Hamas confirmed on Sunday night it would shift tactics away from violent attacks on Israel as part of a rapprochement with the Palestinian Authority.
A spokesman for Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya said the Islamist party, which has controlled Gaza for the past five years, was shifting its emphasis from armed struggle to non-violent resistance.
“Violence is no longer the primary option, but if Israel pushes us, we reserve the right to defend ourselves with force,” spokesman Taher al-Nounu said.
On this understanding, he said, all Palestinian factions operating in the Gaza Strip have agreed to halt the firing of rockets and mortars into Israel.
The announcement does not qualify as a full repudiation of violence, but marks a step away from violent extremism by the Hamas leadership toward the more progressive Islamism espoused by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo.
The approach was concluded at recent talks between Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo. Senior delegations representing the two factions met again in the Egyptian capital to forge ahead with efforts to form a reconciled Palestinian government.
Iran recently cut its financial support to Hamas in a punitive response to moves within the Palestinian faction to relocate its exiled leadership, including Meshaal, from its base in Syria. Many among the Hamas rank-and-file have criticized their former ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s violent assault on Syrian civilians.
Hamas believes the events of the Arab Spring, in which uprisings have thrown off the old autocratic order and ushered in democratic, moderate Islamic governments in Tunisia and Egypt, have changed the landscape of the Middle East and is repositioning itself accordingly away from the Syria-Iran axis that has sustained it for decades, closer to the orbit of regional lslamist powers like Turkey and Qatar.
“European countries in particular see that the Muslim Brotherhood is a special kind of Islamic movement that is not radical. It could be the same with Hamas,” Nouno said.
In a further concession to international legitimacy, the Hamas leadership confirmed it could entertain discussions regarding a peace agreement with Israel if the Quartet of peacebroking powers agree to modify its preconditions. Hamas would accept the foundation of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, but stands firm in its refusal to acknowledge the state of Israel.
This softened tone on the international stage is not yet evident in Haniya’s domestic rhetoric. Speaking at a rally in Kateeba Square in Gaza City to mark the 24th anniversary of the foundation of the movement last week, the prime minister vowed to continue the “resistance.”
The next step toward reconciliation will be made when representatives from all Palestinian factions meet in Cairo. Despite the process, officials within both Hamas and Fatah are skeptical the effort would be successful. Hamas cites Abbas’ insistence that Salam Fayyad continue as Palestinian prime minister in a reconciled government as an obstacle to unity.
Also on Sunday, Israel freed 550 Palestinian prisoners, completing the second phase of a deal that saw Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit freed in October, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.
Officials and witnesses in the West Bank city of Ramallah said that the main contingent of freed prisoners entered the city on a fleet of 12 buses at about 10pm, where thousands of well-wishers awaited them at the Palestinian presidential headquarters.