May 02, 2017

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The Islamic militant Hamas on Monday unveiled what had been billed as a new, seemingly more pragmatic political program aimed at ending the group’s international isolation.

With the new manifesto, Hamas rebrands itself as an Islamic national liberation movement, rather than a branch of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, which has been outlawed by Egypt. It also drops explicit language calling for Israel’s destruction, though it retains the goal of eventually “liberating” all of historic Palestine, which includes what is now Israel.

It’s not clear if the changes will be enough to improve relations with Egypt which, along with Israel, has been enforcing a crippling border blockade against the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip since the group seized the territory in 2007.

Hamas clung to hard-line positions that led to its isolation in the first place. The group reaffirmed that it will not recognize Israel, renounce violence or recognize previous interim Israeli-Palestinian peace deals — the West’s long-standing conditions for dealing with Hamas.

The five-page program, a result of four years of internal deliberations, was presented at a news conference in Doha, Qatar, by Khaled Mashaal, the outgoing Hamas leader in exile. The group has said Mashaal’s replacement is to be named later this month, after the completion of secret leadership elections.

The document reflects a “reasonable Hamas, that is serious about dealing with the reality and the regional and international surroundings, while still representing the cause of its people,” said Mashaal.

A copy of the program was distributed to journalists in Gaza who followed the news conference by video link. The new platform seemed to cement the ideological divide between Hamas and its main political rival, the Fatah movement of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas drove out forces loyal to Abbas in its 2007 takeover of Gaza, a year after defeating Fatah in Palestinian parliament elections. Reconciliation efforts have failed. The Hamas manifesto was released at a time of escalating tensions between the two sides. In recent weeks, Abbas has threatened to exert financial pressure, including cutting wage payments and aid to Gaza, as a way of forcing Hamas to cede ground.

Leaders of the group have vowed they will not budge. The war of words with Hamas was seen as an attempt by Abbas to position himself as a leader of all Palestinians ahead of his first meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House on Wednesday. The U.S. president has said he would try to broker Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on a peace deal, despite repeated failures over the past two decades.

In the past, Hamas has sharply criticized Abbas’ political program, which rests on setting up a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War.

In its founding charter, Hamas called for setting up an Islamic state in historic Palestine, or the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, which also includes Israel. The new program for the first time raises the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state in the 1967 lines, saying it’s a “national consensus formula.” However, the wording suggests Hamas considers this to be an interim step, not a way of ending the conflict.

The document does not contain an explicit call for Israel’s destruction, but says “Hamas rejects any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea.” “There shall be no recognition of the legitimacy of the Zionist entity,” the document says.

The Palestine Liberation Organization, now led by Abbas, exchanged letters of mutual recognition with Israel in 1993. The Hamas document said it considers armed resistance against occupation as a strategic choice and that the group “rejects any attempt to undermine the resistance and its arms.”

Over the years, Hamas has carried out shooting, bombing and rocket attacks in Israel. Since 2008, Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza have fought three cross-border wars. Abbas has been an outspoken opponent of violence, saying it undercuts Palestinian interests.

While the founding charter was filled with anti-Jewish references, the new document stresses that Hamas bears no enmity toward Jews. It says its fight is with those who occupy Palestinian lands. Mashaal is to step down as Hamas leader later this month. Two possible contenders for the No. 1 spot are Moussa Abu Marzouk, a former Hamas leader, and Ismail Haniyeh, a former top Hamas official in Gaza.

The Mashaal announcement was initially scheduled for 7 p.m. (1600 GMT) Monday, but was delayed after a Doha hotel withdrew consent at the last minute to host the Hamas news conference. Hamas scrambled to find a new venue.

Laub reported from Ramallah, West Bank.

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