted today within Hamas that this is strictly a matter of Islamic jurisprudence, and that the Charter is not the best place in which to address it.
However, the biggest problem arising from the Charter lies in its treatment of the Jews. Part of the difficulty here is that of the language employed. The average Palestinian refers to Israelis as yahud, which is simply the Arabic word for Jews. Terms such as Zionist or Israeli figure mostly in the writings and conversations of an elite which has received secular education. They are not current in the vocabulary of the common man, and have until recently also been absent from Islamic discourse. When Arabic texts referring to the Israelis as yahud are translated into European languages, they may indeed sound anti-Semitic.
In his series of Testimonies broadcast on Aljazeera between 17 April and 5 June 1999, Sheikh Yassin refers to the Israelis interchangeably at times as Al-Isra'iliyun (the Israelis) and at times as Al-Yahud (the Jews). In the second episode of the Testimony, broadcast on 24 April 1999, he spoke as follows: "The Israelis usually deal with the Palestinian people individually and not collectively. Even inside the prisons, they would not agree to deal with the Palestinians except individually. However, we forced our will on them despite themselves and refused to deal with them except through a leadership elected by the Palestinian [prisoners] to face the Jews and resolve the problems with them."
Most Palestinians and Arabs unconsciously use similar language. Leah Tsemel, an Israeli lawyer who has been defending Palestinians in Israeli courts for some 30 years, notes that her clients routinely describe soldiers or settlers as al yahud "the Jews". They complain for instance that "al yahud (the Jews) took my ID card," or "al yahud (the Jews) hit me," or "al yahud (the Jews)" destroyed this or that. She expresses anxiety at the way Israel, in the minds of its Palestinian victims, becomes identified with all the Jews in the world and fears that, consequently all the Jews in the world may be seen as soldiers and settlers.
This problem is not confined to Palestine. The same phenomenon exists across the region, where Jews once lived in large numbers but from which, with a few exceptions, they are long departed. After the creation of the Israel State in Palestine in 1948, Jews living in various Arab coun*tries were exhorted to come to the new Jewish entity, which, having expelled close to a million Palestinians, was in dire need of population.
Jews from Iraq, Yemen and Morocco provided a source of cheap labour, doing work and performing functions the Ashkenazim (East European Jews) were unwilling to do for themselves. The Ashkenazim presided over the Zionist colonial project in Palestine and set themselves up as first class citizens of the newly founded Jewish state, in contrast to the Sephardic or Oriental (Mizrahi) Jews who came from the Arab countries."
Until the beginning of the twentieth century Muslims, Christians and Jews coexisted peacefully throughout the Muslim world. For many --enturies, the Islamic empire, whose terrain extended over three continents, had provided a milieu of tolerance under a system that guaranteed protection for what are today referred to as minorities. Islam, whose values and principles governed the public and private conduct of Muslim individuals and communities, recognised Christians and Jews as legitimate communities within the Islamic State and accorded them inalienable rights. The adherents of both Christianity and Judaism participated on an equal footing with the Muslims in building the Arab-Islamic civilisation on whose fruits the European renaissance philosophers were nourished.
In contrast, in the European lands, the Jews suffered constant persecution. Many sought refuge in the Muslim lands, where they were welcomed and treated as people of the book in accordance with the Covenant of God and His Messenger. This Muslim perception of the Jews remained unchanged until the Zionist movement, which was born in Europe, began to recruit Jews in the Muslim lands for a project seen by the Muslims as an attack on their faith and homeland. The change in the Muslim attitude toward the Jews came as a reaction to the claims of the Zionist movement, which purported to represent the Jews and Judaism.
Despite the secular origins of the Zionist project and the atheism of many of its founding fathers, the rationale of Zionism sough to justify the creation of the State of Israel in Palestine and the dispossession of the Palestinians in religious terms. The Zionist pioneers invoked scriptural justification for their actions, though few of them truly believed in religion or respected it. Their aim was to bestow religious legitimacy on their project and gain the support of the world's Jews, of whom many had initially opposed political Zionism.'
It is for this reason that the Hamas Charter characterises the problem in Palestine as one of religious strife between the Jews and the Muslims. This idea continues to be dominant in many parts of the Muslim Nvorid today. The continued connection of Israel with the Jews, and the Jews with Israel, only reinforces the conviction of many Muslims that the conflict in the Middle East between the Palestinians and the Israelis is of a religious nature. Many Arabs and Muslims find it extremely difficult to believe in the existence of anti-Zionist Jews, who not only criticise Israel but in some instances refuse to recognise its legitimacy.
