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Tuesday Feb. 7, 2012 2:48 PM (EST+7)
ANALYSIS: Hamas juggles political need with founding principles

Read more: Hamas, Islamists, Arab revolts, Egypt, Syria, Fateh, reconciliation, unity, armed resistance, popular resistance, unarmed resistance

GAZA, February 7 (JMCC) - The Islamist movement Hamas appears to be making dynamic changes in its policies, once known only through a covenant espousing militancy and rejecting Israel. The uprisings sweeping the Arab world and the elections success of Islamists, particularly in Egypt, are making their mark on Hamas and its positions.

Hamas has been in flux since its creation at the start of the first Palestinian uprising in 1987, say analysts, transforming the most in recent years as it interacts on the world stage.

Naser Eliwa, a specialist in Islamic groups, says Hamas has been pushed to harmonize between intractable religious ideological roots and the requirements of political engagement.

Hamas was launched under religious slogans in its struggle with Israel,” Eliwa says. “It has had a slow political development, and ultimately its political vision has advanced to match political changes.”

These changes came about, he says, as Hamas was confronted by international requirements, especially after Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed peace agreements in 1993, setting the stage for the creation of two states side by side.

Hamas was obliged to filter its attitudes” as a result, Eliwa says.

In 2007, Hamas political leader Ahmed Yousef said that the Hamas covenant had been relegated to history. Nobody pays attention to the Hamas covenant, he posited in an interview with a local news agency, and those seeking to understand Hamas should judge it by the platform of its government in Gaza.

Israel often cites Hamas’ charter, which includes polemic against Jews, as evidence of its quest to wipe Israel from the map.

Naji Shurrab, a professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza says he thinks that Hamas' political rhetoric has changed.

Hamas is looking for international and regional legitimacy. It knows that the gate to this legitimacy is its political attitudes and so it tries to have more realistic and flexible attitudes.

He said that, politically, Hamas is not so alien from the attitudes of Fateh, its nationalist rival that previously dominated Palestinian politics and pioneered agreements with Israel. Both support statehood, popular resistance, and Palestine’s membership at the United Nations, Shurrab says.

Recent moves have brought these similarities to the fore.

Previously, Hamas and the smaller group, Islamic Jihad, refused to join the PLO as long as the representative body advocated a secular government and recognized Israel as a state.

Last month, however, the two Islamist movements agreed to participate in the “leadership framework” of the PLO, as a step towards reforming it and reaching reconciliation between Fateh and Hamas. They said that this kind of participation stopped short of joining the PLO itself.

According to news reports, Hamas agreed to this limited participation at the behest of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which took the most seats in Egypt’s recent parliamentary elections and is headed to form a government there.

Fateh and Hamas signed an agreement to reconcile in May 2011 in Cairo after years of conflict and division. Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006, leading to a long and bloody power struggle that resulted in its forces taking control of the Gaza Strip. Fateh continues to dominate the Palestinian Authority, which governs in the West Bank.

Hamas head Khaled Meshaal, after a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas late last year, said Hamas would adopt popular non-violent resistance.

It was not the first time Meshaal had made the claim. In a November interview published on a Hamas-linked website, he said that the movement had agreed to adopt popular resistance and to cooperate with Palestinian factions fighting Israel this way.

Regular demonstrations and other activities have been underway in West Bank villages to protest land confiscation and encroaching Israeli settlements.

Meshaal and Abbas met again on Sunday and agreed that Abbas would lead an interim government prior to elections later this year, signaling more cooperation between the factions.

Political science professor Atef Abu Seif says that Hamas agreed to nominally join the PLO to prepare for a new era where “political Islam” would become a “legal good boy in the eyes of the international political regime”.

He believes that the “political geography outside Palestine is against Hamas. It needs room inside Palestine.”

The Islamist movement has all but abandoned its headquarters in Syria, where anti-government demonstrations and an army crackdown have damaged security and complicated Hamas’ alliance with Damascus.

Nevertheless, Hamas continues to deliver hard-line speeches. On the movement’s 24th anniversary, Gaza’s prime minister Ismail Haniyeh declared that military resistance is Hamas’ strategic choice for liberating all of historic Palestine.

Shurrab believes that this tough talk is meant for domestic consumption. Hamas is maneuvering, he and others said, between international demands and what its public requires--as well as the need to change course at a moment’s notice.

Those who see in recent shifts a deep change should be circumspect, says analyst Mostafa Al-Sawwaf.

Hamas has not changed its strategy,” he believes. “Perhaps there are some tactical changes, but its fixed principles remain as is: Hamas is still committed to resistance and other key issues like [a capital in] Jerusalem, freeing prisoners and the liberation of Palestine.

He also notes that similarities in Hamas and Fateh’s positions are not really new. Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin, assassinated by Israel in 2003, said that Hamas would agree to establish a Palestinian state on any “liberated land” but would never recognize Israel.

Since then, however, Hamas has gained the experience of being in government. The demands of implementing policy and funding it, as well as the influence of other ruling Islamist parties, have created pragmatism within the movement.

After taking control of Gaza in 2007 and even more so after a punishing Israeli offensive in late 2008, Hamas was deeply criticized for working to stop attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip.

Analyst Akram Atallah says that Hamas may not have change its internal theories, but its practices have changed. Internally, they say they are a resistance faction, but practically they have stopped military activity. This is part of the international discourse.







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