HomeNewsboxHamas Leader Plays Final Hand: Trying to Lift Group’s Pariah Status

Hamas Leader Plays Final Hand: Trying to Lift Group’s Pariah Status

A big part of that is its watering down of the anti-Semitic language of the original Hamas charter in 1988, with its talk of war between Arabs and Jews. “We are making it clear that ours is a liberation project — not about religion or the Jews,” Mr. Meshal said in an interview on Tuesday in Doha, his latest home.

His offer found few takers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel immediately rejected the overture as an exercise in insincerity. “Hamas is attempting to fool the world, but it will not succeed,” his spokesman said Monday. Hamas is loathed in Israel for bombings and rockets launched indiscriminately into civilian areas, and critics say the group spends too much money preparing for war and not enough on Gaza’s besieged residents.

The document was also greeted with silence by Western countries, a reflection of the fact that Hamas failed to bend on any of the factors that have caused it to be branded a terrorist organization — and has not even formally repudiated the 1988 charter, with its talk of “obliterating” Israel and creating an Islamic State on “every inch” of historic Palestine.

The failure to achieve even that cosmetic gesture offers a telling indication of how Hamas is hamstrung by its own deep-seated ambivalence toward reform, said Nathan Thrall, an analyst with the International Crisis Group who is based in Jerusalem, who noted that the original charter has long been a source of quiet embarrassment among more reform-minded Hamas leaders.

“On one hand, they are attempting to appeal to hard-liners by not giving up their core principles,’’ said Mr. Thrall, the author of a forthcoming book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “The Only Language They Understand.’’


Mr. Meshal, center left, speaking in 2012 alongside the Gazan prime minister at the time, Ismail Haniya, center right. Mr. Haniya is a favorite to succeed Mr. Meshal.

Pool photo by Mohammed Saber

“On the other, people like Meshal were hoping the document could lead to openings with Sunni Arab states and the West. It attempts to please everyone, and in so doing pleases no one.”

Yet the attempted rebranding of Hamas comes at a moment of sudden change in the Middle East. Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the rival Palestinian Authority, is due to meet with President Trump in Washington on Wednesday.

Mr. Trump has spoken of his desire to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but his interlocutor, Mr. Abbas, who is 82, is seen as politically depleted, and his rivals have started maneuvering to succeed him.

Hamas is changing, too: Secret elections now underway will decide who succeeds Mr. Meshal as leader in the next two weeks. That in turn raises the question of what Hamas might become.

In an hourlong interview, Mr. Meshal, wearing his usual dark suit with an open-neck white shirt, demonstrated the political polish he has brought to the organization over two decades, as it has developed from a localized fighting group, blowing up buses and cafes in Jerusalem, to a force that now posits itself as a potential leader of all the Palestinian people.

When the document was released on Monday night, he was giving interviews in a hotel ballroom until 1 a.m. — an unusual flurry of publicity for a secretive organization.

He said the document — the product of four years of dialogue among leaders in Gaza, in prison and in exile — at the very least showed that Hamas was open to changing its ideas.

In recasting itself as a national liberation movement, rather than as part of a wider Islamist struggle, Hamas appears to be distancing itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, which was conspicuous by its absence from the text.

That omission has been interpreted as an attempt to curry favor with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, whose troops control part of the border with Gaza and whose intelligence service determines when and which Hamas leaders can leave Gaza.


Mr. Meshal being greeted in 2009 by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president at the time, in Tehran, with Saeed Jalili, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, at right. Iran is Hamas’s main arms supplier.

Baqer Nasir/Mehr News Agency, via Associated Press

Just as important, Mr. Meshal said he hoped the document would bring Hamas closer to Saudi Arabia, which, like Egypt, is staunchly opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood. “We already hold dialogue with Western parties, and if we do so with the West, we might as well be doing this with our Arab brothers,” he said.

Yet in the next breath, Mr. Meshal acknowledged that such a rapprochement could be tricky with Hamas’s main arms supplier, Iran, which is engaged in proxy wars against Saudi Arabia in the region’s most explosive conflicts.

“We are keenly aware of the amount of anger toward Iran because of the burning conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen,” Mr. Meshal said. “Our priority is to serve our own cause without getting tangled in internal disputes.”

Looking back over his time in charge, Mr. Meshal lists sheer survival as one of his greatest achievements.

“It gives me pride that the people of Gaza have remained steadfast under Hamas despite three devastating wars,” he said. During the last conflict with Israel, in 2014, 1,462 Palestinian civilians in Gaza were killed, according to a United Nations report, and Palestinian rockets killed six Israeli civilians. But the relative peace of recent years — with comparatively few rockets fired into Israeli territory from Gaza since 2014 — also presents challenges.

In the latest chapter of the long-running fight between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, Mr. Abbas recently slashed salaries for Palestinian Authority employees in Gaza, the latest blow in a territory whose miserable living conditions are often compared to a giant prison camp.

The Egyptian and Israeli blockade of Gaza means that its two million inhabitants feel trapped, Mr. Thrall, the analyst, said. “Students on scholarships, people wishing to travel abroad — nobody can leave. It’s one of the greatest pressures the people of Gaza feel.”

Doggedness comes with a price, and Mr. Meshal is trying to balance that toughness with the need to open up, in a reflection of the shifting political landscape — and just maybe tilt toward more expansive politics that might one day bring Hamas out of the cold.

The favorites to succeed Mr. Meshal are Ismail Haniya, a Hamas leader in Gaza, and Abu Marzouk, who is said to be living in exile in Cairo.

It is widely assumed Mr. Meshal will take another senior role in Hamas after stepping down. Typically tight-lipped, he said only, “A resistance fighter never retires.”

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