Articles 17, 22, 28 and 32 of the Hamas Charter embody the accusation that the Jews are engaged in a conspiracy. The last of these Articles goes as far as to refer to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a false document that purports to represent the plans of a supposed secret society of Jewish elders to conquer the world. What the author of the Charter wished to suggest was that there was a direct link between a supposed Jewish quest for global domination and the occupation of Palestine.
Following a common tendency among Muslim writers of the time, the author of the Charter invoked the Qur'an and the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet) to substantiate his claims. He seeks to show that there is a continuing Jewish conspiracy against Islam and the Muslims dating from the early days of Islam. Such selective readings and convenient interpretations of Islamic Scripture are not uncommon in contemporary Muslim writings. In this case the Qur'an's chastisement of bad conduct and ill-manners on the part of some of the Israelites of Biblical times, or certain of the Jeans during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, are taken out of their historical context.
It is remarkable that, though the theory that the Jews are engaged in a conspiracy is in essence un-Islamic, it was widely espoused by Muslim intellectuals across the Arab world at least until the early 1990s. The pervasiveness of such thinking has been a symptom of decline and backwardness, which in turn have been instrumental in precipitating a profound sense of desperation and frustration.
Apart from its limited ability to explain, conspiracy theory,tends to ascribe to human beings the powers of the Divine. Thanks to the efforts of thinkers such as Egypt's Abdelwahab Elmessiri, editor of the eight-volume Arabic Encyclopaedia of the Jews, Judaism and Zionism, the problem of Palestine is today seen by many Islamists, including leaders and members of Hamas, simply as the outcome of a colonial project. The conflict with Zionism should therefore be explained more in political, social or economic terms than in terms of religion.
There is a growing realisation today that such explanations have more explanatory power and are more compatible with the Qur'anic paradigm of tadafu' (interaction, or interplay)." Whereas the Qur'anic concept of tadafu' favours interpretations of events and situations in the world that offer motivation and hope, the theory that a conspiracy prevails leads to frustration and despair. In the first case, the only transcendental power in the world is that of God who empowers whom He so wishes and disempowers whom He so wishes."
One's actions may always be successful, if God wills. In the second case, little can be done to change the course of events, due to the assumption that a certain group of extremely powerful individuals, or community, has conspired to control the world and to seize all its resources. In this case, all contrary action will be in vain.
The only positive reference to the Jews in the Hamas Charter is seen in Article 31, which states that "in the shade of Islam it is possible for the followers of the three religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism to live in peace and security." It is anticipated that, while continuing to underline this historical fact, the new Hamas Charter will be cleansed from the ludicrous claim that there is a Jewish conspiracy. It will instead emphasise the racist nature of the Zionist project, explaining that many Jews are opposed to it.
The idea that not every Jew is a Zionist is already widely accepted by the Islamists, who previously believed this was a myth invented by Palestinian secular nationalists. By shedding light on the roots of the conflict, a new Charter should appeal to the world's public opinion, attracting sympathy for the Palestinian victims rather than for their Israeli oppressors.
To reach out to peoples and nations across the world, it will also need to adopt the conceptual framework of universal human rights. The new Hamas Charter is also expected to reassure the Jews that Hamas is not opposed to them because of their faith or race, and that it rejects the idea that the Middle East conflict is between Muslims and Jews, defined in terms of their religion. Nor is it between the faiths of Islam and Judaism. Sheikh Ahmad Yassin offered such a reassurance on a number of occasions before his assassination by the Israelis in 2004."
The new Charter will stress that Islam recognises Judaism as a legitimate religion and accords its adherents respect and protection. The Charter must lay down as a basic principle that Jews and Muslims can live together today in peace and harmony, as did earlier Muslims and Jews for many centuries, once the legitimate rights of the Palestinians are recognised and restored. This the early 1990s.
Khalid Mish'al told a Canadian TV journalist that of Palestine "does not mean that either the Palestinian people, or we in Hamas, want to kill the Jews or want to throw them into the sea as Israel claims." He expressed his determination to continue the struggle to liberate Palestine and regain the rights of the Palestinians, but denied categorically that there was a war against the Jews. "No, we do not fight the Jews because they are Jews. We fight them because they stole our land and displaced our people; they carried out an aggression. We resist this Zionist project which is hostile." As for those Jews who do not fight the Palestinians, he said: "I have no problem with them, just as I have no problem with peaceful Christians or peaceful Muslims." He went on to explain that "if a Muslim were to attack me and steal my land, I have every right to fight back. This applies to all others irrespective of their race, identity or religion. This is our philosophy."
Hamas; Unwritten Chapters, blz. 147-156, Azzam Tamimi